Welcome to Abu Dhabi’s Al Zeina innovation workshop, where your tech dreams take shape

As the oil price falls to its lowest level in real terms for more than a decade, the UAE government wants 'innovation' to fuel growth.

In a glass-fronted workshop in Al Raha Beach’s Al Zeina complex, 3D printers, sand blasters, sewing machines, injection moulders, sawmills, a steel mill, a four-jaw chuck, a vinyl cutter, an electronics lab – and an endless supply of coffee and popcorn – await curious and amateur technologists looking to build something new.

One workshop user built a very small jet engine from scratch, which he used to roast coffee beans. Another pair, Yves Rossy and Vince Reffet, built the jetpacks that allowed them to fly alongside an Emirates A380 just above Dubai.

This workshop, supported by the Abu Dhabi Technology Development Committee (TDC), is a government-backed effort to help end the UAE’s dependence on revenues from hydrocarbons. As the oil price falls to its lowest level in real terms for more than a decade, the government wants “innovation” to fuel growth – and that means workshops and tech spaces like this one, backed with government cash, are popping up around the country.

The non-oil economy accounts for about 50 per cent of overall economic activity in Abu Dhabi, and approximately 94 per cent of economic activity in Dubai.

Anish Alex, to his understandable chagrin, has the job title lead dream consultant with TechShop, which operates Al Zeina workshop. Its aim, he says, is to “train, support and help people manufacture almost anything that can be built in wood, plastic, textiles, and metal – and anything that falls broadly into digital”.

He continues: “There’s a million things you can do if you just come in and learn how to do them. It’s a well-equipped space to do training and prototype manufacturing.”

In a workshop environment like that built in Al Zeina, you end up with a dedicated core of about 40 hardcore devotees, and a larger group of occasional hobbyists, Mr Alex says.

“They are hidden someplace, but the thing is to get them out of their shells. When that community builds up, it’s fun,” he says. “They’re goofy and they take risks. It’s a select group, but they’re out there.

“Locally, there’s a large community playing with robotics of all kinds, from drones to small projects for home automation. In Ajman there are kids as young as eight being trained in how to build clapper circuits from scratch, and being taught basic optical video recognition.”

Membership costs Dh350 per year for Emiratis, and Dh450 for everyone else. Discounts are available for women, children, students, serving members of the armed forces and families. The workshop has space for about 700 members, and will train budding technologists in milling, welding, woodworking, electronics, bookbinding, and 3D printing, among a host of other things. After mandatory safety classes and training in how to use machines, workshop-goers are free to explore.

The workshop’s youngest member is 12 years old, and the oldest is in his late 70s. And it has received a stamp of approval from at least one local tech firm. Mr Alex says: “The general manager of YahSat came in here the other day, and said, ‘Man, this is cool’.”


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