Dubai is looking to position itself at the heart of the region's health industry, offering world class services and research facilities while at the same time contributing to the emirate's revenue.
The focus of this drive is the Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC), a $1bn development project being overseen by Tatweer, an arm of Dubai Holding. Located at the edge of Dubai City, the DHCC will offer medical services, medical education and life science research and development, spread over an area of more than 500,000 sq metres.
Health has become a major issue in the Middle East, both in economic terms for the region and for the well being of society. It is estimated that the sector across the region is worth $74bn annually and is expanding at a rate of 16% per year. These figures should lure both investors and medical equipment providers.
More disturbing are the figures on the health of the region's population, with a vast majority suffering from lifestyle diseases. Projects such as the DHCC and other private plans have a ready market, with a recent report showing that more than 80% of the adult population in Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries are afflicted by illnesses such as diabetes, hyper-tension, high cholesterol, smoking-related illnesses and obesity. Another report, focused on the United Arab Emirates, found that 70% of married women and 56% of married men were either overweight or obese.
On February 27, the DHCC announced that another leading medical services provider, WorldCare, had signed on to the project to open a wellness centre, which will focus on treating weight-related health problems, provide advanced diagnostic and check-up programmes and genetic screening to determine potential health risks.
According to Muhadditha al-Hashimi, the DHCC's chief executive officer, preventive and remedial services are part of the future of medicine.
"We hope to bring a unique wellness programme based on cutting-edge medical and scientific expertise to the region," al-Hashimi said. "We believe wellness is the next frontier of medicine and we are proud to be a part of its advancement."
Among the facilities and services that the $270m WorldCare Wellness Centre will offer are a five star hotel, prevention and screening programme, medical spa, weight management programme and three restaurants specialising in healthy cuisine.
Having the status of a free trade zone has helped the DHCC attract a number of internationally recognised health providers, including the Mayo Clinic, AstraZeneca, Harvard Medical International, the Dr. Sulaiman al-Habib Medical Centre and the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery. One of the most recent institution to sign on was England's Moorfields Eye Hospital, which is to establish a branch within the DHCC later this year.
However, all is not well with the emirate's medical sector, as the public health system represents an increasing drain on the national budget. On February 26, the Dubai Department of Health and Medical Services (DHMS) announced that a new mandatory health insurance scheme would be put in place, with contributions from employers, to assist the public health sector pay its way. The new scheme, which will apply to all citizens and Dubai residency visa-holders, is expected to be activated next year.
Announcing the shift in health policy on February 26, Ahmad Ali Oboud, the DHMS' director of finance, said that the four main state hospitals in the emirate had all been running at a substantial loss.
"The hospitals are covering 20% of their expenditures at the present," he said in an interview with the local press. "We're giving a certain time for government hospitals to break even on costs. We need to make up for the 80% in the coming years."