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His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, signing the We the UAE 2031 charter Image Credit: GN Archives

For a country as young as 51, it’s an incredible achievement for the UAE to literally build everything from scratch to reach the stage where it’s today. As the UAE celebrates its National Day with a lot of pride, one can only feel amazed to be able to see this unbelievable transformation in his or her lifetime. This is a rare feat possibly no other country has ever achieved.

We have built a cohesive innovation ecosystem that includes accelerator programmes, incubators, labs, regulatory sandboxes, and knowledge platforms. This is to position Dubai and the UAE as a test bed for innovative solutions serving humanity

- Saeed Al Falasi, Executive Director, Future Design and Acceleration, Dubai Future Foundation

“Since its foundation in 1971, the UAE started a new chapter of its modern history. The achievements of this young nation became an example of success, tolerance and prosperity,” says Saeed Al Falasi, Executive Director, Future Design and Acceleration at Dubai Future Foundation.

From a group of villages engaged in simple economic activities such as pearl diving and spice trading, he says the UAE’s transformation into one of the most spectacular economies in modern history is simply incredible.

Having traversed this unimaginable distance in a very short time, the UAE today is ready to up the ante in this highly competitive world to become the best in everything it does. It’s making a paradigm shift from a hydrocarbon-driven economy to a knowledge economy fueled by technology and innovation for a sustainable future.

And it is not only about the stunning economic growth, says Al Falasi, adding that the forward-thinking and entrepreneurial country became a global hub for most of human developmental aspects including art, education, health, culture, entrepreneurship, science, research and development, with a focus on the knowledge-based and digital economies.

John Sunil

And the country has maintained a consistent growth rate in recent years, despite different challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic instability.

John Sunil, CEO of Burjeel Holdings, says the UAE has been able to weather the storm better than most other countries in the world, thanks to its strong fiscal position and diversified economy. “Recent statistics also show that the UAE is on track to clock its fastest annual economic growth in over a decade in 2022.”

He points out that structural reforms such as those aimed at increasing private sector employment and female labour force participation, increasing trade and foreign investment, and capitalising on the benefits of technology and education are significant contributors to this country’s more sustainable and inclusive growth.

According to him, the ‘We the UAE 2031’ national plan is a testimony to the UAE leadership’s efforts to enhance the country’s position as a global partner and an appealing and influential economic hub.

This follows UAE’s Vision 2021, created to accelerate the nation’s healthcare, education, sustainability, and infrastructure growth.

The UAE Centennial 2071, a project launched by the Cabinet that aims to place the UAE as the best country in the world by 2071, also underlines the ambitions of the leadership, says Sunil.

Transforming to move forward

The UAE is driving the transformation in all spheres of activity as it has emerged as an innovation hotbed for thinking big to embrace the future. Playing a big part in Dubai’s innovation ecosystem is Dubai Future Foundation which collects and analyses data, deduces possible scenarios, and then supports decision-makers based on sound foresight methodologies.

Al Falasi says the foundation identifies new trends affecting the existing and new economic sectors, issues recommendations, and in-depth research and reports, and develops practical and tailored strategies, and plans to proactively maximise future opportunities and mitigate risks.

“We have built a cohesive innovation ecosystem that includes accelerator programmes, incubators, labs, regulatory sandboxes, and knowledge platforms. This is to position Dubai and the UAE as a test bed for innovative solutions serving humanity,” he says.

Rohan Roberts

Dubai resident Rohan Roberts who has lived in the emirate since 1977 and has witnessed the growth and development of the UAE for over four decades says the emirate has become one of the most sought-after destinations in the world.

“It has been exhilarating to witness the rise of Dubai – and this is evident in all sectors: healthcare, media, finance, tourism and, of course, education as well,” says Roberts who is also the Director of Innovation and Future Learning at GEMS Wellington Academy – Al Khail.

Innovation in education

As innovation and creative thinking should begin at the early stage, educational institutions have a major role to play in developing future talent who can take the nation to a new height.

Roberts points out that children are “naturally curious and creative” and it’s important to focus on innovation at a young age so that “we can nurture these natural skills and dispositions”.

“GEMS Education has long acknowledged this and made innovation and future-readiness an integral part of our educational offering,” he said.

In addition to partnerships with industry and universities, Roberts says GEMS students are offered future-focused curricula, innovation-related trips and opportunities to address Sustainable Development Goals and find solutions to the Global Grand Challenges while they are still in school.

Roberts who was invited to be part of Dubai Plan 2021 and was featured at the World Government Summit in 2019 as one of six UAE residents embodying the Advanced Skills of the Futures says that one of the reasons Dubai is such an attractive destination is because “it is focused on the future and has made it a priority to foster a culture of innovation.”

According to him, spaces like Dubai Future Foundation, Museum of the Future, Dubai Future Accelerators, AREA 2071, and Expo 2020 along with events like the Dubai Metaverse Assembly and Dubai Future forum are examples of how Dubai is creating a space where innovative thinkers and entrepreneurial doers from around the world can meet, share ideas and create the future.

At the heart of all these is the UAE leaders’ clear vision and commitment that is driving research and development in every field, right from agriculture to space missions, attracting talent from all over the world.

“The UAE’s commitment to developing its human capital and continuous efforts to attract and retain the best talent in the world has resulted in the country being one of the most sought-after nations for attracting talent and foreign investment,” says Sunil of Burjeel.

Al Falasi points out that the “Projects of the 50” and other recently launched strategic initiatives continue to cement the UAE’s position as a destination for the brightest minds and the boldest ideas.

More than 200 nationalities call the UAE home which he says defines the nation’s unique character and ability to promote diversity and inclusion at all levels.

“This is reflected in the country’s foreign investments,” Al Falasi says, adding that the UAE ranked first in the Arab world and the 19th country globally for its ability to attract foreign direct investment as per the World Investment Report 2022.

Building a sustainable future

The UAE has launched several initiatives to build a new economic model based on innovation and knowledge but its focus has been to make that growth sustainable. Among them are its recent green initiatives that are expected to have a lasting impact as the emirate moves towards building a sustainable future.

Al Falasi highlights that the UAE has pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and invested extensively in clean energy sources. The UAE announced its plan to invest US$163 billion in clean energy to support climate neutrality goals and signed a strategic partnership with the USA that will see $100 billion mobilized to develop 100 gigawatts of clean energy globally by 2035.

The UAE will also host COP28 in November 2023.

On a different note, he says the UAE’s first-class urban infrastructure enables the country to diversify from a hydrocarbon-focused economy to a knowledge-based economy, capitalising on the digital economy, innovation, and new disruptive technologies.

“Such measures were taken because the UAE leadership believes that achieving economic growth and protecting the environment can be realised together.”

Al Falasi reveals that Dubai Future Foundation has launched enabling strategic programmes to boost innovation and scientific research in Dubai, such as Dubai Research and Development programme to boost R&D activities, maximise relevant expenditure, and increase the private sector’s engagement. This also includes the Dubai Robotics and Automation programme aiming to make Dubai among the top 10 cities in this field.