In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has long been a leader in innovation and business-friendly regulation. As the country celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the UAE is looking ahead and making plans for a future of exponential growth. Despite a COVID-related slowdown of the UAE’s economy, economic activity within the country is expected to grow 2.1% this year and 4.2% in 2022, better than previously forecasted.[1] According to H.E. Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade, the country is focused on “building the new 50-year economy,” with eye on innovation, technology, and sustainability.

We sat down with BCIU’s Matthew Calardo, who leads the organization’s engagement on the Middle East, to talk about what’s going on in the region and how the UAE is preparing for the years ahead. “Consider the UAE economy in the context of recent splashy moves: normalization with Israel, hosting Expo2020, and various reforms and projects that coincide with the country’s 50th anniversary celebration. Pair these moves with the fact that the UAE is a water-scarce country whose expat community contains over 200 nationalities and it is no surprise that the Emiratis view sustainability and tolerance as part and parcel of economic growth.”

Year of the Jubilee

In December 2021, the UAE is celebrating the ‘Year of the 50th’ in honor of the five decades that have passed since the unification of the seven emirates under one flag. Strengthening the federation and nurturing a national identify is a priority for the UAE right now, in order to serve the union’s stability and economic wellbeing. With this in mind, the UAE has launched 50 economic initiatives that aim to grow the non-oil economy and attract $150bn in foreign investment within nine years. [2] At 50, the UAE is at a turning point, clearly moving beyond the label of a “young country” and ascending in influence and leadership in key industries of the future. The 50-year milestone will celebrate the many successes of the last five decades, including its diplomatic evolution.

The United States-UAE relationship is one that has developed during this period, and while the UAE is strengthening ties with other nations, the U.S. remains the most important partner for the country. In addition, the normalization of relations with Israel in September of 2020 opened the door for future economic and political cooperation.  “From the Emirati, Israeli, and American perspectives, it is certainly viewed as a positive development, and one that is already paying some commercial and public relations dividends,” Calardo says. “Israel has said that it expects $1bn in trade with the UAE by the end of 2021. The UAE has said that it hopes to reach $1tn in economic activity with Israel in the next decade.[3] I think the specific level of commercial activity is hard to predict, but it certainly makes sense that the UAE and Israel would cooperate on initiatives in the Health and ICT sectors, as well as issues related to climate change. They have been cooperating on the defense and security side of things for some time.”

The Dubai Expo

One clear illustration of the UAE’s efforts toward growth and building the future economy is the Dubai Expo. The Expo – delayed one year due to the pandemic – officially launched on October 1, 2021. It is the first world expo to take place in the Middle East and North Africa and is intended to develop the UAE’s knowledge economy and position the country as a leader in the Middle East.

One of the themes of the Expo is mobility, a key signal of the UAE’s ambitions to help enable smarter movement of knowledge, ideas, and goods around the world. The Expo’s emphasis on mobility will include innovations related to electric vehicles, assisting people with disabilities, and space travel. “It’s a broad interpretation of mobility,” Calardo says. “It reflects the UAE’s leadership on several fronts, from being the first Arab country to reach Mars to being the first Arab country to host the Special Olympics. The role of smart cities, or ‘smart mobility’ as it relates to the future of transportation, safety, and climate change is also a key part of the Expo.”

A focus on sustainable development

The Dubai Expo will illustrate the progress the UAE has made in investing and innovation, specifically related to environmental, social and governance topics. The UAE is working to grow its non-oil economy through investments in semiconductors, renewable energy, and healthcare, among other industries. Calardo says, “Mubadala has been at the forefront of this strategy in the UAE, whether through GlobalFoundries, Masdar, or the newly created UAE-UK Sovereign Investment Partnership on life sciences. Mubadala was one of the most active sovereign wealth funds during the pandemic, and their investment strategy reflects the UAE’s broader vision of diversification through sustainability.”

Both the interest in sustainability and other ESG-related spaces, such as gender equality and inclusion, are a part of the country’s investment strategy as it relates to regional stability. More than 200 nationalities are represented in the UAE’s expat community, meaning the country is prioritizing tolerance through the support of private schools, places of worship, and discussions of granting citizenship to certain expats.

At the most recent Dwight D. Eisenhower Global Awards Gala, BCIU honored His Excellency Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak of Mubadala with the Eisenhower Leadership Award. To listen to the conversation or watch the entire event, visit our Eisenhower page here.

BCIU regularly hosts events across various topics, including the Middle East and sustainability. Past events include a session on 3D printing and construction in the Arabian Peninsula and a conversation on the UAE with His Excellency Omar bin Sultan Al Olama. Recently, BCIU hosted a virtual forum on AgTech, Innovation, and Food Security the UAE entitled, “Turning the Desert Green”. To learn more about BCIU’s programming, please visit our Events page.




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