Desert Wellness

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While construction and tourism economic development activity receives the most attention in the UAE, the country is also focussed on the lucrative medical sector to further diversify its economy.

The trailblazer for private health care in the country is located in the UAE's smallest emirate, Ajman, where medical education has been offered for almost 10 years.

Gulf Medical Centre (GMC) became the country's first private medical school in 1998 after the ruling family of Ajman invited an experienced medical operator from India to open the centre.

GMC was originally conceived to give the large numbers of Asian students, who had grown up in the UAE and were graduating from local schools, a place to study medicine.

"There are around 35,000 Asian students graduating [from UAE schools] per year, looking for higher education opportunities," said Thumbay Moideen, president of Gulf Medical College. "We felt there was enough demand for a medical school."

As the school has evolved, however, it became clear that there was far more interest than just from the resident Asian community. By the end of academic year 2006, the school had 39 nationalities, and Arabs - not Asians - made up 60% of the pupils, with Asians second with 20%, followed by Americans (11%) and Britons (6%).

The centre now graduates around 60-70 students per class and each year receives roughly 2000 applications for 60 places. Moideen suggests that the huge demand means the calibre of students is continually increasing, helping the school significantly improve its standards and reputation.

"We expect in the next two years we will get the cream of the crop of students," he said, adding that now students - especially expatriates - have been able to grow up knowing that it is possible to get a medical education in the UAE.

Emirati students, too, have been attracted to GMC and now make up 15% of the student body - despite having well-respected, subsidised medical programmes in al-Ain and Dubai.

Along with its medical school, GMC has several private hospitals in the UAE, including the country's largest, to aid in training and mentoring programmes for future doctors. More programmes, such as dental, pharmacy, nursing and post-graduate opportunities, will soon be on offer, while they plan to enlarge their in-house hospital training capacity from 450 students to 2000 students.

Meanwhile, just up the road from Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah is also devoting energy into its medical sector. "There is no way you can develop a country without health care or education ...the long-term benefits are immense," said Dr Izzat Dajani, CEO of the RAK Investment & Development Office (IDO), responsible for many of the largest development projects in the emirate.

Core to Ras al-Khaimah's ambitions is the creation of a medical and educational free zone, which will be laid out over 2.23 sq km. George Mason University has already agreed to develop a campus over part of this area, while a north American medical institution, not yet named, is in the final stages of signing an agreement to anchor the medical zone.

But building the infrastructure is the easy part; it is finding the finest doctors, teachers and students to fill the buildings that will be the main obstacle.

"It is not the easiest of industries as it depends on the quality of the physicians. It is all about the people," said Dajani.

Moideen agrees, saying that it is difficult to attract good doctors to this part of the world, despite the lack of income tax and relative safety that attracts professionals from other industries. Doctors remain drawn to the medical centres with the best reputations, putting the budding medical industry in the UAE at a distinct disadvantage in a global market.

Proponents of the medical programmes in the UAE are confident the large numbers of Asian and Arab doctors practicing in Europe and the US would be among the first enticed back to the Middle East.

They insist that this phenomenon is already happening, but in the meantime these medical centres are doing their best to carve out reputations for themselves as soon as possible.

GMC has built a solid name in the UAE in less than 10 years by engaging in community workshops and staging 8-10 annual conferences co-sponsored with the likes of Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University; while Ras al-Khaimah, since its medical sector is in its infancy, has looked for fast-track repute by tying itself to a well-known western institution from the outset.

Dubai, of course, also has ambitions in the medical sector and has conceived of Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC), which will spread over 3.5 sq km and will cost around $1.5bn. The project, developed by Dubai Holding, will include medical schools, private hospitals, wellness centres and spa resorts when it is completed sometime next decade.

DHCC is attracting the biggest names, like Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic, along with building infrastructure to accommodate the influx of patients, residents and businesses. Dubai is hoping that it will be at the forefront of the multi-billion dollar medical tourism industry.

Yet, with so many emirates looking for medical foreign investment - either in human capital, brand imports, or hard assets - some concern has been raised about a run on resources.

These medical developers, however, are not worried, pointing to the huge expansion expected within the UAE in the coming years. "The population is growing and we are catering to the needs of the society," assured Moideen.

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