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In a part of the world better known for towering skyscrapers and oil than for its startup scene, Gulf Arab entrepreneurs might be seeing bright times ahead. That’s according to Fadi Ghandour, executive chairman of Wanda Group, whose venture capital fund invests in tech companies all over the Middle East and North Africa.

“For years we’ve said there is an inverse relationship between how change happens on the regulatory environment and the price of oil — the lower the price of oil, the faster the change process happens,” Ghandour told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Thursday, pointing to Arab Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates whose economies have historically been dependent on hydrocarbon revenues.

Now that oil prices are dramatically down from their October highs, the veteran Middle East investor says the market moves “will definitely be a blessing in disguise” and in that it will force the development of sustainable, knowledge-based economies and jobs. He believes that startups founded five or more years ago are now reaching their maturity stage, meaning there will be more businesses scaling up in the next several years — if they can get the necessary support.

“These companies born somewhere around 2011, 2012, have raised much more money, they are growing much faster, the region is adopting mobile smartphone technology much faster, they are interacting much faster and at a much larger scale, specifically in Saudi Arabia,” Ghandour said.

“This is the time when there is size, there is scale, and the big funds globally who don’t want to take the risk early on, are going to be looking for entry into a market that they don’t have much presence in.” He pointed to New York-based global equity firm General Atlantic’s investment of $120 million in Dubai-based website Property Finder last November. The Middle East real estate platform was founded in 2007 and has been profitable since 2013.

Investments in Middle East and North Africa (MENA)-based startups went up by 31 percent between 2017 and 2018 to $893 million, with 366 deals made, according to Magnitt, a regional data platform for investors. The database also found that more than 155 institutions invested in MENA startups in 2018, 30 percent of which were from outside the region and 47 percent of which had not previously invested in the region.

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All-electric jet firm Eviation announces US airline as first customer

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LE BOURGET, FRANCE – JUNE 17, 2019: An Israeli Eviation Alice electric aircraft, developed by Eviation Aircraft, on display at the 2019 Paris Air Show opened at Le Bourget Airport. Marina Lystseva/TASS (Photo by Marina LystsevaTASS via Getty Images)

Marina Lystseva | TASS | Getty Images

The Israeli start-up Eviation announced at the Paris Air Show that U.S regional airline Cape Air is to buy its electric aircraft.

Eviation is developing a nine-passenger aircraft designed to fly up to 650 miles at around 240 knots (276 miles per hour). A commercial jet would cruise around 500 miles per hour. The electric plane — called Alice with a prototype being unveiled at the show this week — is designed for the sort of distances usually conducted by train.

Cape Air is set to buy a “double-digit” number of the plane which has a list price of around $4 million each. It’s expected that any customer would be able to negotiate a smaller figure.

The company’s chief executive, Omer Bar-Yohay, told a press conference Tuesday that he expected to receive certification by late 2021, with deliveries predicted for 2022.

“This aircraft is not some future maybe. It is there, ready and waiting,” he said.

Bar-Yohay cited the contributions from Honeywell who built the plane’s controls as well as Siemens, and magniX who provided the electric motor and related functions.

A rendered image of the Eviation Alice. An electric aircraft designed to take 9 passengers up to 650 miles at 240 knots.

Source: Eviation

Bar-Yohay said the plane would now travel to Arizona in the United States where it would be flight tested before being put forward for certification with the U.S. FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).

The CEO added the plane should satisfy FAA concerns that it might create a backlog of training for pilots, as it was “probably one of the easiest planes to fly,” adding “this is one of the specimens that the FAA wants to see happen.”

The Eviation boss said that eventually, future planes would be built in the United States.

The aircraft comes with roughly 900 kilowatts of power split by three engines provided by magniX. Bar-Yohay claimed if there was a problem with the two wing engines, it could continue flying on the rear rotor only.

The CEO of magniX, Roei Ganzarski, also attended the launch, telling CNBC it was “exciting to see a dream come true.”

Ganzarski said his engines would be split between new clean sheet aircraft such as the Eviation and retrofitting existing small aircraft.

Most of Eviation’s funding is from Clermont Group, the private investment fund of Singapore-based billionaire Richard Chandler. Clermont has given Eviation $76 million in exchange for a 70% stake in the company, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission dated January 3.

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Italy’s finance minister plays down the idea of a parallel currency

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Giovanni Tria Italian Minister of Economy and Finance attends during Festival dell’ Economia in Trento on May 30, 2019.

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Italy’s finance chief does not see ongoing talks over a parallel currency materializing.

Market players have been wary of parliamentary discussions in Rome regarding an alternative for government debt repayments. Lawmakers are considering a proposal that would see the Italian Treasury issue securities — so-called mini-BOTs (short-term treasury bills) — that could be used by recipients to pay taxes or to buy goods or services from state-owned companies.

However, Giovanni Tria, the country’s finance minister, said Tuesday at a conference in London that he does not think mini-BOTs will be introduced. “We do not need this kind of instrument,” Tria said, according to Reuters. He also added that the introduction of a parallel currency is not on the agenda.

Tria, a technocrat without political affiliation, sounded more moderate than some of his government colleagues.

“We don’t want to create problems in Europe. We have to reinforce the trust in investors in Italy’s finance situations,” the finance minister told the audience.

Supporters of the idea, including one of Italy’s ruling parties, Lega, believe the short-term securities would help the government reduce its outstanding bills. On the other hand, critics argue that it would lead to higher public debt in a country that already has the second-largest debt pile in the euro zone.

The mini-BOTs discussion has also resurfaced fears about Italy’s commitment to the single currency. Prior to the general election in 2018, both coalition parties — the leftist Five Star Movement and the right-wing Lega, spread doubts about the country’s membership of the euro zone.

Since then, both parties have toned down their euroskepticism but one of the main economic minds from Lega, Claudio Borghi, is still openly hostile to the idea of the common currency.

“There are a number of economists, including influential ones close to the Italian government, who believe the euro is a key reason for Italian underperformance, and the leaders of the coalition have never fully put this idea to bed,” Erik Nielsen, group chief economist at UniCredit, said in a note last week.

Both the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund have sounded skeptical about the mini-BOTs discussion. Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, told CNBC last Thursday: “On this strange financial instrument that has been developed in Italy, we think that there are many better ways to deal with the payment of arrears. It does not require the creation of such instruments. Italian bonds could absolutely do the job … why bother?”

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Egytian billionaire Nassef Sawiris isn’t worried about trade war

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Billionaire business tycoon Nassef Sawiris heads a company that serves, among others, agricultural clients all over the world. But despite the U.S.-China trade war and all the uncertainty it’s wreaked on his customers, the OCI N.V CEO says he’s not deterred from investing.

“Trade is not helpful, but at the same time it’s manageable. I think people worry too much about the trade wars, I think the world can live with some trade friction, it’s not the end of the world,” Sawiris, who is ranked by Forbes as the world’s fourth-richest African, told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble in Abu Dhabi.

The Egyptian CEO’s company, OCI, produces and exports natural gas-based fertilizers and industrial chemicals to customers across agriculture and industry sectors.

“It creates some uncertainty for our customers, our farmers in North America had a tough time deciding what to plant, corn or soybeans — it had a lot to do with weather but more so with whether they can sell soybeans to China or they will be handicapped by some tariffs,” Sawiris described, referencing the mounting tit-for-tat tariff battle being waged between the world’s two largest economies.

“That created some added complexity in the minds of our customers and our farmers in the U.S.”

Early last month, President Donald Trump unexpectedly accused China of reneging on a deal and announced that tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods would increase to 25% from 10% on May 10. Beijing retaliated, raising levies on $60 billion worth of U.S. products. Trump has now said he’s ready to hit the remaining $300 billion of Chinese imports with tariffs if a trade deal isn’t reached.

OCI N.V Chief Executive Officer Nassef Sawiris at a plenary session of the 9th VTB Capital Russia Calling! annual investment forum.

Mikhail Metzel | TASS via Getty Images

The developments have hit the American agriculture sector particularly hard, and the Trump administration had to introduce a $16 billion aid package for farmers hurt by reduced sales to China.

“Trade creates challenges and opportunities. Vietnam for example is benefiting from the trade war with China, the uncertainty is not welcome by the customers or the investment decision makers,” Sawiris said. “At the same time, I think it’s manageable.”

Asked if the uncertainty — from either the trade war or regional tensions in the Middle East — would ever stop him from investing in a given region, he replied with a laugh, “Uncertainty is our middle name, so we’ve gotten used to that.”

On Monday, the company announced a joint venture with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, ADNOC, to create the world’s largest exporter of nitrogen-based fertilizer and expand market access.

Sawiris’ net worth is estimated at more than $7.5 billion. He also serves as executive chairman of British football club Aston Villa FC.

A U.S. recession on the horizon?

Looking at markets, the CEO sees Europe as potentially undervalued, but is not holding out hope for a major uptick in growth from developed markets anytime soon.

“From a valuation perspective, you could argue that Europe continues to be discounted vis-a-vis North America,” he said. “But the whole market looks to be running out of steam, not just in terms of trade issues, but the growth in the U.S. has been going on for 11 years and all good things have to come to some slowdown at one point.”

Asked if he predicted a U.S. recession, he replied, “Not necessarily, but a slowdown I think is more realistic to be expected than continuous growth for another ten years.”

Sawiris was one of the biggest shareholders of LafargeHolcim, the world’s largest cement maker, before selling most of his shares — worth $67.5 million — at the start of this year. He announced he would not run for re-election to the company’s board in May.

OCI N.V.’s predecessor Orascom Construction Industries was the parent company of Orascom Cement, previously the Middle East’s largest cement maker, and was bought by Lafarge for $10 billion in 2007.

Nassef Sawiris is the youngest of the three Sawiris brothers, all billionaire business heavyweights who as a family own the Orascom conglomerate, which spans construction, telecommunications, tourism, industry and technology. Forbes in 2008 estimated the family’s collective wealth at $42 billion.

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