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United Active Entrepreneurship: UAE – The Startup Story

Walt Disney said, “Build it and they will come.” Qiraat Attar takes the opportunity to look at UAE’s progress over five decades through the lens of a unique and highly successful startup

If you live in the United Arab Emirates – look around you. How often have you thought this place is different from the rest of the world?

You may not have been around in the past, but it is impossible to stay unaffected by the growth of this illustrious nation. Since its first steps in 1971, the seven states of the UAE acknowledged head-on the mammoth challenge in front of them, converting this dusty desert scattered with few natural resources and fewer economic prospects into a nation that stands tall, shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s powers, diminishing arguments that it could well be the most secure, inhabitable and exciting country in the world today.

A routine study will tell you – countries happen; they are not made. There is no plan, no strategy, no board meetings or investors that make a country. Well, not all countries. But what highlights UAE’s embargo from the way other nations have carved their path was how eerily akin to a startup it operated in its early days – identifying the vast scope of improvement, working closely with guidelines and principles, with architects that were single-minded in their pursuit of a better UAE. Combine that with a shrewd economic policy, foreign relations with countries that have stood the test of time, and even branding, it will tell you that the UAE is a dichotomy – a nation of heartening, warm, motivated inhabitants, but also a product of the best laid and executed plans that any country set into motion post its independence.

This loose parallel offers us insights and creates a renewed appreciation for the path UAE has taken towards growth, joining hands with its people, environment, children, its core values, and relations with neighboring states to walk the delicate balance between the everyday joys of its citizens, and the long-term visions that forge its future. Follow the story to gain an understanding of how the UAE model of governance, growth, and results is no less fascinating than a startup.

Formulation of A Vision

Startups are born because they are driven by the drive to solve a problem, improving the lives of people. It was no different for His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father and the principal driving force behind the formation of the United Arab Emirates. As the first President of the UAE, he held office for almost 33 years, succeeded by his son Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the now President of the UAE. When the Sheikh Zayed was still an infant, the Emirate was characterized by undeveloped communities wracked with poverty, earning their daily bread through fishing or pearl diving or subsisting on agriculture that was possible on the scattered oases, few and far between, much like the mirage of prosperous times.

Every company has a USP. That USP for the Emirate was oil – elusive but undoubtedly present. The Sheikh came to power in the middle of what was a fervent search for crude oil, finally unearthed after a 30-year search in 1958. Sheikh Zayed stayed close to the process, gaining exposure to oil and its significance when the oil companies conducted their geological surveys. Then, with determination, he sought to build UAE’s brighter future out of the shadows on the slick foundations of oil.

Historic photo depicting the first hoisting of the United Arab Emirates flag by the rulers of the emirates at The Union House, Dubai on 2 December 1971

The Moving Target

With a vision to transform the landscape and fate of the UAE, the kingdom was armed with a mission statement that could help it get to its goals. After all, have you ever heard of a successful startup without a mission statement emblazoned on its walls and the hearts of its makers?

In 1971, it was straightforward – To bring together the states with similar economic and tribal groups under the banner of the Emirate. With the turn of time, these goals have evolved too, with the latest UAE Vision 2021 steadfast at empowering the country and citizens with vital values such as their national identity, fostering their sense of family and society, and balancing development with tradition.

The achievement of Vision 2021 was based on strengthening the four pillars of Unity.

  • United in Responsibility: An ambitious nation, confident and grounded in its heritage
  • United in Destiny: A union brought, kept together and made strong by a common destiny
  • United in Knowledge: A Competitive Economy Driven by Knowledgeable and Innovative Emiratis
  • United in Prosperity: Nurturing a sustainable environment for quality living.

In addition, certain other objectives have also emerged in urgency – such as the state of the environment and dispensing human rights equitably.

With clear laid plans up to 2021 already in execution, the next big dream was to make the UAE the best country in the world by 2071. With this as foresight, H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and his Cabinet launched the UAE Centennial 2071 plan to lay foundations, fortify the country’s reputation and its soft power, and establish tools to build an environment for futuristic growth and a set a clear map for future generations to follow.

The UAE Centennial 2071 plan is based on four aspects: Education, Economy, Government Development, and Community Cohesion. It also includes educational development with a focus on advanced technology and engineering and instilling an Emirati moral values system in future generations.

Filling The Gaps

As a country far-flung into the Middle East with its arid deserts and scorching sun, coming to terms with its hard-won independence, UAE was cognizant about its growing pains. Just like a company must be aware of the problems that could befall it, not just in the present but also in the future, so did the UAE take stock of their situation post-independence.

In some ways, it was more secure than ever before – by 1999, it had eliminated all threats of invasion, debt issues, domestic opposition was down to a thrum, and there were few signs of an economic slide back. With rivalries absolved with treaties and the overarching assurance of USA’s protection, the Emirate was poised for prosperity. But instead of slipping into complacency, the kingdom focused on other problems to be solved – rapid population growth, lack of economic diversification, low oil prices, low water supplies, and dependence on foreign labor.

Despite the populace, there was also a dearth of talent that could build the nation to the standards they envisioned, woefully due to lack of education. Today, the UAE is climbing the literacy rates of the U.N. Education Index and is making significant inroads in ensuring the women too, gain their rightful access to education, in keeping with UNDP Millennium Development Goals.

The other major issue that the UAE foresaw was its over-dependence on oil. Having struck oil in 1969, it was the fuel not only for automobiles, industries, and energy needs the world over, but also the jet fuel in UAE’s rocket ship to the future. Having capitalized on this search, this discovery paid dividends in augmenting UAE’s stature. However, oil is an exhaustible fuel, which was apparent when Dubai’s oil production peaked in 1991 and has been in decline ever since.

Not one to be fazed in the face of a challenge, the kingdom chose to diversify, and quickly, into other economic avenues, such as tourism, import-export, and strategic ties with international players. Today, tourism now factors in as one of the biggest non-oil income streams for the UAE, with Dubai as the epicenter of this change. Other ways it honors its mission of economic integrity is by relying on other capable industries such as construction, which is why Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah boast of such mammoth construction marvels across their urban spaces and holds nearly $350 billion worth of infrastructure projects, apart from which there is the manufacturing and a booming services sector. This highlights that the mission statement for a country, much like a startup, cannot be a fixed stamp but a moving target, as the pursuit of growth reveals other problems that hold the key to further satisfaction.

The Paper Trail

Pitch a business idea to even the most naive of people, and their first question will be – where will the money come from? Countries are no different. When the UAE did not exist as a union, but as scattered states, each emirate was responsible for its own economy. Means of earning were traditional, based on fishing and other seafaring activities. The people were unaware of the world beyond and were not part of the growth trajectory that was being charted by other prosperous countries.

Previous UAE President Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan became the light guiding the Emirate into the 20th century, channeling the money from oil exports into the nation’s future. Former UAE vice-president Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum decided not to adhere to fossil fuels alone but tap into other industries as well. This led to an average growth of over 6% in the mid-2010s, with shares contributed by banking, tourism, commerce, and real estate.

Not all the Emirate states saw the same success rate, and the journey was not without bumps along the way. When the mid-2000s saw Dubai slumping in an economic crisis, Abu Dhabi bailed the sister state out with its substantial petrodollars. Today, Dubai has shaken off signs of its economic downturns with its stellar success and investments beyond petroleum from international finance, tourism, and entrepreneurship.

Across The Seas

Before competition comes collaboration. The UAE is acutely aware that no nation is an island, metaphorically relying on others whom it can help in times of need, and lean on when the going gets tough. From the outset, it has played the game of diplomacy with a seasoned hand. Having held a significant role in the OPEC and one of the founders of the GCC, it also features on several significant international boards such as the World Bank, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the IMF.

There is no mindset as ‘impossible’ for this ministry, which is specifically conceptualized to fix problems that seem unsolvable

That’s not to say that a bit of competition isn’t just enthralling, but a given. One of the most prestigious and path-breaking events to be happening in the UAE right now, the Expo 2020 Dubai, has been in the works since 2013 when the UAE defeated opposing bids from Turkey’s Izmir, Brazil’s Sao Paulo, and Russia’s Yekaterinburg at the 154th Bureau International des Expositions to host the event.

UAE enjoys diplomatic camaraderie with several powerful nations, both through timely allyship and import-export relations. Ties with Australia have strengthened rapidly, and our nation is now the largest Middle East trading partner of the land down under. Ties with America too have flourished, with the change in regime in the States having done little to dampen the strong ties with the Emirate.

Another tangible route of maintaining relations has always been the route of import-export. The UAE takes efforts to maintain strong ties with its import partners, China, India, US, UK, and Germany, which supply machinery, precious metals, mineral, and chemical products to our region. Consequently, the UAE bestows its export partners Oman, Japan, and Saudi Arabia with goods like petroleum products, aluminum, and electronics.

When Innovation Meets Administration

A well-run company can credit its smooth sailing to its organized department structure, with a clear demarcation of responsibilities. Federal governments around the world have the same perfunctory ministries for smooth administration, but the UAE takes it beyond set expectations, with a keen understanding of problem areas and how people wish to be governed.

In 2019, the world’s first virtual Ministry of Possibilities was inaugurated in the UAE, without a dedicated minister but run with the collaboration of the Cabinet of Ministers. There is no mindset as ‘impossible’ for this ministry, which is specifically conceptualized to fix problems that seem unsolvable. Recently in April 2021, the Ministry was referenced in an OECD case study for its initiative to give every government department free reign to experiment with their functioning, which has sparked conversation with leaders in Wales to create their own Ministry of Possibilities.

In 2016, an entire ministry was created to oversee policies and programs with the foremost intention of maintaining happiness amongst the citizens. Under the guidance of Her Excellency Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi, several initiatives have taken off like Customer Happiness Formula, Happiness and Positivity Councils, and Happy and Positive Offices.

Most countries endorse and embrace Artificial Intelligence on a technological, even consumption level, but UAE decided to incorporate it into administration to equitably distribute its benefits for the people. The Ministry of Artificial Intelligence, launched in 2017 as a pre-emptive part of UAE Centennial 2071, plans to leave no stone unturned establishing the Emirate as a global leader in the domain by 2031. Above all, it seeks to encourage competition to nurture innovation in the AI sector, which will increase opportunities for job seekers and lead to the construction of a data-driven infrastructure which will form the basis for a digital-friendly future in the UAE.

An Indelible Brand

Companies don’t exist without a brand image these days, but the UAE takes its branding to a whole new level. From the 1980s, it began to position and promote itself as a world financial gateway through the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. As a result, the global perception of small desert villages and rudimentary ways of livelihood were replaced by images of the glamorous and fast-paced metropolis, thanks to the burgeoning progress brought in by oil revenue.

Dubai Tourism Board’s global marketing campaign featuring Shah Rukh Khan in 2016 and recently Zac Enron and Jessica Alba

While on this upswing, UAE’s reputation and particularly that of Dubai was cemented by its visibility and swagger in the tourism space, with it attaining the position of the fifth most visited city in the world garnering 11.95 million visitors, rising to 13.34 million in 2016. Outrageous architectural projects like the underwater hotel, the Palm Jumeirah islands, and of course, the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, which is so famous today that it has a full-fledged Bollywood track to its name, cemented its place as a tourism destination that cannot be outflanked by another. Dubai was personified in the image of classic royalty, which entertains and obliges in equal measure, which feels familiar and yet awe-inspiring in the same moment, so it was only fitting that global superstar Shah Rukh Khan became the face of Dubai tourism in 2016, with a series of advertisements warmly inviting the world with the tagline – ‘Be my guest’. More recently in 2021, a series of viral ‘Visit Dubai’ ads show Zac Efron and Jessica Alba function as cinematic tour guides, as the videos mimic movie trailers in the romance, action, thriller and self-discovery genre under #DubaiPresents. Viewers are enthralled by the scale and ambition for these ads packed with a storyline and also taking them across Dubai’s famous hotspots, gorgeously capturing their splendor.

There is no mindset as ‘impossible’ for this ministry, which is specifically conceptualized to fix problems that seem unsolvable

No Emirate Without The Emirati

Few nations could handle the challenge of being paralleled with a startup, but as we’ve seen, the UAE is more than up to the comparison. But there is a common thread above all else – be it a company, a club, a nation, or a conglomerate, it is about the people.

In the case of the UAE, the best-laid plans, the boundless wealth that came from beneath the ground, and all the marketing and branding to showcase the alluring facade would be hollow if not supported by the Emirati people, who have grown from their own primitive roots and embraced modernity, technology and adventure while still holding their tradition, native tongue and culture in the palm of their hand. In UAE’s victories of its past and the plans for the next 50 years ahead, as long as the satisfaction and concurrence of the Emirati are valued, it will always be a good day in the Emirate.

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