Editor's Note: While Dubai has a lot working in its favor, there are a couple of issues it has yet to overcome, find out more in the related opinion piece, Can inspiration be imported?.
Dubai, U.A.E. -- If you had the will, the resources and the political clout to build a new Silicon Valley from scratch, how would you do it? The answer to that question is springing up out of the sand in the form of the Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO), a multibillion- dollar project with the objective of establishing Dubai as a leading center for electronics innovation, design and development.
The project is the brainchild of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, and is evolving against a backdrop of rapid economic change and development for the emirate as it looks to shift from an oil- and conspicuous-consumption-based economy to one known for educational excellence and technological development. Oil now constitutes only 3 percent of the emirate's GDP--vs. almost 70 percent for neighboring Abu Dhabi, the capital of the U.A.E.--with tourism and real estate claiming the bulk of Dubai's economy. As a result of the massive boom in construction, 43 percent of the world's cranes now reside in Dubai, compared with 37 percent in China.
In his opening remarks here recently for the 17th International Electronics Forum (IEF), Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of the Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA), noted the emirate boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with an 8.7 percent growth rate that's seen rising to 9 percent by 2010. That growth, he said, is a direct result of Dubai's investments in infrastructure, its policy of zero personal and corporate taxes and its encouragement of a free flow of capital and people. "We have the strength and experience, and we're laying the foundation for sustained growth," he said.
The emirate is now looking to technology to contribute to that growth.
It hasn't been easy. Dubai started with no infrastructure, no track record in electronics R&D, no technical universities to speak of, and no apparent end to its spiraling real-estate costs. Then there's the spotty track record of other would-be tech hubs. At the closing panel of the IEF, the discussion turned
to how earlier efforts in Scotland and England had fizzled. In India, Bengaluru has been successful, but its growth has been hampered by political wrangling and poor infrastructure. China, too, is growing fast, but politics and a spotty intellectual-property protection record are nagging concerns.
Dubai's attempt to fly in the face of history started in 2004, with the DSOA's formation. The activity kicked into high gear in April 2007, when the DSOA commenced operations and hired Jihad Kiwan as its chief technology officer (see profile on page 50). Kiwan's mission is to leverage his industry experience and contacts to attract top-quality companies and designers to the region. He said he was attracted by the scope of the project--the largest technology development effort in the world--as well as the chance to help establish the first technology hot spot in an Arab region.
"The first three years we were spent on infrastructure development," Kiwan said, referring largely to the $2 billion-plus spent thus far on constructing a fully self-sufficient "technology city" that the DSOA hopes will become an innovation hotbed but that will also cater to the personal needs of the expatriates--and their families--who will reside there.
"We're not building a technology park, we're building a technology city," said Kiwan. "If you want to attract companies from outside, you have to make their lives the same [as they were at home]."
To that end, the city--literally rising up out of the dunes--will have housing, shopping malls, hospitals, recreation centers, parks and universities.
Kiwan was careful to note that while the Dubai government is behind the project, it's not picking up the full tab. "We sold land to external investors and then reinvested that [money] in infrastructure," he said. The funds went toward what are currently 65 km of roads, as well as a vast optical communications network, a central DSOA building, landscaping, and construction of housing and academic facilities. Eventually, the city will accommodate up to 150,000 people, of whom Kiwan expects 25,000 to be engineers.
The Dubai airport is 20 minutes away and will soon be supplanted by a larger airport that will have up to 11 parallel runways. "It'll be the largest airport in the world," said Khaled Abdulla , senior manager of corporate communications and business development for the DSOA. Putting it in perspective, he noted that London Heathrow "only has three" parallel runways.
For Kiwan's full videotaped pitch, see The case for Dubai.