It is impressive to grasp the economic growth the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been through in a short amount of time and to see the current economic development across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), like in Saudi Arabia and Oman.
The UAE has not only chosen its theme to showcase to the world in October 2020 (when Expo 2020 Dubai will commence) but in practice, the country is already living and breathing it. “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” – this is the theme of Expo 2020 Dubai. Specifically, the World Expo has three subthemes – Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability.
The UAE, like its neighbours, is undergoing massive economic development reform and diversification, such as in Saudi Arabia with Saudi Vision 2030, where the country is aiming to open up its economy, diversify its economy and prepare it for future. The UAE has national long-term strategies called UAE Vision 2021 and UAE Centennial 2071, showing how the country aspires to be the best in the world in four aspects – education, economy, government development and community cohesion.
We look at how the UAE is living its subthemes of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability as the country, and the region, hosts its first Expo in 2020.
“Opportunity is at the heart of development, ensuring that new horizons are opened to individuals and communities to help them meet their current needs and their future aspirations”
Opportunity is the first subtheme Expo 2020 will showcase to the world, ranging from ideas such as education, employment and new industries.
When Dubai was a humble port city, it took the opportunity to create growth for itself and create a diversified economy not reliant on oil – becoming a major regional hub, particularly in sectors like transportation and logistics, tourism and regional cross-sector multinational headquarters. With the latter, according to Fortune Magazine in 2017, out of the largest 500 global companies by revenue, Dubai had 138 Middle East & Africa (MEA) headquarters, ahead of second place Johannesburg, South Africa which had 58. This in large part was in thanks to the vision of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. This of course includes the vision of the UAE as a whole, starting with the founding founder of the UAE HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and today with HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the current President of the UAE and Emir of Abu Dhabi. The UAE has taken the opportunity to invest heavily in infrastructure, economic readiness and in cities and people.
Today, as the city prepares for Expo 2020, Dubai is at a transition. It aspires to be a major global hub beyond the region across a wide range of sectors. Dubai wants to create and foster its own innovation and entrepreneurship, taking on new opportunities along the way. For instance, the UAE is pushing for future innovation and new ideas such as in the tech industry. Having a strong tech and innovative ecosystem that is fostering both local and expat talent, as well creating space, increasing incubation and accelerator programs, and investment and hosting various events are some ways Dubai is trying to be a global tech hub. For example, Dubai is strong in the relatively new blockchain space, in which it aims to be a global leader and innovator. Blockchain itself can, in the future, impact and disrupt industries with its solutions such as in financial services, healthcare and shipping.
“Mobility is the bridge to opportunity by connecting people, goods and ideas and providing easier access to markets, knowledge and innovation.”
This subtheme has various topics within it – such as digital connectivity, travel exploration and logistics – to name a few.
Mobility has been a huge part of Dubai’s growth – such as attracting expatriates from across the world to contribute alongside local Emiratis in the country’s development. At present, more than 80% of the entire population in the UAE are expats. The success of the idea of mobility has allowed for the country, particularly Dubai as well as the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, to be a multicultural diverse hub of various nationalities. For example, Dubai International Airport is now the world’s third busiest for passengers (for cargo traffic it is the world’s sixth busiest) and Jebal Ali port, the largest in the GCC, the world’s 9th biggest container port with an expansion underway.
At present, mobility in Dubai is demonstrated by the expansion of Jebel Ali port, as well as Dubai International Airport alongside a relatively new airport, Al Maktoum International Airport, which opened on 27 June 2010 for cargo operations followed by passenger flights in October 2013. Once completed, this airport will be the world’s largest global gateway with capacity for more than 160 million passengers per year. It will also serve as a multi-modal logistics hub for 12 million tonnes of freight. To note, the Al Maktoum airport and Jebel Ali port are two examples of Dubai not only maintaining but innovating and preparing itself for the future to be mobile and to maintain its leadership position in transportation and logistics.
With mobility, a recent example of Dubai and the UAE parallel to Expo 2020 preparations in its wider economic development are recent announcements of the changes of foreign direct investment (FDI) and visas. For example, last year the UAE announced changes to FDI and expat visa laws. The UAE cabinet this year began implementing 100% foreign ownership and 10-year residency visas for expats, investors and businesspeople. The new law plans to help attract foreign investors looking to set up or acquire local companies in the UAE, while historically the full ownership of companies in the UAE has been limited to free zones. This year will also see the introduction of new long-term visas of up to 10 years granted for investors, entrepreneurs and specialists working in the fields of medicine, science or research, as well as outstanding students and retirees with certain prerequisites. The UAE is visionary not only in maintaining its regional hub status but also in being open for business and talent by making it easier in the future to attract talented people from across the world.
“Sustainability guides how we grow opportunity by doing more with less, while protecting and preserving our environment for future generations.”
We live in a planet with finite resources and the current and future generation must learn and maximize output with less resources. Global warming and an increasing global population are some key topics that can affect future economic development – not just for the UAE but for the entire planet.
In the case of the GCC this is a present issue, with most land not arable for farming, such as with the UAE, which imports 90% of its food. For the UAE to continue growing and be sustainable in the long-term, the country sees food security as a priority. For instance, following a cabinet reshuffle in October 2017, HE Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Al Almheiri was appointed as Minister of State for Food Security, making a priority of food security and sustainability in the development of the UAE Centennial 2071.
Developments in the UAE around food security and sustainability have included the growth of greenhouses that are being built for the country, led by aspiring entrepreneurs and investors, to grow more locally produced food, particularly in fresh produce. For instance, last year saw the inauguration of Pure Harvest Smart Farms in Nahel (in Abu Dhabi Emirate), where initially the greenhouse is growing premium-quality tomatoes and is planning to expand – not just in varieties of fresh produce but also production and potentially across the GCC.
There are other greenhouses making their mark in the UAE. For example, in 2017, the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah saw the establishment of The Farmhouse, which aims to deliver 1.2m tonnes (rising to 4m tonnes after expansion) of sustainable, hydroponically grown, pesticide-free produce. There is also Al Dahra BayWa Greenhouse in Al-Ain (Abu Dhabi Emirate), which was inaugurated October last year and expected to produce 3,000 tonnes of tomatoes locally. In addition, back in Dubai, there is Badia Farms, which is the first indoor vertical farm in the GCC, which at present is mainly focusing on micro-greens and herbs.
Putting Expo 2020 aside, for a successful event or project in general, organisers have to believe in the theme and the concept of what they are promoting and the impact and legacy should be a lasting positive consequence of its success. With regards to Expo 2020’s theme and parallel subthemes, the economy of the UAE is already living and seeing Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability. When Dubai welcomes the expected 25 million visitors to Expo 2020, it will not only be a showcase of participants’ innovations around the theme of “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,” it will also show the world its own examples of past, present and future Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability.
Richie Santosdiaz is a UAE-based economic development advisor with a professional focus and personal passion for internationalisation and wider topics around international business.