Healthy outlook for Dubai's medical tourism industry

The Life: Sobhi Batterjee, chief executive of the Saudi German Hospitals Group, says there is a 'golden opportunity' for Dubai's healthcare sector to attract more foreign patients.

Sobhi Batterjee is the president and chief executive of Saudi German Hospitals Group, which has a hospital in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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Sobhi Batterjee is the president and chief executive of the Jeddah-based Saudi German Hospitals Group, which opened a hospital in Dubai last year. On the sidelines of the 38th edition of the Arab Health exhibition in Dubai last week, he talked about why it makes business sense to provide health care in Yemen and medical tourism in the UAE.

Why did you open in Dubai, where several international hospitals are present?

We were the only regional brand to be recruited by the Government of Dubai to start our project here and we welcomed the idea because we felt the future is here. Dubai will be the Hong Kong of the Middle East. We are targeting those top 2 per cent of India, Iran, east Russia and all Africa to come to Dubai for treatment.

I would not be surprised if Dubai can attract patients from Europe. The locals know the lands. So we know the values. We have been competing traditionally with much more powerful local brands such as King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, Saudi military hospitals and King Fahad National Guard Hospital in Saudi Arabia.

You opened a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, five years ago. Why does it make business sense to go there?

We reduced travel abroad in Yemen [for healthcare reasons] in five years by at least 50 per cent. And we are now making money in Yemen, after five years of hard work. We have treated more than 400,000 people there. Unless we do business with the poor, they will be poor forever. If nobody does business with [Microsoft and Apple] they would go bankrupt. That's what is happening with the poor. If you take a Rolls-Royce to sell it to somebody in the jungle, nobody would buy it. You have to make a vehicle that will work in the jungle, and he can afford to buy it. That's what we are doing in Yemen.

How do the prices compare?

We are doing normal deliveries for US$150 (Dh550) in Yemen. It is one tenth of the price we do in Saudi Arabia and probably one twentieth of the price in Dubai. We have to understand there is volume there, and appreciation.

How do you think Dubai can better its position in medical tourism?

Regulations [in Dubai] now allow [medical] professionals to move from the private to the government sector without any restrictions, because they get more benefits in the government sector. This will cause the vicious cycle of price escalation. And this will drive the local private sector out of competition from world medical tourism.

We can't compete with India, Bangkok, Malaysia and Singapore [unless this stops]. But Dubai has the advantage of infrastructure. Patients need rehabilitation and Dubai is positioned for that with excellent hotels, safety, beaches, restaurants and tourist areas. Patients would love to come and stay for one to two months there. Moreover, patients have a lot of difficulty in going to Europe and the United States due to visa restrictions. So Dubai has a golden opportunity.