Established in 2014, Sharjah’s Department of Government Relations works to facilitate connections between Sharjah and international cities that share the emirate’s strengths in culture, education and innovation. Rapidly growing, Sharjah is attracting FDI from international partners looking to leverage the emirate’s central location between Asia and Africa, as well as its central location in the UAE and strong network of land, air, and sea links. Sharjah views China as a critical partner in the emirate’s growth strategy, and is seeking to engage in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative as a means to deepen connections
What do you view as the organization’s biggest accomplishments since 2014, and where do you see the department going in the next few years?
Firstly, thank you for visiting Sharjah, the capital of culture, education and innovation here in the UAE. Our department was established with the goal of supporting collaboration between Sharjah government entities and our international partners, whether that be in trade, investment, education, culture, innovation or government. Working closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates, we have developed close ties with cities that share the same values as Sharjah. We work closely with cities that have invested heavily in their cultural assets, becoming cultural and family tourist destinations. With over 40,000 students and academics in our University City, which is a higher education hub for the entire region, we’ve also worked closely with cities with strong international exchange ecosystems. Last but not least, we are now focusing on our next step in the evolution of His Highness’s vision for Sharjah: innovation. Focusing on innovation will require a very different network of international partners to connect to innovation ecosystems around the world. When I look forward and see where the department is heading, I see us continuing to work to develop a network of strategic cities and bring those cities to Sharjah to understand the importance of cities like ours. I see us working closely on the policymaking functions and exploring how we can better leverage our transportation network, our student population, and facilitate dialogue with partner cities.
In what way has the creation of the Department of Government Relations changed how Sharjah interacts with the local community and international stakeholders?
Our focus has predominantly been on bringing the department together to discuss the opportunities we have in Sharjah. Domestically we are doing this by working with our stakeholders throughout the economy in trade and investment alongside our partners in culture and education. Internationally, we realized the concentric circles of what we have to offer in Sharjah overlap with a few very important strategic partners, one of which is China. I think when we look at the investment and the growth of China, we see clear opportunities for us to work on many different levels with Chinese provinces and cities. That means working on trade and investment, and tourism, exploring opportunities with investors in the cultural space, and last but not least, encouraging young Chinese students who want to learn about the region to come and study here in Sharjah.
The UAE already ranks 21st in terms of the world’s easiest countries to do business. How does your department work to improve Sharjah’s entrepreneurial scene?
When we look at growth in the emirate, it is twofold. The first level is internal, in developing a very strong domestic entrepreneurial base. These are young entrepreneurs who have seen the market opportunity and growing business within it. The other important level is with international investors who see opportunities here. In terms of promoting international investment, we have worked closely with the Sharjah Foreign Direct Investment office, and their work has been to help people understand the multitude of opportunities here in Sharjah. When the investor arrives in Sharjah, the FDI office partners with local Sharjah entities to ensure an efficient delivery of services, and to make sure that they set up in the economic free zone that most closely aligns with their work. As far as the role of our department, we work on the government-to-government relations side of things. The Department of Government Relations is the diplomatic window into the emirate; we help you find the right person to speak to. The most important role we play is in facilitating close coordination between the federal government, our diplomats across the world and the local government in Sharjah. If there is an international partner, they can reach out to us and we make sure we put them in touch with the right teams.
FDI flow more than doubled in 2017. From your point of view what explains that massive jump?
In my view, the jump can be attributed to several reasons. The first is due to the extremely hard work of the government entities that have invested heavily in improving the regulatory environment, building the infrastructure and capacity of the emirate to provide ease of doing business. The second reason is the promotion of the emirate to help people understand the opportunities available. Sharjah’s economy is very resilient because it is one of the most diversified in the region. No single industry accounts for more than 10 percent of our GDP. The areas in which we are currently attracting FDI include the real estate sector and in developing tourism infrastructure. We’re now seeing the fruits of that labor with the excitement over the infrastructure that has been built.
According to the property consultancy Knight Frank, the UAE ranks third globally to benefit from China’s Belt and Road Initiative. How do you envision Sharjah’s role in that project?
Sharjah’s logistical infrastructure is one that provides extremely competitive economic advantages in the region and is one of the reasons we call Sharjah the gateway between Asia and Africa. I believe Sharjah’s role will be trimodal. The first mode is our strong port infrastructure with two ports on the Arabian Gulf, plus our transshipment port, one of the fastest ports in the region. The second mode that is extremely important is the infrastructure built around Sharjah International Airport. Not only is the airport itself undergoing a significant expansion, but we have also developed an international airport free zone adjacent to it. Our cost-effective transportation and aviation infrastructure has allowed a lot of companies to leverage the network of Air Arabia as a low-cost airline focused on the region from East Africa to the West Coast of China. These advantages have also led Lufthansa to position their largest logistics hub outside of Germany in Sharjah and is why Singapore Airlines and Etihad Airways use Sharjah as a cargo hub. The third mode is the road infrastructure and the strategic location of Sharjah – here I am referring not only to its location in the region, but in the country itself. Sharjah is the only emirate that borders every other emirate. Sharjah is known as the heart of the UAE because we sit in the center. A lot of companies use Sharjah as a strategic connection point to the northern emirates where a lot of large-scale manufacturing exists, to the trade and finance centers of Dubai and the energy capital of Abu Dhabi. This combination of air, sea and land access is quite unique to Sharjah.
What is the emirate currently working on to further assist businesses or international investors as they seek out the right opportunities in Sharjah?
My goal as a civil servant is to make sure that we design smart policies based on accurate and live data. I am a firm believer in the power of information to help us support the private sector and the government, but what really stands at the forefront is helping the residents of Sharjah. What I’m focused on is making sure the data that emerges on the citizens of Sharjah is collected in an accurate and safe way for the government to use and share with our partners. A first opportunity for Chinese partners is to help us work to access the data, and to help us use the data that already exists within the emirate in an intelligent way. By the end of 2019, we aim to have all data that is collected by government centralized and accessible live. When this is achieved, one of the biggest benefits we’ll be able to give investors, especially foreign ones, is an accurate picture of the market. We’ll be able to tell them what their market looks like. If we have that data on a granular level, then we can really work hand-in-hand with foreign investors and help them understand where the opportunities are. Their decision-making will be a lot easier when they can rely on accurate data.
Can you tell us more about what you’re doing to deepen your ties with China from an economic standpoint?
Relations between China and the UAE have been, and will continue to be, very strong. We are excited about the Belt and Road Initiative and the role that the United Arab Emirates can play, and in Sharjah we are especially excited about the role that Sharjah can play. We look forward to being at the Belt and Road Conference to understand what we need to do to support the initiative and to showcase what we can provide to such a bold project. When we look at Sharjah and China’s history, trade on the Silk Road passed through here over 6,000 years ago. With the Belt and Road Initiative, we are reliving history and rebuilding that road between our region and China. In many ways, the fundamentals on which that trade between our two regions was based 6,000 years ago remain the same today. I am excited by the possibilities of what we can achieve together in the 21st century.
Do you have any final messages to readers of the Chinese Economic Observer?
I look forward to seeing the people of China in Sharjah and offer them the opportunity of discovering a truly Arab city that is the home of culture, education and innovation. I want them to feel the same excitement that I share with my colleagues when we get the chance to visit your beautiful country.