Interview: Abdullah Sultan Al Owais
How have advances in connectivity improved Sharjah’s reputation as a manufacturing base?
ABDULLAH SULTAN AL OWAIS: One of the key ingredients necessary for manufacturing to thrive in any market is connectivity. Sharjah, which accounts for a third of the UAE’s overall manufacturing output, has a top-notch transportation and logistics network that is continually being improved, which contributes to its success in the space.
New highways, for example, have made it much easier to transport containers from the port of Khor Fakkan on the UAE’s eastern coast to areas throughout the country, as well as from Jebel Ali in Dubai to locations across Sharjah. This helps bring down transport costs and delivery times. New shipping lines are also linking its two ports – Sharjah is the only emirate with ports on both coasts – to more destinations across the globe, improving access for local manufacturers to fast-growing export markets such as those in sub-Saharan Africa. More and more flights are linking Sharjah International Airport to the rest of the world, especially destinations in MENA and South Asia. As a result, we are seeing growing interest among many companies in investing in new factories here.
What are the emirate’s competitive advantages as a centre for exports and re-exports?
AL OWAIS: Given that Sharjah’s population and that of the UAE in general is small, it is essential that our companies look to other markets for growth. We are lucky in that Sharjah is near a number of high-growth markets with large populations across Africa, MENA and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Strong connectivity and infrastructure is key for the competitiveness of our products in these regions.
The container terminal at Khor Fakkan, for instance, is an ideal base from which to re-export products given that it lies between many of the world’s major eastwest trade routes and is already used as a trans-shipment hub for a number of lines. In fact, only 20% of the imports to the UAE are for local consumption, whereas 80% are re-exported to other destinations. Given these factors, exports from Sharjah have grown by an average of 3-6% over the past few years, outpacing overall economic growth. While good news, we need to be smart about how we plan to increase this share going forward. For one, we need to focus on developing specific export segments that match the demand of our trading partners. Food processing and pharmaceuticals, for instance, are two areas of immense opportunity given the enormous needs for these types of products in the aforementioned regions.
And while special economic zones (SEZs) have popped up all over the UAE in order to facilitate the re-export trade, Sharjah would benefit from the development of SEZs specifically targeted to sectors like health care and IT services. Lastly, we need to improve the process for acquiring export guarantees. At the moment, it is somewhat difficult for companies, especially smaller ones, to fulfil the necessary requirements to receive such guarantees, hampering their efforts to export.
How are new technologies and e-services simplifying the procedures for registering and operating businesses within Sharjah?
AL OWAIS: Over the past few years, the government has made a major push to implement e-services across departments. In line with these efforts, our organisation has worked to make a number of our approval systems fully automated. After a company receives its trade licence from the Sharjah Economic Development Department, for instance, it can be registered in our systems in less than five minutes.
Other services, such as obtaining a certificate of origin for exports, can also be completed online in less than 24 hours. This has significantly reduced the time and effort it takes for local businesses to start serving their customers. The number of in-person visits to complete applications has already declined by 70%.
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