Abu Dhabi could become a global medical centre

The emirate has the perfect conditions to grow as a life sciences hub

A laboratory filled with plants and herbs with medicinal properties at the Morocco Pavilion at Expo 2020, Dubai. The National
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The US state of Massachusetts does very well out of its life sciences sector. Pharmaceuticals giant Moderna is based there, and it is home to the very best universities, including Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The sector, whose work is in constant demand and will be forevermore, attracts highly qualified and highly paid international workers. It is estimated that for every life sciences job created in the state, five more in the wider world of health and sciences become available. The soft power boost of its reputation as a centre of medical excellence is also significant.

That is in line with why the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi’s decided to send a delegation to Boston, the state’s capital. Their summary of the trip is exciting: Abu Dhabi and the wider UAE share many of the characteristics that make the state an international centre of life sciences, and could, therefore, make it an important part of its diversifying economy.

One is the country’s increasingly sophisticated medical infrastructure. This not only provides the facilities to undertake research and trials, but the international talent to make it work. Its geographical location, which puts it within relatively short flying distance of much of the world’s key scientific centres, is another asset, easing distribution of products and people.

There are more than 200 nationalities in the Emirates. This could be particularly useful for scientists conducting clinical trials, giving them access to one of the widest gene pools around.

The burgeoning medical and sciences sector, comprehensive regulatory authorities, high-quality education, an open society and a general shift in mentality has brought the country’s population in closer contact with the exciting world of modern research. And while devastating, Covid-19 was also served as something of a mass medical educational campaign, from the importance of hand washing to vaccines. Indeed, the UAE was one of the first countries to participate in clinical trials of them.

Speaking of the country’s potential, Dr Asma Al Mannaei, director of healthcare quality at Department of Health — Abu Dhabi, said: “Three years ago, it was hard to imagine conducting Phase III clinical trials [in the UAE], people were anxious about what this meant. Now we are embarking on them with confidence.” Today, there are around 400 clinical research trials taking place in Abu Dhabi.

A focus on the sector is paying off in a number of other initiatives. The Emirati Genome Programme is seeking to increase the knowledge of genetics of Emiratis, in the hope that findings will help treat health issues in the community. Another, the Malaffi system, is bringing unified patient medical records to the country. It is hoped its work will use AI technology and machine learning to analyse public health trends.

Finally, the recent trip highlights the ongoing collaboration between UAE medical professionals and counterparts around the world, particularly in the US. Any discussion of the benefits of a strong life sciences sector in the Emirates must not forget that progress in the country helps the world, too. Medics in many of the Middle East’s countries are struggling, and an alarming number are leaving for distant centres of excellence such as Boston. A strong regional powerhouse could help give doctors, nurses and researches a reason to stay, and start reversing an alarming trend.

Whether in the Classical or Abbasid era, the Middle East has at various points been a pivotal region for medicine, science and mathematics. These golden ages will take some beating, but a revival of that spirit is certainly taking place in Abu Dhabi today.

Published: June 14, 2022, 3:00 AM