It is easy to become accustomed to hearing about big numbers in the UAE. Headlines featuring the deployment of billions of dollars long since lost the power to provoke awe. So the news that by 2021, Abu Dhabi will have invested $1 billion in a slew of local and global technology start-up companies may have been misinterpreted by some as business as usual.
But it is not. We should all be paying very close attention to the news coming out of Mubadala Ventures, the arm of Mubadala Investment Company set up to bankroll technology start-ups, because that $1 billion is nothing less than the seed corn of the future, germinated in the rich soil of historic foresight. From the beginning Sheikh Zayed recognised the importance of not relying on oil as the main source of national income. It was, he said, vital "to diversify the sources of our revenue and construct economic projects that will ensure a free, stable and dignified life for the people of this country". In 1984 the International Petroleum Investment Company was founded to ensure oil wealth was invested wisely for the future. In 2002 Mubadala Development Company was created to diversify and strengthen the economy through global investments. Last year the two merged, creating a powerful organisation "to support the next phase of Abu Dhabi's economic development".
Mubadala Ventures, an offshoot set up in October, is the latest expression of Sheikh Zayed's vision. Already it is backing embryonic American tech companies and plans further investment next year in the US, Europe and back home in the UAE, in fast-evolving sectors ranging from robotics and artificial intelligence to digital healthcare and financial software. Shortly it will open its first office in the US, in the hi-tech hub of Silicon Valley. Its staff will be 13,000km from home. But as they set about the vital business of securing Abu Dhabi's place in the digital future, never will they have been closer to Sheikh Zayed's vision of an economically vibrant, forward-looking homeland free of dependence upon the bounty of the past.