Sharjah announces free zone to boost R&D

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A set of new developments in research and development (R&D), entrepreneurship and media are broadening the role of higher education in Sharjah.

AUS drives innovation

In line with government hopes for the UAE to lead the region in R&D, the American University of Sharjah (AUS) will soon be home to a new economic free zone – the AUS Research, Technology and Innovation (RTI) Park.

The first phase of RTI Park, set to open by 2019 in a 20m-sq-ft area, will accommodate companies working in the technology, transport, environment and energy sectors. The zone will allow 100% foreign ownership and has already generated interest from a number of international companies, according to Hussain Al Mahmoudi, CEO at AUS Enterprises, the developer of RTI Park.

“Sharjah has some of the best universities in the region, which produce intelligent and capable workers for a variety of industries. RTI Park will help Sharjah better leverage this resource to build a modern, knowledge-based economy,” Al Mahmoudi told OBG.

RTI Park is set to address six specific research areas identified for development in Sharjah: water technology, industrial design and architecture, transportation and logistics, energy, environment and digitisation.

Furthermore, RTI Park will complement the recently opened Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre, also at AUS. Known as Sheraa and backed by the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), the initiative aims to connect higher education with business and encourage the development of local enterprises.

Catching up on R&D

According to Björn Kjerfve, chancellor of AUS, RTI Park is an attempt to address the R&D gap in Sharjah’s tertiary educational system.

“Anyone who looks at University City [the emirate’s education district, established in 1997 and containing a number of colleges] can attest to the fact that Sharjah has invested heavily in physical infrastructure,” he told OBG. “Where it has lagged, however, is in linking the research performed at its many institutions to the needs of local companies, and the economy of the emirate as a whole.”

Indeed, this is not just the case for Sharjah, as it is widely acknowledged that R&D is underdeveloped across the Gulf region. Arab countries spend an average of 0.3% of their GDP on R&D, compared to the global average of 2.1%, according to figures from the MIT Technology Review.

However, according to Al Mahmoudi, the government has identified R&D as the next enabler for the UAE economy, with Sharjah leveraging its geographic location and human capital.  

Pushing on with entrepreneurship

In contrast to R&D, entrepreneurship is already thriving in the emirates, with the Global Entrepreneurship Development Index placing the UAE first in the MENA region, and 19th worldwide.

As a result, programmes such as Sheraa, which aim to increase entrepreneurial capacity, are building on an already well-established platform, with Sheraa manager, Najla al Midfa, having previously founded Khayarat, a social enterprise to help young Emiratis make informed career choices.

“The Sheraa centre…reflects our complete belief in the ability of our youth to make a difference and positively contribute in the enhancement of our economy and development of our society,” Sheikha Bodour Bint Sultan al Qasimi, chairperson of Shurooq, told local press in mid-January.

Another initiative to develop human resources and provide training for young people is the Sharjah Media City (SMC) free zone, which has a remit “to develop and embrace talent and manpower working in media and creative fields”.

Released in January, the Emiri Decree No. 10 of 2016 mandates that the SMC is to play a role in growing the emirate’s creative sectors, attracting entrepreneurs and start-ups, and developing local talent.

According to an announcement in September, licences will be issued to companies and professionals by the first quarter of next year. SMC follows Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 and Dubai Media City in seeking to attract global media talent to the UAE via the establishment of a free zone.

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