UAE's 50th: Mapping the nation's journey and the path forward
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UAE’s 50th: Mapping the nation’s journey and the path forward

UAE’s 50th: Mapping the nation’s journey and the path forward

For a country rich in tradition and driven by ambition, the UAE’s journey in the past 50 years has been unprecedented. What’s in store for the next 50?


Traditional homes. Fishing villages. Old cinemas. White taxis. The UAE of many years ago that once stood at the far end of a long transformational journey and served best as a desert backdrop is a stark contrast to the one we live in today – a multicultural microcosm of progression, technological superiority, and most importantly, a long-term vision.

The key to understanding the journey of the UAE – which marked its 50th year as a sovereign and federal state on December 2, lies in its ambition and strategic depth. From aviation to telecom, constructing the world’s tallest building to designing the world’s longest driverless metro project, the country’s growth chart has been staggering, even unprecedented. To anthropomorphise it, imagine an athlete with an insatiable appetite for success, eager to pull off one exploit after another. One that simply refuses to bask in the glory of his achievements. One who is always on a quest for something bigger, better, braver.

“The founding of the UAE represented a bold act of institutional innovation that has since become one the country’s defining characteristics. From its creation and annual hosting of the World Government Summit to the establishment of Abu Dhabi’s Sustainability Week, and the creation of the Museum of the Future, to Dubai’s Expo 2020, the UAE is now arguably the world’s leading laboratory of new approaches to whole-of-nation and global governance,” notes Rudolph Lohmeyer, partner of the National Transformations Institute at Kearney Middle East.

Barreling forward
The rapid global rise of the UAE arguably began with the discovery of oil. The country’s first commercial oil discovery was made in 1958 – onshore in the Bab-2 well and offshore at Umm Shaif, according to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – of which the UAE has been a member since 1967.

Towards the end of last year, the country beefed up its resource repertoire when the Supreme Petroleum Council announced the discovery of an estimated 22 billion stock tank barrels (STB) of substantial recoverable unconventional oil resources located onshore, as well as an increase in conventional oil reserves of two billion STB in Abu Dhabi, which scaled the UAE’s conventional oil reserves base to 107 billion STB of recoverable oil.

However, notwithstanding its stature among oil producing giants, the country very quickly prioritised its non-oil economy as a bailiwick and has unveiled a series of diversification initiatives across different sectors. Ranging from extraterrestrial endeavours and technological innovations to sustainability efforts, the UAE is well underway on a journey to build a futuristic tomorrow.

The UAE has been advancing at a rapid pace, deploying technologies and unveiling strategies that cover terrestrial, aerial, electric and autonomous modes of travel, effectively altering the conversation around mobility.

Dubai launched its metro system in September 2009, billed as the longest driverless metro project worldwide. Since the start of its passenger services in 2009 up until the end of August 2021, Dubai Metro operated over three million trips, transporting about 1.706 billion users. Its cumulative benefits from 2009 up until the end of 2020 equated to Dhs115bn, compared to the cumulative capital and operational costs of Dhs45bn. Meanwhile, Etihad Rail is also developing the country’s first national railway network, set to connect all the emirates, with plans to eventually also extend to Saudi Arabia as part of the proposed GCC Railway.

However, the UAE is also building for the future – it approved a temporary licence to test autonomous vehicles, making it the first country in the Middle East and the second globally to test self-driving vehicles. Meanwhile, the Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy aims for 25 per cent of all transportation in the emirate to be smart and driverless by 2030, an initiative that will help reduce transportation costs by 44 per cent, resulting in savings of up to Dhs900m a year. The Dubai programme to enable drone transportation was also launched last month to explore the use of drones in several sectors, including health, security, shipping and food.

When it comes to mobility, it is impossible not to bring up the country’s – and specifically Dubai’s – aviation story.

It was October 25, 1985. A day that marked the start of a new era for Dubai’s economy. The emirate’s airline Emirates operated its first flights that day, from Dubai to the Pakistani city of Karachi and the Indian city of Mumbai.

More than three decades later, the airline is a veritable aviation powerhouse having become the world’s largest international airline (it carried over 15.8 million passengers in 2020, according to IATA) and occupying a dominant seat at the echelon of global airlines. Joining it are Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways – which carried one million passengers in H1 2021, and Sharjah’s Air Arabia, which reported a net profit of Dhs44m for H1 2021, marking a year-on-year increase of 126 per cent.

On the back of Emirates’ success, Dubai International – which reclaimed its position as the world’s busiest airport for international passenger traffic in October – welcomed 20.7 million passengers in the first 10 months of 2021, with the number of flight movements recorded between January and September equaling 155,706.

Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi International Airport also completed 39 years of operations this year.

As far as extraterrestrial ambitions go, the UAE has literally taken flight. In 2017, the country launched its first astronaut programme with four Emiratis – including one woman – chosen as part of it since then. The country also launched the Arab world’s first mission to Mars with the Hope Probe, a fully autonomous spacecraft, which completed its orbit insertion earlier this year, making the UAE only the fifth country to reach the red planet.

“The UAE has shown to the world that its plan when it comes to space and the space sector here is very strategic. We have taken up a lot of projects that are varying in terms of complexity, definition, and applications – from Earth observation to communication to supporting the academic sector, new initiatives and new startups towards space exploration, understanding the Martian atmosphere and even beyond that,” explains Amer Al Sayegh Al Ghafri, senior director of the Space Engineering Department and project manager of MBZ-SAT, Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.

Besides unveiling a mission to land on the moon and a new project to explore Venus, the country also harbours an ambition of establishing human colonies on Mars by 2117.

“I believe, in general, space is challenging. To go into space projects, develop space missions, and localising the technology here in the UAE is challenging and then eventually also reaching the orbit of Mars with the Hope Probe [was challenging]. In the end, we believe that space represents the challenge that the UAE needs to take for it to become a leading nation when it comes to science and technology,” adds Al Ghafri.

For a country that had set a roadmap and a timeframe for its digital initiatives and strategies way before the Covid-19 pandemic hit (the UAE’s Fourth Industrial Revolution Strategy was launched in 2017), the UAE adapted to the new world order with admirable ease, reflecting its strategic and tactical depth.

More so, the UAE continues to march ahead with its smart initiatives which are in lockstep with its sustainable ones. The Dubai Paperless Strategy has met 98.86 per cent of its digitalisation goals, with 43 government agencies going completely paperless. On December 12, the Dubai government will issue its last paper transaction.

However, the country has not just laid out a blueprint of a smart economy, it is preparing an entire workforce to back it. In 2019, Abu Dhabi launched the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, the world’s first graduate-level AI university, which, in January this year, welcomed its first cohort of students. Earlier this year, the UAE also launched a new programme to develop talent and expertise in the field of coding in partnership with top tech firms.

Shopping haven. Culinary smorgasbord. Sprawling hotels. The UAE has effectively – and successfully – altered the conversation around tourism. The country stands as one of the premier destinations for regional and international visitors with icons such as the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa), one of the world’s most visited malls (The Dubai Mall), and a Ferrari inspired theme park (Ferrari World Abu Dhabi) furthering its cause.

The country’s efforts to gain traction have borne fruit. Dubai received 2.85 million international overnight visitors from January-July 2021, while hotels across the emirate enjoyed occupancy levels of 61 per cent overall during the same period. According to the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi figures, the UAE capital also welcomed 11.35 million international visitors in 2019. Meanwhile, Ras Al Khaimah aims to attract 2.9 million visitors per year by 2025.

Sustainability focus
Besides being a frontrunner in carving out a technology-driven future, the UAE is equally zealous in ushering in a clean one. From ratifying the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and its Montreal Protocol in 1989 to being selected to host the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) in 2023, the UAE has come a long way in its commitment to sustainability and climate action.

Construction of the Arab world’s first multi-unit operating nuclear energy plant in the Al Dhafra region of Abu Dhabi began in 2012. Unit 1 of the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant is fully operational, Unit 2 is connected to the UAE grid, while construction of Unit 3 is complete. When fully operational, the plant will produce 5.6 gigawatts of electricity, while preventing the release of more than 21 million tonnes of carbon emissions every year. Meanwhile, the International Renewable Energy Agency’s move to its Masdar City headquarters in 2015 also marked a significant milestone in the country’s sustainability journey.

“The UAE has of course been blessed with abundant natural resources in oil and gas. This bounty has underpinned our nation’s remarkable growth over the past 50 years and has laid the foundations for the development of industries including aviation and shipping, and our finance and services sectors,” notes Mohamed Jameel Al Ramahi, CEO of Masdar. “Today, we are witnessing a major change in our own energy sector, with more and more clean power coming on stream throughout the UAE.”

Besides investing close to $17bn in wind, solar and battery storage projects across six continents, the UAE became the first country in the Middle East and North Africa region to announce a Net Zero 2050 strategy.

“If we look to 2050, then wind and solar technologies, which are relatively mature and cost-effective, will capture the highest share in global power generation spend with predicted cumulative investments of a combined $10 trillion,” says Al Ramahi.

“We see significant opportunity to decarbonise mobility, through the electrification of passenger and light commercial vehicles. Energy efficiency will play a role as well, especially in our built environments. The sustainable technology utilised at Masdar City – where buildings consume 40 per cent less water and electricity than conventional ones – will have a big role to play in making our cities cleaner and greener. Also, emerging energy sources such as green hydrogen can be expected to flourish in the decades ahead.”

Hello, tomorrow
It is not only its past endeavours that the UAE is keen on building upon, but the future that it is creating for generations to come, that offer a glimpse of what the country’s vision is.

In September, the UAE announced plans to launch massive new projects for the next 50 years. The ‘Projects of the 50’ include schemes such as the ‘green visa’ for expatriates, enabling them to sponsor themselves, a federal freelancers visa as well as other work permit reforms. It also entails a new Dhs5bn ‘Tech Drive’ programme to support advanced technology adoption in the industrial sector and a new data law that will ensure privacy of individuals and international companies across the country.

“Built upon the solid foundations of this nation’s past 50 years, I believe that remarkable technological innovations and the speed at which they are being developed present tremendous growth opportunities for companies and the broader UAE economy in the next five decades,” says Hani Weiss, CEO, Majid Al Futtaim Retail. “The forward-thinking nature of the UAE’s open and modern economy creates the perfect location to pilot different ideas and gather insights into disruptive new opportunities. Those innovations that succeed here are then exported across the region. As we progress in the pursuit of greater convenience and automation, I believe technology will present a seismic shift in the retail landscape and the broader economy.”

But a technologically advanced economy is not all that the Gulf nation is eyeing; it is also keen to establish a thriving economic ecosystem. The market capitalisation of the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange recently crossed Dhs1.5 trillion on the back of listings and greater investment. The value of shares traded on the exchange at the end of the first 10 months of 2021 equalled Dhs284bn and a new Dhs5bn Abu Dhabi IPO fund was also recently launched to strengthen financial markets.

Meanwhile, Dubai aims to increase the total volume of its stock markets to Dhs3 trillion. The emirate recently announced the listing of 10 government and state-owned companies on the Dubai Financial Market, the first regional exchange to have become publicly listed itself.

As regards to the UAE, it is neither a case of ambition gone unchecked nor punching above one’s weight. It is just an odyssey of a nation that has always harboured a tomorrow-first approach backed by a futuristic plan and an iron will – all the essentials required to chalk out a promising future.

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