The UAE is at the heart of a global shift, sitting geographically in the middle between Africa and Asia. By sheer dint of its trade and investment between two growing continents, the UAE plays a central role in a new world order.
In fact, major hubs of the 21st century world include traditional cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, plus Shanghai, Bengaluru and Mumbai as the twin gateways to India, and the UAE. Afshin Molavi of Johns Hopkins University calls them the HUBSS – Hong Kong, UAE, Bengaluru and Mumbai.
These act as both conveners and catalysers of the new global economy and thus play outsize roles in our collective future.
Over the past 50 years, the UAE rose to join this group of global commerce centres. In these five decades, the UAE has done much more than build skyscrapers. It has built the three Ts of economic diversification success story: transport, trade and tourism.
Today, the UAE leads the world in many measures across these 3Ts.
In 2017, Abu Dhabi and Dubai attracted more international tourists than New York, Singapore, Istanbul or Amsterdam, according to the MasterCard Global City Destination Index.
That year, over 19.2 million tourists visited the UAE, to attend conferences and trade fairs, shop, go to the beach, visit historical and cultural sites and dine at world-class restaurants.
In 2018, an average of 305,000 passengers flew through Abu Dhabi and Dubai International Airports per day, connecting to over 100 destinations across the world. This was the decade that the Dubai International Airport surpassed London Heathrow as the busiest international air hub in the world. And it has stayed on top of the rankings, increasing its lead each year.
Even in 2020's hard climate, there are multiple revolutions converging at UAE’s international airports: the emerging markets revolution, the air travel revolution, the connectivity revolution and the Asian-African world demographic revolution.
The UAE's major container terminal port, Jebel Ali, handles more containers than any port in Europe or North America and ranks in the top ten worldwide. Spend some time in Jebel Ali and witness the trade revolution, the container shipping revolution, the consumer revolution, and the technology revolution reshaping how we connect with the world. Every minute 100 containers land in Jebel Ali, often headed for re-export to new silk road cities.
These 3Ts where shaped over the past 50 years and reached their peak in what Karen Young of the American Enterprise Institute calls the GCC's ‘magic decades’.
In order to survive and thrive in the future, however, countries need to re-evaluate development models and the sources of their competitive advantage. While low costs, suitable government regulations and the availability of local suppliers have been important in the past, countries will have to dig deeper to create value in a new era.
The UAE currently serves as a regional service hub for sectors pertaining to trade, finance, consulting and education. A regional competitive advantage for the UAE has been the superior quality of its infrastructure. In the next phase of development, this will be less important. Instead, the UAE needs to focus on intangible infrastructure: education, technology, human development. And this is exactly what the country is already doing.
The 3Ts that propelled this economic diversification will now be joined by an emerging fourth T of technology. This will reshape the UAE over the coming decades. You can see this T emerging all around – from Mubadala’s Hub71 in Abu Dhabi, which is aiming to be the San Francisco of the region, to Dubai’s Future Foundation and Museum of the Future. Behind this fourth T is a group of young dynamic, forward-looking ministers, a team I call the ‘UAE Tech Dream-Team’.
Sarah Al Amiri is in charge of driving industrial growth, using advanced technologies. She is aiming to start the UAE Industry 4.0 phase.
Omar Al Olama is working on growing the UAE digital economy, powered by artificial intelligence and robotics.
Ahmad Belhoul is looking to enable a start-up nation and ensure that the UAE is home for the region's next set of technology powered unicorns like Careem and Souq.
He is working closely with Thani Al Zeyoudi, who was appointed to focus on foreign trade and investment attraction, with a unique focus: global talent attraction.
This team knows that the secret to technology hubs is the talent behind them. The team will be powered by a digital government that aims to be the best government in the world. Ohood Al Roumi, in charge of government development and the future, is working towards a 100 per cent digital service delivery, predictive AI-powered policymaking, and leveraging innovation to increase productivity and raise well-being.
From the multiple perspectives of trade, transport and tourism, 2021 will be the year that the UAE starts taking its place in the world as a growing technology hub.
Yasar Jarrar is managing partner at International Advisory Group and adjunct professor at Hult International Business School