Interview: Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan

What are your objectives in adopting the national Higher Policy for Science, Technology and Innovation in the UAE?

SHEIKH MANSOUR BIN ZAYED AL NAHYAN: The UAE is pursuing various plans and strategies to both maintain an advanced standard of living for its citizens and ensure that our achievements in the field of development are sustained. That is why those of us in the government strive to diversify our sources of national income and reduce dependence on revenues from oil exports – especially in light of unstable and volatile global oil prices and the fact that, eventually, oil resources will become depleted.

We have long been working to transform our economy into one that is knowledge-based and that facilitates the use of science and technology in different fields of life. This approach will help us uphold higher levels of growth and reduce dependence on foreign labour. We do not have an abundance of national human resources. Within the context of transforming the economy into a knowledge-based economy, improving the standard of living of the people and maintaining the quality of public services, we realised that the improvements we are aiming for require innovation in all fields of life. We know that the process of transformation to a knowledge-based economy will not succeed without an integrated base of robust scientific research and technological progress that suits the requirements of our national development strategy in the UAE.

Which areas need to be addressed in order to achieve the declared objectives of the national strategy for innovation?

SHEIKH MANSOUR: These areas were detailed in the UAE’s Higher Policy for Science, Technology and Innovation, which comprises 100 national initiatives in various sectors such as education, health, energy, transport, aerospace and water. The total investment in these sectors is over Dh300bn ($81.7bn), distributed over a range of national projects, including Dh125bn ($34bn) on clean energy, Dh72bn ($19.6bn) on renewable energy and Dh40bn ($10.9bn) on the aviation industry, in addition to national investments in the aerospace sector of Dh20bn ($5.4bn). We have also allocated more than Dh31bn ($8.4bn) for research and development (R&D) in other sectors of the highest national priority, Dh6bn ($1.6bn) for the establishment of innovation hubs and another Dh6bn ($1.6bn) for R&D and to set up research centres for the wider tertiary and higher education sectors. Furthermore, the Higher Policy includes a set of new national policies in the fields of investment, technology, education and finance.

The ultimate aim behind all of these efforts is to redirect the model of the national economy away from its traditional dependence on oil resources, and to achieve an advanced qualitative scientific and knowledge-based shift for the UAE in the years ahead. In general, the achievement of progress in innovation requires serious effort in three areas, all of which are addressed by the Higher Policy. The first these is developing and refining the Emirati citizens’ skills and knowledge, fine-tuning them to meet the requirements of innovation, because people are the tools of innovation and there can be no progress in this critical field without them.

The second area relates to the need to develop a stable and developed legal environment, produce new managerial modes that are conducive to innovation and act as a catalyst to encourage it. The third area is the need for this country to build global research partnerships and provide incentives to the private sector to support and encourage innovation. No where is this more imperative than in key areas as renewable energy, transport, health, education, advanced technology, water and space exploration.

How does the government respond to claims that this strategy will require huge public investments in R&D to achieve its objectives?

SHEIKH MANSOUR: There is no doubt that the role of the government in implementing this strategy will be both crucial and fundamental. We are working to make R&D one of the main drivers of higher education in the UAE, and to motivate the private sector to invest in innovative projects, whether alone or in partnership with the public sector. Once that objective has been achieved, we will then devote most of our attention and appropriate financial resources into the implementation of the innovation strategy, to develop the skills of the Emirati citizen and improve his or her knowledge and academic attainment. In other words, most of the government’s effort in this regard will focus on investment in our citizens.

In fact, the UAE’s Higher Policy has given proper importance to the fields of science, technology and innovation, and launched a set of educational and scientific initiatives to prepare well-trained Emirati citizens that are capable of staying in line with the developmental changes in the UAE.

The policy aims to intensify the focus on the STEM subjects – namely science, technology, engineering and mathematics – in all educational institutions throughout the UAE. It will establish research centres in all of the UAE’s universities, focusing on innovation as the main factor in evaluating both public and private schools. It will also set up offices for technology transfer in all universities in the UAE to facilitate the development and sharing of advanced knowledge.

The Higher Policy will also establish relevant graduate studies and basic and applied research programmes, and will drive co-operation between universities and the private sector in the fields of science, technology and innovation. The Higher Policy will provide national strategic support to various advanced industries, including space research and specialised aviation industries, and extend a number of investment and legislative incentives to attract global pharmaceutical industries to the UAE by facilitating partnerships with local factories and business owners.

The technological and scientific initiatives also include establishing centres for energy storage solutions, expanding solar energy research programmes and launching a national programme for water desalination using advanced technologies. In addition, the Higher Policy will initiate specialised innovation complexes for technology and auto industry techniques, including environmentally friendly cars and spare parts industries. The Policy also restated support for the peaceful use of nuclear energy in the UAE, as well as for building national R&D programmes in the fields of robotics and genome research.

The Higher Policy includes new frameworks to protect intellectual property and copyrights, which will help to attract and encourage scientists and researchers to work and contribute to the UAE’s academic and research institutions as well as facilitate the easy movement of advanced scientific equipment and resources into the UAE. Additionally, the Higher Policy will improve the regulatory and legal context, adopt incentives to encourage investment in innovation and technological development, and remove bureaucratic and administrative obstacles that can hinder progress. Our strategy will therefore be sustainable and progressive, and we do not share the view, as others mistakenly may, that its implementation would become a burden on the government’s finances.