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His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, with students. He launched the Designing the Next 50 project in September, which aims to build a system for sustainable development and drive investments in advanced technologies, while inviting ideas from citizens and expats Image Credit: Supplied

The coronavirus pandemic changed the world and continues to challenge many pillars of global society. While economic and social disruptions in some states have been devastating, others are still fighting fires on numerous fronts. Persons at risk of falling into unemployment, under-nutrition, or extreme poverty are being tallied in the millions, while thousands of establishments face existential threats.

In this milieu and against this backdrop, the UAE has emerged as a stronghold for its residents, and a shining beacon for the world.

Our leadership stands tall and speaks bold. In August, chairing a Ministry of Economy meeting for post-pandemic plans, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, said we will aim to be the economy that recovers fastest in the world, from Covid-19.

While this is motivating enough, what he said next characterises national momentum. “In the short term, recovery is the top priority for our economy, but long-term plans will make it the most stable and diversified. We want a competitive national economy — well integrated, acting proactively, and making quality strides.”

Even as sagacious leaders provide direction, entrepreneurs and enterprises are driving progress. The UAE is undeniably in an age of transformation, and its agents are at work. The next 10 years will deep dive into different aspects, but just now, the larger picture with small examples provides greater context – and a great countdown.

November as microcosmic mirror

The month that went by is an apt reflection of the almost-50 years that have passed, and placed the UAE on the world stage.

The first people to travel on the Virgin Hyperloop safely did so in Las Vegas, watched by its chairman Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, who is also group chairman and CEO of DP World, one of the largest players in this futuristic project.

“We are one step closer to ushering in an era of ultra-fast, sustainable movement of people and goods,” Sulayem announced. When launched, the transport system that resembles a train but travels at the speed of a jet plane will shuttle residents between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in about 10 minutes.

On a higher plane, Emirates Mars Mission, the first interplanetary mission by an Arab nation, completed its last major manoeuvre. The Hope Probe is scheduled to reach its orbit in February to undertake a full Martian atmospheric study. This mission marks milestones on a long journey — the UAE first announced plans in 2014, launched the National Space Programme in 2017, and foresees a Mars settlement by 2117 — but it also ushers in the next 50 years as a flight of progress in space, science, knowledge and innovation.

On the ground, the launch of the Dh590 million Dubai Intelligent Traffic Systems Centre, immediately ranked it one of the world’s largest, smartest, and most sophisticated. The centre will cater to Dubai Expo 2020 and meet the city’s rapid urban growth and infrastructure expansions.

The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment hosted meetings to ideate over food security, supply chains, waste management, and transformation to a circular economy. With participation from 150 public-private representatives, these meetings were aligned to ‘Designing the Next 50’, a national plan that incorporates community opinion in shaping the next five decades.

Also in November, the UAE’s largest oil company, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company described its accelerated transformation to reduce costs and unlock value. During his virtual keynote at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition Conference, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, UAE Minister of State and ADNOC Group CEO, said digitalisation — big data and digital drilling — had saved them a hefty $3 billion in the last four years.

The oil giant also gained more than $25 billion in value during this tough year. “ADNOC used the UAE’s status as trusted business-friendly environment to complete several landmark transactions,” he announced.

Trust in a business-friendly environment

Al Jaber’s words are echoed by companies who are much smaller in size, but have equally matched if not larger ambitions. The pandemic is propelling UAE’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) ahead, and they say it all starts with the safety they enjoy at home.

“Trust and safety are the first things identified with the UAE,” says Bruno Durpoix, CEO of BD Select. The 19-year-old Dubai firm specialises in psychometric assessments for human resources, and the pandemic saw them grow in a different direction.

“We developed new online services to help house-bound students with career decisions, and we started coaching managers on lockdown behaviours. Both programmes saw instant success, and double digit growth figures.”

The UAE’s safety net is better than most countries, from professional and personal assurances to efficient pandemic response, the Frenchman says. “Our trifecta of safety, ambition, and infrastructure creates business miracles.”

Robin Philip, Director at business services consultancy A&A Associates, describes a miracle. “Our license registration service increased by 30 per cent in the third quarter. The new companies we helped establish are dealing in e-commerce, medical equipment trading, and technical services.”

The big attractions for new players are super-safe environment and lowered costs, says the Indian national. “Many free zones have reduced their licensing fees up to 50 per cent. Clubbed with superior infrastructure and sterling reputation, we are seeing extraordinary interest from international investors and domestic parties.”

The UAE has also overhauled foreign ownership rules in commercial companies as part of the government’s efforts to open up the economy to all nationalities. Under the new amendments businesses can now be fully established by foreign investors without involving local shareholders.

Building back bigger and better

The pandemic showed local businesses how they can do things differently; they are adapting to new ways of working, and adopting plans for makeovers.

Business owners and managers in retail, education, healthcare, banking and food production are exploring inventions and innovations that will future-proof them. On the anvil is a long list covering artificial intelligence (AI), automation, advanced robotics, autonomous vehicles, wireless internet, the internet of things, energy exploration, renewable energies, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cryptocurrencies.

Synchronously, the government is accelerating investments and infrastructure in futuristic technologies, ahead of the world. For example, in October 2017, authorities launched the UAE Strategy for AI — the very first of its kind, followed by the establishment of the ministry of AI, and the founding of the world’s first AI University.

Massimo Vidoni, Italian resident of Dubai since 2012, says the world has placed this country on a pedestal, “The UAE is now famous for being famous.” The CEO of gourmet retailer, Italtouch, just sold the largest truffle locally — 740gm white, priced at Dh125,000 — after an Umbrian truffle hunter contacted him, based solely on hearsay fame.

“This country anchors my international operations, and everyone wants a slice of its success. UAE’s global reputation is a great pay-off for residents,” he says.

UAE plans for next 50 years
For the greater part of the last five decades, the UAE was known for its oil-rich reserves. Then came a period of tourism-fuelled fame. Transformation now hinges on a tech-savvy knowledge economy that is shaping long-term sustainability.
When the pandemic struck, both federal and local governments were quick to support local entities and protect them from its worst effects. Authorities have also announced an extension of the Dh256 billion Targeted Economic Support Scheme (TESS). The stimulus package which was launched in March 2020 will now run until June 2021. In early November, the UAE Central Bank said TESS had already benefitted 310,000 distressed residents, 1,500 companies, and 10,000 SMEs.
Post-pandemic, the UAE is building a diversified and sustainable economy based on smart technology and advanced science. While it prepares its citizens for the future, it is also attracting global talent and entrepreneurial minds to the country, with attractive business environments, contemporary legislation, and efficient supply chains.
The normalisation of relations with Israel has already begun to bear fruit with business collaborations, and bilateral cooperation in advanced technologies. Recently reformed laws on marriage, divorce and inheritance ease many perceived personal restrictions for expatriate residents. Concurrently, the launch of various new work permits and longer-term residency visas in new categories means more international individuals and investors will begin calling this country home, and be glad to do so.
The UAE’s future is being built on the conviction that economic advancement be matched by personal contentment. Therein lies progress and prosperity for the next 50 years.