If the events of 2020 have shown anything, it’s that there is merit in looking for pockets of optimism. A conversation with H.E. Dr Tariq Bin Hendi, director general of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO), offers more than a hint that Abu Dhabi may be the place to look for positives. Thanks to an active government that’s keen to diversify the economy away from its traditional dependence on oil and towards innovation, there are plenty of opportunities for businesses in all sectors looking to grow or expand in the region.

It is one reason Abu Dhabi, even in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent global economic slowdown, has thrived as a location for foreign direct investment (FDI). According to the UNCTAD’s 2020 World Investment Report, the UAE was the largest FDI recipient in the Middle East in 2019, with flows of almost $14bn, up by a third from the year before.

While this was driven by a number of large deals, including the BlackRock and KKR Global Infrastructure investment in Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the emirate’s company attraction activity across business of all sizes and sectors remains strong.

Positive government action

Dr Bin Hendi is certain the desire to diversify is behind many of the government’s initiatives and is one of the reasons for the high levels of optimism, along with the focus on innovation and disruptive new technologies across all sectors.

“Abu Dhabi is very keen on experimenting. The government wants to support lots of different types of technology companies, allowing them to test out ideas in Abu Dhabi, so we can be at the forefront of supporting technologies that are emerging and that are successful. We are looking at this very holistically,” he adds. “We are trying to make sure that every sector plays its part in the wider development of Abu Dhabi’s economy and infrastructure.”

And, says Dr Bin Hendi, the public sector has a key role to play in boosting business. He adds that the government has made significant strides in implementing initiatives to support the private sector. “If you look at the initiatives our leadership has put in place, it’s about flexibility and being proactive as well as reactive. We offer the important components that businesses are looking for.

In terms of policy and regulation, we are focused on improving ease of doing business so that companies can quickly and efficiently set up for success in Abu Dhabi. We also develop programmes, incentives and financial instruments that give ambitious businesses that additional support to thrive in the emirate.”

One of the other attractions, says Dr Bin Hendi, is the opportunity to use Abu Dhabi as a springboard to the entire region. “We’re helping businesses to grow once they come here, because there’s a lot of opportunity in Abu Dhabi and in the UAE. There is a very young talent pool and a growing young consumer demographic. That’s important in the development of technology and the advancement of new ideas. It’s about being able to grow your business, to access opportunity and the right talent.”

Attracting healthcare investment

One sector that has been front of mind globally in 2020 has been healthcare, with health technology a particular focus. Here again, the Abu Dhabi government has a strong track record attracting and developing high-tech solutions. For Dr Bin Hendi, this has also been down to state actions.

“If you look at healthcare and what it is that we’ve been able to accomplish in regulation and policy and how we move things forward, it’s about an iterative process. It’s about making sure we are talking to the right people and getting the right people together, not just in the UAE but in the wider region as well.”

Speaking to Oxford Business Group earlier in 2020, H.E. Sheikh Abdulla Bin Mohammed Al Hamed, chairman of the Department of Health (DoH) in Abu Dhabi, was clear that the emirate has worked on putting together the required infrastructure for investment in the sector. “Our model is aimed at implementing a sustainable, competitive economy that is based on knowledge, expertise and diversity,” he said. “Such investments will serve the public interest by integrating efforts, funds, expertise and technologies between government entities and private partners alike.”

He went on to describe the DoH’s Capacity Master Plan (CMP), through which it aims to encourage investments in the development and expansion of local health services, helping to meet the growing demand for health services in Abu Dhabi.

The CMP provides analysis of current and future health capacity and provision. “We have put in place optimal equity financing models and explored avenues to provide the private sector with sustainable funding through low-interest, long-term loans, fees, equity or deferred shares, in addition to facilitating financial support for the healthcare segment.”

DoH also recently announced the roll-out of ‘Certificate of Need’, a planning tool that helps map out investment opportunities in Abu Dhabi’s healthcare sector. The automated, self-service, web-based solution will provide investors with real-time information on healthcare supply, demand and capacity needs in the emirate, in a further effort to enable strategic investment opportunities in specialised healthcare services.

These measures, says Dr Bin Hendi, are clear examples of how the government is spurring collaboration across the healthcare ecosystem.

“When it comes to encouraging research and innovation in healthcare, Abu Dhabi works hand-in-hand with the private sector to enable the development of cutting-edge technologies. In line with our partnership model, we are receptive to the needs of businesses and seek to build an environment that provides fruitful opportunities.”

Abu Dhabi government’s lessons from a pandemic

Dr Bin Hendi also points to the government’s successful action on Covid-19 as a boost to the confidence of potential investors. “The UAE’s stance on the virus, in terms of quarantining, safety measures and making sure we protect people, really resonated across the wider region and abroad,” he says. “Some investors have approached us, saying, ‘we like the conviction and the clear, decisive approach the government has taken and we would like to find out how our business can grow here as we are looking at expanding internationally.’”

Several initiatives, including the Abu Dhabi Economic Stimulus Package, announced in March 2020, have been launched to help sustain economic activity in Abu Dhabi’s private sector. The stimulus package is part of a larger, three-year programme, launched in 2019, entitled ‘Ghadan 21’, which translates in Arabic to ‘tomorrow’. The programme is a commitment to drive the emirate’s development through investments in business, innovation and people.

Of this, Dr Bin Hendi says: “It is really refreshing to see that the Abu Dhabi government is pushing forward with its mandate and is still looking at how it can build technology and innovation to help existing companies to reinvent themselves.”

With its winning combination of a government that’s active in the right ways, keen to encourage private investment in high-tech healthcare, and with plenty of private companies and investors ready to take advantage of new opportunities, there is little wonder that there is so much optimism in the Abu Dhabi air.

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