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Why the UAE’s focus on food security is at the core of post-coronavirus recovery plans

Marwan Jassim Al Sarkal, executive chairman of Shurooq, the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority, shares his vision of how the UAE and Sharjah are winning over current challenges by fueling growth in vital sectors and harnessing homegrown technologies

Marwan Jassim Al Sarkal, executive chairman of Shurooq, the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority

Even as the UAE continues on its path of recovery from the economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, its pace of development has demonstrated the resilience of its economy.

Observers who follow economic activity in the region may wonder about the real secret behind the continuous growth of the UAE economy despite global downturns.

They may do well to look back on how the UAE shook off its dependence on oil in the beginning of the last decade to achieve growth rates between 3 and 4.5 percent on an average. In fact, the share of the non-oil sector in the UAE’s GDP is expected to rise to 80 percent by 2021, according to a study by the UAE Ministry of the Economy. This is due to the rapid growth of non-oil sectors, which already account for more than 70 percent of its annual GDP.

Sharjah, the third largest emirate in the UAE, is a thriving hub for business and trade in the Gulf region, benefitting from its strategic location connecting the east and west, its infrastructure and the slew of competitive advantages the emirate offers to businesses and investors across its network of industrial zones and free zones.

The emirate has been a key player in UAE’s economic diversification efforts, recording impressive development in key sectors like tourism and air transport, trade and financial services, education, R&D, manufacturing and clean energy. In 2019, non-oil sectors accounted for 92 percent of Sharjah’s GDP.

We have begun to reap the fruits of our efforts through the diversified investment opportunities that Shurooq brought to the emirate of Sharjah. Strengthening the investment environment with an impressive portfolio of large scale residential and hospitality projects – some iconic in nature, and others spanning cultural, environmental and historical elements – Shurooq is driving transformation in the developmental landscape of the emirate, paving the way for strong economic growth by actively expanding business prospects for both local and global investors and entrepreneurs.

Shurooq is also harnessing the power of private and public partnerships (PPPs) to ramp up its infrastructure developments through the exchange of complementary expertise and shared commercial and development interests, thus becoming a key driver of growth in Sharjah’s PPP sector.

We have seen how the UAE’s advanced digital infrastructure enabled the entire nation to transform to a new mode of working almost overnight when the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed earlier this year. Every government department in Sharjah has been part of the emirate’s plan for digital transformation, and thus, were able to quickly adapt to the situation. For us, it continued to be business as usual.

So, while the second quarter fell short on expectations, Q3’s economic performance looks promising as we are slowly lifting off restrictions on business, travel, and public life, which have all been boding well for the nation’s overall economic recovery. Moreover, continued government stimulus measures by both the Federal Government, which implemented an AED100 billion stimulus package, as well as Sharjah’s AED4bn aid programme, should further support a rebound in the second half of 2020.

Renewed focus on local agriculture, food security and vertical farming

The current crisis put food security on the top of our agenda. When countries are cut off from each other, sourcing food materials is of primary concern, especially for a nation like ours, which has been historically dependent mainly on imports.

In this context, an impressive rice growing experiment at the Al Dhaid research centre in Sharjah, where UAE University scientists in collaboration with South Korean experts are leveraging the latest technology of a water-saving drip irrigation system to nurture this global staple in the dry deserts of the emirate, is giving hope for other agricultural innovations.

We have also seen how Sharjah-based VeggiTech, an agro-tech company, has been disrupting the agriculture industry in the UAE by addressing the key challenges of traditional farming – soil, temperature and water, through its indoor vertical farms that employ grow light-assisted hydroponics, to create sustainable farms aligned to UAE’s vision of food security.

Sharjah is today an emerging hotbed of agricultural innovation in the UAE, especially as it is home to the Sharjah Research Technology & Innovation Park (SRTIP), which is adopting and supporting all research and innovations aimed at finding advanced technological solutions for agriculture.

Even before the onset of the pandemic, SRTIP has been conducting research into developing a soil-free vertical cultivation technology to produce sustainable local food all year round and thereby support the country’s environmental and sustainable farming goals.

Sharjah has therefore been actively looking at ways to support investors in this sector. Apart from VeggiTech, Sharjah’s Themar Al Emarat, is also making great strides in vertical farming. Going forward, we see great growth prospects in this sector.

‘Homegrown’ first when it comes to exploring new agricultural technology

Recent studies by consulting firms PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte report that artificial intelligence (AI) will contribute around $320bn to the economies of Middle Eastern countries by 2030. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are expected to lead in this sector.

We aim to make Sharjah among the top cities in vertical farming and fish farming, in line with the UAE’s sustainable development goals outlined for this sector. Investors are welcome to Sharjah to fast track development in these exciting emerging sectors including, robotics, AI, and cyber security, among many others.

However, our development model is not only about global partnerships. We also think local when it comes to exploring new and innovative technology; Sharjah is already home to several start-ups that can help with future technology developments. Our constant endeavour is to harness local expertise by enabling homegrown companies to develop their full potential and boost their contribution to the growth of the economy.

We need to embrace risk and offer smaller businesses a robust support system where they will be able to focus on excellence, not worry about failures. The global economy will continue to churn out surprises; allowing innovation to thrive is the best way to be prepared for it.

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