Interview: Hussain Al Mahmoudi
How can Sharjah and the UAE benefit from high-potential research areas in the coming years?
HUSSAIN AL MAHMOUDI: There are five areas that will thrive in 2021 and beyond, generating quick wins, and delivering high strategic and social impact. Two of those areas are closely related to digitalisation. First, the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of e-services and data analysis within government, as well as on the effectiveness and efficiency gains of leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. SRTIP has assessed the level of digitalisation of 13 government departments and is working closely with three to solve challenges using AI. Second, Sharjah is a well-established centre for education in the region. Hosting 22 higher education institutions, the emirate can be a test-bed for new learning modalities enhanced by technology – from virtual reality to remote teaching.
The other three growth areas are transport and logistics, agriculture and additive manufacturing. These are closely related to the realisation of Sharjah and the UAE’s visions. In terms of transport, the emirate is eyeing opportunities in the production of advanced railway elements. An international company located in SRTIP is investing $80m in the development of new types of tracks for next-generation trains. If successful, this could lead to a transformation of the industrial landscape of the country. Beyond this, the park is also seeing activity surrounding solutions to facilitate the last-mile delivery of goods. In agriculture, the park is home to two major research and development centres, generating innovation in aquaponics, hydroponics and vertical farming, as well as working to embed IT solutions into agricultural activities. 3D printing has also become a promising area thanks to a research programme that demonstrated capabilities to print fully functional houses, metal components and various plastic materials. The intellectual properties for these technologies and processes will contribute to the further development of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Where do you see opportunities to strengthen the emirate’s entrepreneurial fabric?
AL MAHMOUDI: At a general level, alternative forms of funding are an important enabler of a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem. In MENA the start-up environment has witnessed growth of 66% compared to the first half of 2018, with the UAE a regional leader in this regard. SRTIP has launched the Sharjah Angel Investors Network to channel capital from high-net-worth individuals into start-ups. The park provides investors with training on the elements of angel investment, as well as risk diversification and deal negotiation.
In addition to funding, gender inclusion in economic and social activity is a long-standing priority in Sharjah, with the first three female federal ministers in the history of the UAE coming from the emirate. Women in Tech, an international NGO that aims to close the gender gap in technology, has had its UAE chapter in Sharjah since 2019. The following year SRTIP organised the NGO’s first event in the Middle East, and in February 2021 it hosted its global forum. However, incorporating a gender-equality angle in research and innovation requires sustained attention.
What do recent gas discoveries mean for Sharjah in terms of innovation within the energy sector?
AL MAHMOUDI: The discovery of the fourth-largest gas reserve in the world in an area between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and the start of operations at Sharjah’s Mahani gas field, mark the beginning of a new stage for the UAE’s hydrocarbons wealth. Sharjah hosts the regional headquarters of a leading oil and gas services company, Petrofac, as well as the largest private natural gas company in the Middle East, Dana Gas. However, more could be done in the emirate to support the energy industry. The research ecosystem in Sharjah, cultivated by SRTIP and many universities, could support large players like Abu Dhabi National Oil Company to better leverage the country’s energy deposits.