The following is excerpted from Digital Nation: How the United Arab Emirates is Building a Future Based on Tech Innovation, a first-of-its-kind book on the unique journey of the UAE to build a future based on harnessing disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and driving digital innovation. The book offers insight into the ground-breaking vision and innovative plans, experiences, and successes and challenges of the country on this journey. The story of how the UAE pursues its digital vision and strategy to execution has lessons for leaders, executives and innovators around the world in this era of digital transformation.


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Chapter One

Digital Transformation at the Centre of the National Vision


“The future is for everyone, but only those who heed its call, speak its language and explore its directions will be able to get a fair share of it. The future knows no waiting, delay or procrastination. Therefore, our only choice in the UAE is to put the future at the hearts of our plans. We should make the future by competing for a place in it.”

– Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai


This future that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid speaks of is here already in the form of technological disruption. It is persuading national leaders to reimagine the future of their countries. In a world where a country’s competitiveness will be defined by its ability to harness technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and others, leaders will need to review and restate their visions for the future, and rapidly rally the nation to prepare itself.

Coined the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this disruption has unleashed unprecedented technological advancement globally. AI, robotics, blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), quantum computing, neuromorphic computing and other such technologies have provided countries with the opportunities to rapidly improve productivity, boost economic output and enhance the quality of life.

The knock-on effects for governments, industries and individuals are immense. We stand on the edge of a new age in which inorganic systems will begin to do things that far exceed human capacity, ushering in a world of scientific advancement that will disrupt every facet of human existence. That means societal transformation on a global scale that will irrevocably alter the way we learn, interact with each other and even understand ourselves as human beings.

Such change will not only be beneficial but highly disruptive. It will drastically transform business interactions, disrupting employment and testing human values and ethics. “50 per cent of the work that we conduct today in our daily lives as professionals, in whatever field, will be automated between now and 2030,” said Karim Sabbagh, Chief Executive Officer of DarkMatter, a leading UAE-based technology provider, at the Knowledge Summit 2018 in Dubai. “And I think it’s also reasonable to assume that anywhere between 15 and 30 per cent of the jobs that exist today will be displaced, i.e. they will not exist in the normal way they exist [today].”

As a consequence, national leaders and governments will need to be able to prepare and guide their citizens as they navigate the new digital era. They will also have to figure out the role that they need to play in this new digital nation. How can they exploit the opportunities that technological advancement provides, while simultaneously addressing the challenges brought about by disruption? How can they ensure that new technologies will be powerful agents for good? How can they minimise disruption to employment? How can they develop a talent pool capable of harnessing new technologies, thus achieving higher income levels? Will certain segments of society be left behind? How will they meet the constantly changing need for digitally-enhanced public services of citizens, residents, tourists and businesses?

“Let’s not kid ourselves, technological transformation is social transformation,” says Dr Noah Raford, Futurist-in-Chief and Chief of Global Affairs at the Dubai Future Foundation (DFF), a government organisation responsible for shaping Dubai’s future agenda, as well as conceptualising and facilitating the piloting of ‘futuristic’ technologies, in cooperation with the public and private sectors. “We’re changing the way government works and that invokes a whole set of values and questions around the point of purpose of the private sector and the role of public and private companies.”

The UAE has responded to the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution with foresight and commitment. The country’s leadership realised very early on that in order to compete with the best in the world in the future it needed to harness the power of disruptive technologies. That meant envisioning the future of the UAE as a ‘digital nation’ – one that not only utilises such technologies, but one that is constantly innovating and continuously refreshing talent.

The origins of this thinking can be traced back to the UAE’s Vision 2021, which was launched in 2010 and focuses on transitioning the country’s economy into one that is based on knowledge. That means promoting innovation, investing in research and development (R&D) and embracing groundbreaking technologies. All of these were aligned to overall societal goals of improving well-being, building a world-class education system and forging a sustainable environment.

“The UAE managed to become one of the top players in the world in the oil and gas industry,” says Bashar Kilani, Regional Executive for the Middle East at IBM. “The UAE managed to become one of the top players in the world in aviation. There is absolutely no reason why the UAE cannot become a global player when it comes to digitalisation and the new digital economy. The willingness is there. We have learned from other industries, we understand how to play the game, and therefore we are very well positioned to do this.”

Over the past decade, the leaders of the UAE have been able to place digital transformation at the heart of the national strategy. They have been able to do this with clarity of vision and the ability to rally the nation around that vision. They have also linked technological adoption with wider economic and social goals, and have emphasised the universal benefits of such decisions. They see digital transformation providing a better, smarter and happier life for the citizens and residents, and playing an integral part in placing the country amongst the world’s top nations.

Supporting this vision is a long and exhaustive list of strategies, many of which have evolved over time and sometimes overlap with one another. There are the UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031, the Emirates Blockchain Strategy 2021, the UAE National Innovation Strategy, the UAE National Strategy for Higher Education 2030, and the UAE Centennial 2071 Plan, which aims to make the UAE the best country in the world by 2071. Then there’s the UAE Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is focused on developing areas such as innovative education, AI, intelligent genomic medicine, nanotechnology and robotic healthcare. All in turn are supported by the National Employment Strategy 2031, which aims to boost labour productivity and provide Emiratis with the skills required for the future.

Within Dubai, much of the quest to envision and create the future is centred on the DFF and its roadmap, the Dubai Future Agenda. This roadmap includes over 20 initiatives designed to enhance the leadership potential of Dubai in the future. Amongst them are the Dubai 10X initiative, which seeks to ensure the emirate is always ten years ahead of other world cities. Meanwhile, the Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy seeks to transform 25 per cent of the emirate’s total transportation to autonomous mode by 2030. There’s also the 3D Printing Strategy, which aims to ensure a quarter of Dubai’s buildings are 3D printed by 2030.

“It’s not normal development – [or] business as usual – it’s really 10X,” says Kilani. “It’s taking it ten years ahead, and this affects all aspects of the city, whether it is the government or the private sector. Putting this bold vision in place allows people to start thinking about how to use technology for this transformation.”

The UAE has adopted a strategy of setting extremely challenging, seemingly improbable goals that by their very nature require the disruption of existing business models. They also require the disruption of organisational processes and the adoption of cutting-edge technology solutions. It’s an approach that the UAE has preferred to take to achieve quantum leaps. Rallying the nation around this strategy and obtaining its commitment to these goals requires an approach that the UAE’s leaders have perfected over the years.

“There’s a word ‘hyperstition’,” adds Raford. “It essentially means articulating a vision in finer and finer levels of detail, such that it galvanises greater and greater levels of commitment so it becomes more and more real. It’s like this [with] the UAE story. The late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, former Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said we’re a small country but we have big dreams. We are creating the reality around these by basically telling very detailed stories of our dreams – what we want the world to be like – and the more exciting those stories are, the more tangible and persuasive they are, the more people get excited by them and want to be involved and want to see them be made real and are going to participate in the actual creation to make them real.”

Constantly communicating this vision to the people and key stakeholders, as well as building excitement around them, has been crucial to rallying the nation. The country’s leaders realized from the outset that they needed to inspire government agencies, businesses and individuals to buy into their vision, taking it upon themselves to wholeheartedly promote the country’s initiatives for the future. As such, the wider vision of the UAE is almost a personal quest, driven from the top by a cadre of leaders who have successfully managed to achieve emotional buy-in from senior executives across the country.

“We are so blessed that the leaders of the UAE believed that with the Fourth Industrial Revolution we have a chance to leave a mark as a nation, especially around advanced technologies that are just starting to emerge,” says Dr Aisha bin Bishr, Director General of Smart Dubai, which was established to drive digital transformation within the Emirate of Dubai. “To be honest, working with such ambitious leadership changed my perspective. There isn’t anything we can’t achieve. We believe that we can be challenged, and we can overcome these challenges only when we focus on our future and our vision collaboratively with trust in each other.”

The belief that the improbable can be achieved is commonly found among senior public and private sector executives in the country. The challenge is to ensure that this vision is not deemed to be impossible. As such, articulating the vision with clarity and simplicity is critical.

“When you have leadership like His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, they give you clarity of vision,” says Wesam Lootah, Chief Executive Officer of the Smart Dubai Government Establishment. “This is what we need. This is the direction in which we want to go. That is a big aspect of success and execution because, without clarity of vision, you have competing directions. It provides the compass and direction, and also helps in clearing the path when there’s resistance.”

The UAE leadership’s articulation has been unique in that it goes beyond aspirational statements and breaks it down into quantifiable, pragmatic goals. For instance, much of the reasoning behind the AI and blockchain strategies is purely pragmatic – to improve GDP growth and reduce government costs. The UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031 is aiming to cut government costs by 50 per cent via the application of AI, just as the Emirates Blockchain Strategy 2021 is aiming to save the government 77 million work hours annually and shave 3 billion dollars off the cost of processing government transactions and documents.

“That was what was behind blockchain [adoption by the Dubai government] originally,” says Raford. “You can run all the functions of the Dubai government at a massively reduced cost, because you don’t have to have all of the same document checking throughout the process. You are removing duplication and you’re doing it in a way which opens it up to other kinds of value-creating activities usually associated with the private sector.”

“Competing for a place in the future”, as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid says, or “making a mark as a nation”, as Bishr says, is nothing new to the UAE. Since its inception in 1971, the country has striven to be competitive in every era. It has done so by seeing opportunities early enough and embracing the transformation required to exploit them. From the dredging and deepening of Dubai Creek in the 1960s and the inauguration of Port Rashid in 1972 to the opening of Jebel Ali Port in 1979, and the founding of Emirates Airline in 1985 to the implementation of the e-government project in the early 2000s and the founding of Masdar in 2006, the UAE has consistently seen the future with precision and taken immediate action. Dubai’s successful bid to host the World Expo in 2020 is another example of making “a mark as a nation”.

Much of the success in digitalisation can be traced back to the vision to build a telecommunications backbone for the country. Etisalat, the Abu Dhabi-headquartered telecommunications provider, began laying the foundation of the country’s ICT infrastructure as far back as 1976. More recently, the UAE became the first to launch a commercial 5G network in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and today, it is number one in the world in terms of fibre penetration.

Home-grown leaders such as Saleh Abdulla Al Abdooli, Chief Executive Officer of Etisalat, have witnessed this transformation over the decades first-hand. “You can safely say that my generation has fully witnessed the massive transformation that took place in all aspects of life in our country, starting with the union [of the seven emirates] until today,” he says. “We always have something to look up to, a new goal, a new global ranking, a new technology, a new dream. Having a vision that revolves around leadership in science and technology is very challenging and mandates great momentum and hard work; it also requires focus and tranquillity.”

The intent to reduce dependence on oil and to diversify the country’s economy has underpinned many of the UAE’s initiatives over the years. Its digital strategies are no different. But instilling the belief that prosperity can be achieved from assets other than oil is challenging.

Al Abdooli continues: “Our leaders created such a shift in the mindset that today we all believe that our future and existence are not dependent on the amount of oil reserves we have, but on our technological advancement in the global scene. Having clear future strategies doesn’t only explain the country’s agenda, it also acts as a guiding compass. It allows citizens and corporations of all sorts to embrace the big picture and to evolve by adapting within the grand scheme of things. It’s an alignment checkpoint and an eye opener of future potential.”

Like Al Abdooli, Mohamed Alabbar, Chairman of Emaar Properties and Founder of Noon, is one of several Emirati business leaders who have followed and lived the country’s vision of economic transformation over many years. As the Chairman of Emaar Properties, he first played a key role in developing a world-class real estate industry by spearheading the development of such iconic structures as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. More recently, he founded Noon, one of the largest online marketplaces in the region.

“The vision of the UAE leadership has always been forward-looking, thinking way into the future,” says Alabbar. “From the focus on economic diversification and sustainable development – much before the rest of the region looked at diversifying its resources – to the current emphasis on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, advanced manufacturing and a nationwide digital transformation strategy, our leadership continues to inspire us to push our own boundaries. The tech-orientation of the UAE has been instrumental in driving the creation of world-class infrastructure.”

As the UAE is a union of seven emirates, there is also the challenge of ensuring that all of them are united behind one vision. An example of an initiative that aligns with the national vision is the Digital Government Programme of the Emirate of Ajman, which aims to offer fully integrated government services utilising emerging technologies.

Yousuf Mohammed Al Shaiba, Digital Transformation and AI Advisor to the Chairman at the Ajman Municipality and Planning Department, believes the acceptance of science and advanced technology across all emirates is crucial to the development of the country as a whole. “No nation will become a leader or pioneer without this [technological] aspect,” he says. “If you focus on the countries that are on the edge of economic and civilisational growth, they are there because of science, ethics and law. This is where I think His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid added great value to the vision of the UAE. Science and technology are not aspects that you can take or leave. Due to a lack of scientific depth, some countries currently have problems because they don’t have the knowledge to solve their problems. Without this ability, they are unable to take risks while moving forward, and I think a lot of such nations are being left behind.”

While earlier diversification initiatives allowed the country to pull ahead of other nations in the Middle East, with its digital vision the UAE has announced its aspiration to go beyond the region and compete at a global level. It is already ranked among the top five countries worldwide in competitiveness, according to the IMD World Competitiveness Rankings 2019, which measures competitiveness in four major categories – economic performance, infrastructure, government efficiency and business efficiency.

The country’s leaders understand that to thrive in the global digital economy it is necessary to constantly ‘raise the bar’ on science and technology. That’s why they are beginning to look beyond harnessing emerging technologies for life on earth, towards space. Historically, space research has helped countries accelerate the development of their technological capabilities. It has also aided in the building of intellectual capital and in the boosting of home-grown innovation and talent. With its space programme, the UAE sees an opportunity to do the same.

In 2017, the UAE launched a plan to colonise Mars by 2117, and in the short term, the Emirates Mars Mission will send an unmanned probe to the planet in 2020, making it the first-ever mission to the Red Planet by any Arab or Muslim country. Meanwhile, 136 million dollars has been set aside for the construction of a city in the desert that aims to replicate life on Mars. All in preparation for 2117.

“Today, when you see the government leading in terms of science and technology initiatives on this scale, it is music to our ears and it’s impacted us in a very positive way,” says Salem Humaid Al Marri, Assistant Director General of Scientific and Technical Affairs at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC). “Since these initiatives have come into play in the last five years, we have seen our budget go up, we have seen the number of projects that we have shoot up – instead of one, two or three different projects, we now have over ten projects running concurrently.”


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Digital Nation is priced at AED 85. The Arabic edition is coming soon.