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Iran to pull in foreign professionals when sanctions lift

Years of economic sanctions have left Iran’s workforce isolated from international expertise

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Nasser Saidi, founder and president of Nasser Saidi & Associates and former chief economist at Dubai International Financial Centre
Gulf News

Dubai: Foreign professionals are likely to flock to Iran once sanctions are lifted to jump start the country’s economy by filling skills gaps and training its young workforce.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised address earlier in August “economic growth must reach 8 per cent” following June’s agreement between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, and Iran to lift sanctions in return for restrictions on its nuclear programme.

“We must create jobs and seek economic improvements,” he said.

But years of economic sanctions have left Iran isolated from the world leaving its next generation workforce devoid of exposure to modern technology and international business practices.

“Iran’s needs are going to be very substantial,” Nasser Saidi, founder and president of Nasser Saidi & Associates and former chief economist at Dubai International Financial Centre, told Gulf News by phone from Lebanon.

Banking and finance, infrastructure, energy and hospitality will all attract substantial foreign investment and in turn foreign professionals; Saidi said pointing out that before the 1979 Islamic Revolution the country’s tourism industry had contributed up to 25 per cent of gross domestic product. Its direct contribution was just 2.2 per cent in 2013, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

Saidi estimates that following the lifting of sanctions Iran will need to invest around $800 billion in building and improving roads, ports, airports and in its oil and gas sector.

To achieve this, Saidi said the country will need foreign capital, which means restructuring a banking and finance sector that has largely been dominated by state-owned enterprises and government under sanctions.

“That is going to require expertise that is currently not available,” Saidi said. “[The] banking [and] financial sector has been repressed over this period,” he added.

Foreign professionals are likely to come from the head offices of European and North American multinationals while the Russians, Indians and Chinese are likely to also send in their own staff, experts agree.

The country is also expected to attract a number of Iranians living overseas “if the conditions are right,” Saidi said.

Iran has seen waves of emigration starting from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the again in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war and later in the 2000s as sanctions crippled the country’s economy.

Saidi said he knows a number of bankers in Dubai of Iranian origin who have started establishing offices in Iran.

Iran’s energy sector is also expected to need substantial financial investment and expertise with no new wells drilled in the country since 2007.

“By and large Iran has [been] cut off from modern technology in terms of oil and gas, petrochemicals, refineries and all the rest so that’s one area where you need the engineers,” he said.

Iran has said it will aggressively pursue oil customers once sanctions are lifted, with officials announcing it can add up to 1 million barrels a day to production a month after sanctions are removed. Iran produced 2.85 million barrels a day in July.

Robin Mills, head of consulting at Manaar Energy, agrees with Saidi, telling Gulf News by phone the country will need modern expertise in engineering and geoscience. “You’ve got an older generation coming up to retirement or already retired and you’ve got a younger generation that is pretty keen, well-educated, but hasn’t had much exposure to international technologies so that will be part of the focus in training,” he said.

Major oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, Total, BP and Italy’s Eni, have indicated interest in Iran’s new oil and gas projects. Joint ventures in oil and gas and other sectors like that of French car manufacturer Peugeot who is in talks to start building cars in Iran is expected to add to the two million foreigners the Iranian Embassy in Abu Dhabi said is currently living in Iran.

Over the past two years leading up to June’s agreement, Iranian officials spoke of the country’s needs and where it would be looking to spend if sanctions were removed. A senior aviation official said the country’s commercial aviation sector needs as many as 400 new aircraft over the next decade, representing billions of dollars in possible orders for Boeing and Airbus.

But Iran is believed to lack expertise of modern aircraft with it unable to purchase new aircraft under sanctions. The country was in some cases over the years able to circumvent sanctions and purchased some used aircraft, however, much of its fleet does date back to pre-1979.

Addison Schonland, founder and partner at AirInsight, said the Iranians will need foreign professionals to come in and train pilots and maintenance once new aircraft start arriving.

“The aircraft that will be added are at least three or more generations newer. These are also a lot more IT based and therefore require entirely new training to maintain,” he said,

The tourism sector is also expected to be a potential windfall for the country that has huge appeal to ecotourism with its beaches and snow covered mountains and to religious holidaymakers.

“There has been very little investment in the tourism sector it has been cut off. You don’t have people, you don’t have the expertise. The whole tourism sector is going to attract lots of [professionals that Iran does not currently have],” Saidi said.

Investing in the country’s tourism sector is likely to include the development of new hotels with international chains looking to enter the market while also training Iranians on how to market the country to foreign visitors.

Iran is also expected to join the Gulf trend of developing mega-malls to cater to its population of 75 million.

But Colin Beaton, managing director of retail consultancy Limelight Creative Service, said Iran will need to bring in foreign engineers and architects with mal development experience.

“They [Iran] just don’t have the knowledge base. They haven’t built super regional sophisticated contemporary shopping malls,” he told Gulf News by phone.

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