The UAE’s journey from knowledge importer to exporter

Attracting global expertise was akin to phase one for the UAE. Now, the country is able to start exporting its knowledge and expertise to others

DP World is one of the largest ports operators in the world. Courtesy DP World
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Modern economies are increasingly built around knowledge. The ability to develop home-grown hubs of expertise and innovation – and then use these to export revenue-generating goods and services – is an essential part of economic growth today.

Despite benefiting from natural resources, the UAE has been planning for a post-oil knowledge economy for decades. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the country’s strategy looked at accelerating growth by attracting world-class talent to key economic sectors, such as real estate, hospitality, education and healthcare.

Attracting global expertise was akin to phase one for the UAE. Now, the country has matured to the point it is able to start exporting its own knowledge and expertise to others, supplying intellectual capital, innovation and prowess to markets in Mena and beyond. This evolution has even been laid out in the discernible blueprint: the UAE Vision 2021.

The vision calls for a “competitive economy driven by knowledgeable and innovative Emiratis.” It is very heartening to see official acknowledgement for a diversified and flexible knowledge based economy – one where innovation, research, science and technology form the basis of competitive advantage.

Of course, this means that frameworks and government services will be designed to provide businesses with the environment that they need in order to grow, thrive and commercialise innovative ideas. Regulations will promote efficient markets and protect intellectual property. Partnerships will flourish between the public and private sectors, spurring growth and maximising opportunities.

The first step to exporting knowledge is to build hubs capable of creating, sustaining and amplifying it. The UAE leadership has long understood the potential of dedicated freezones that bring businesses together in close proximity to develop network economies.

The next step is to incubate the SMEs that inhabit these freezones, making them a true driver of innovation and human excellence. The potential impact of SMEs on knowledge generation and economic vibrancy is staggering. Reports estimates that the total GCC-wide number of people employed in SMEs will hit 20 million by 2020, but active government support could take that figure to more than 22 million.

There isn’t just room for SMEs to become plentiful, but to also become smarter and more innovative. Advanced data capabilities and artificial intelligence are bringing back the concept of the knowledge worker and favouring technologically innovative economies over traditional manufacturing ones.

The third step is catalysing international relationships that allow local knowledge to travel to markets where it is in demand, and can empower people and businesses.

DP World has been active in bringing its ports and logistical management expertise to global partners. We are proud to manage and grow some of the world’s most innovative ports. We currently deliver expertise to 78 marine and inland terminals in 40 countries. We’ve been active exporters of best practices for years, and engage in the transfer of knowledge and expertise to the entities, freezones and governments we advise all over the world. And, in line with the UAE’s aim of becoming a knowledge exporter, we are following its own vision of becoming a leading facilitator of the global trade in goods, services and products.

We want the UAE’s expertise to be available to the world. We want our management expertise and intellectual property to become a sustainable and growing revenue stream for our leaders to invest in future prosperity. And we recognise that this isn’t a burden that the nation’s public sector can carry alone. That’s why we support incubation and knowledge transfer that can spur UAE-based innovation hubs and SMEs to a standard where global clients reach out to them. And we lead by example, showing how a network of long-term knowledge exporting links benefits both recipients as well as exporting economies.

Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem is the chairman and CEO of DP World