“The sky is the limit in trade when you have new technology,” said Panama president Juan Carlos Varela as he outlined his vision for hub-to-hub trading between Dubai and Panama.
Closer ties would open up Latin American markets to firms operating out of and through Dubai and the UAE — and open up the Middle East, Africa, India and Asia to Latin American firms, he said.
Varela, speaking to Gulf News on the sidelines of the Global Business Forum — Latin America at Atlantis The Palm, Dubai on Tuesday, said, “Now, with technology — with the new planes and the connectivity that exists in the world — it seems to be a long way but its very easy to get from Panama to Dubai, from Latin America to the Middle East.
“Panama is a hub, it is a natural hub for Latin America — we connect direct to more than 78 cities in the American continent, with ports, with airports, with the canal, to ports everywhere and to cities in America. So, we are a hub.
“Dubai is a hub too for the Middle East, for the Middle East, for South-East Asia and for Africa.
“The idea is to connect both regions through our hubs. That’s the main objective of my visit. That’s why Panama is participating in the 2020 Expo, that’s why we’re expanding our present embassy in Dubai. We will be using Dubai as a gateway for expanding our interests. It’s also a natural hub.”
Likened the economy of Dubai to that of Panama, pointing out that air connectivity provided around 30 per cent of Dubai’s GDP. “The same thing is happening in Panama. Our connectivity, our hub, is growing every year.”
Senor Varela said he sought to learn from the UAE’s visa policies to free up travel to Panama.
“I’m very impressed,” he said. “Panama, before we having our relationship with China, had restrictive visas. It would take six months, it would be done through a lawyer, it was a very long process to get a visa for a Chinese [national] to come to Panama. We changed that. We opened consular offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and now because of that we expect to issue more than 30,000 visas in the first year, and 100,000 visas in the scone year.
“[The UAE] cancelled the visa, and now they are receiving 800,000 tourists every year. That’s very smart. That’s the way to do it.”
He said that as a result of his visit to Dubai he would be looking at easing visa policies with India and with GCC countries.
Boosting tourism was a high priority, he said, but he also felt Panama could boost food security in the Middle East.
“The agro industry is something that we’re looking at because of the idle capacity that many ships have passing through the canal,” he said. “The ships that are going back to Asia from the east coasts of the United States are going 50 per cent empty. You can take all the food produced in our continent and export it at very low cost.”
Earlier, in conversation with moderator Eithne Treanor in the main hall of the Global Business Forum, Senor Varela listed measures his government was taking to improve the attractiveness of Panama to international business.
These included a crackdown on corruption, which he said was being conducted in such a way to protect jobs, and economic diversification — he pointed out financial services were now the largest contributor to Panama’s GDP.
“The first thing that we did was use profits that came from the Panama Canal and the expanded canal — close to $15 or $20 billion over the past 18 years — we have used this profit to make sure that no one is left behind.”
Programmes supported by the canal included housing and education, he said. In addition, Panama was increasing its competitiveness — it ranks 50th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index for 2017-18, compared to 17th for the UAE — and encourage growth of small and medium enterprises.
Direct flights to Panama
Panama president Juan Carlos Varela said he would have meetings on Wednesday to resolve long-running delays in a planned Emirates flight link to Panama — a route billed as the world’s longest direct flight when it was announced in early 2016.
But since the announcement, the launch of the 17 hour 35 minute flight has been subject to a series of delays, with problems gaining code-sharing permissions from more than a handful of the 13 governments required to approve it.
“We expect to relaunch the flight,” President Varela said. “Many things have happened since two years ago. Panama established relationships with China, supported the One-China Policy. Panama has changed its relationship with visas to India, Panama has moved closer to some countries in Africa.”
He added: “I feel we just have to define one stop and then bring the flight to Panama. Once the flight gets to Panama from Dubai, it’s not Dubai-Panama, it’s Dubai-Latin America through Panama.”