Previously the CEO of Shurooq, the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority, His Excellency Marwan bin Jassim Al Sarkal discusses his current role as chairman and the emirate’s strategy for attracting inward investment and diversifying its economy
What have Shurooq’s greatest accomplishments been to date and what is your vision going forward as chairman?
We started our journey nine years ago in February 2009, when Shurooq was declared the official investment and development authority by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammed Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah. At that time, the authority was headed by Sheikha Badour. My role was that of chief executive of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority. Our main objective was to become an investment authority that attracts and supports investors through different investment programs, by developing projects around Sharjah and creating economic diversity. Our aim was to create an organization that is open to the private sector, that listens to investors and connects them, and one that looks at Sharjah and creates a diversified economy. The whole journey started with transforming destinations, getting investments to Sharjah, but also going into joint ventures with developers and big players. We started with smaller projects, and then we ended up signing with a couple of the biggest investors and developers around the region.
We have a focus that means we look at the social, as well as the economic, impact in our developments, not forgetting the environmental impact. So, when we looked at transforming Sharjah, we embarked into developing different destinations. One of our first projects was Al Majaz Waterfront, where we took over the Khaled Lagoon and transformed it into a dining destination that hosts events and activities. By doing this, we have changed the face of Sharjah. We attracted restaurants to open in Sharjah, installed one of the biggest musical fountains in the region, and we felt that Al Majaz had a great impact.
We looked at Sharjah’s economy; what we excel at and what makes us unique. History is something that Sharjah always talks about. Sharjah has a big heritage area, and we rebranded that area to become the heart of Sharjah, where the old Sharjah is basically positioned in a different way, as a vibrant tourist location. We created a 15-year plan that runs from 2010 to 2025 to reenergize that area and create life there. The heart of Sharjah today will host hotels, restaurants, cafes, retail, museums, art centers, galleries and much more. That is part of the journey that we have embarked upon with different entities, including the Sharjah museums, the Sharjah Arts Foundation and the Sharjah Heritage Institute. We also went to different areas such as Khor Fakkan, one of the towns on the east coast of Sharjah emirate and where we created a resort in the mountains, bringing an operator all the way from Singapore called GHM, Global Hotel Management. We have managed to sign a management agreement with GHM for a hotel that is going to be developed very soon. On the other hand, we looked at the environment and created a project that focuses on ecotourism in a town called Kalba, which includes a lodge called the Kingfisher Lodge. We developed this project with the environmental protection authority. We looked at the tourism sector, we looked at the environmental sector, and we looked for partners that will create a difference for us. When it comes to investments, we are here to change how people look at Sharjah. We are here to create a future for our youth. We are here to create opportunity for investors. We are here to cover a gap that is available within this sector. We are here to guide investors on where to invest and in which sector. And we are here to give young people the chance to have their say about what developments they need to see in Sharjah.
What is your strategy to improve the perception of Sharjah and increase the buzz around the emirate, particularly in China?
First of all, we cannot dismiss the fact that Sharjah and China have a longstanding relationship. Sharjah was the first city to host the previous premier of China. We had the China Week in Sharjah, which was the first time this happened in a GCC country. Sharjah-China relations are fantastic. Today, we would like to promote Sharjah to the Chinese tourist as a modern Islamic-Arabic city. We would like to promote Sharjah as a place where a lot of Chinese companies can come, set up and expand in the United Arab Emirates. If the Chinese are interested in learning about the history of Arabia, they can come to Sharjah, because our history stretches back 130,000 years to the Paleolithic age. They can also see the future of Sharjah in our education and research sectors. We are opening up to those Chinese investors who are advancing dramatically in research and development. They can benefit from the Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation (RTI) Park. Education is so advanced in Sharjah to the extent that it is one of the most important educational hubs in the region, and I believe that Sharjah offers the opportunity for China to create a link between the Arab and Chinese worlds. For those Chinese tourists, Chinese investors and businessmen who have heard about Sharjah from history, it is time for them to understand where we are heading with our strategy today. We are open; we are looking forward to attracting Chinese tourists and also investors. We have unique locations. The cost of doing business in Sharjah is to our advantage, so we can make use of that. We have been embarking on different programs, visiting cities including Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing, to promote Sharjah. It always takes time, but step by step we are going to reach investors in China, persuading them to come and find their place to reach the Arab world through Sharjah.
The UAE is ranked number three among countries due to benefit from China’s Belt and Road Initiative. How do you envisage Sharjah’s role in that program?
To answer that, I would go back to history. In Islam, it says that if you want knowledge, go all the way to China. The Silk Road connected people, whether it be through culture, the economy, society or diplomacy; it was a way to connect people. Today, China is reviving a route that was there for centuries with new technology and transportation methods. It can only benefit those nations that are going to be connected by this route. I feel that we are definitely going to benefit. But we also would like to see people from the UAE benefit from the opportunities in China. It is a vice-versa approach. China’s opening up in the past decade has been dramatic, and there is nothing to stop us from being connected. At the highest level, between the UAE government and the Chinese government, there is a very strong relationship. Now we travel to China without a visa and the Chinese travel to the UAE without a visa. The level of transportation links between UAE and China, whether it is with Fly Emirates, Emirates Airlines, Etihad or Air Arabia, can only lead to more openness and more ease of doing business. The only barrier today is language, but I think we have tackled that at the federal government level by teaching our young people Mandarin. The future is promising between our two nations. We have a lot of passion, we have a lot of pride, and we have a lot of respect for Chinese culture, as they have towards our culture. We see a lot of ties and a lot of synergies. Now is the chance for the private sector in both countries to work closer together in order to achieve the results that are going to have a beneficial impact on future generations.
This publication will coincide with the trade mission to China during China’s Expo. What would be your message about Sharjah to our readers?
My first visit to China was in 2010 to visit the Shanghai Expo, and I saw how China has been changing so dramatically. I have since visited many cities around China, and to me, China’s transformation is miraculous. We can learn a lot from it. I have a lot of respect for the quality of Chinese products. Maybe 10 years ago, I would not have bought a mobile phone made in China. Today, I have a Huawei phone. We have a lot of respect in the UAE towards Chinese products. Now it is time for Chinese investors to come to the UAE and to put Chinese brands on the market here – we are open to this. We have several free zones that are open for them to establish a presence. We would also like to encourage greater collaboration in communications and publishing between the Arab world and China. Sharjah Media City provides the perfect platform for different publications from China to come and establish themselves here, in order to send a message about investing in Sharjah and coming to live here. The issue today is conveying the message. Today, two percent of the UAE population are Chinese. I think that could easily grow to four percent, but are they going to be ready for the lifestyle here? By creating partnerships with Chinese media, we can get them prepared and get the message out.
You have been named one of the most influential young Arabs in the Middle East. What do you hope to do with your influence, and how will that impact Sharjah?
For me, this is not a job; it is a passion. Whatever I do, I do it because I love what I am doing for the change that I see that is happening. We are blessed with great leadership here in the United Arab Emirates. Sharjah has a visionary leader, Sheikh Sultan III, who gives us the opportunity to grow and the space to be creative, as well as giving us the support that we need. I had a fantastic leader in Sheikha Badour, who was hands-on in a way that still gave us the chance to grow. That made me who I am today. But it all comes from within. You have to keep in mind that it is not about luck; it is about commitment, it is about hard work, it is about being passionate, and about having an idea of where you want to reach after a certain time. It is about loving what you do, caring about your life, enjoying it and believing that nobody can stop you except yourself. The passion that you have is what will drive you. Success never comes easily. Everything takes time. You have to practice, you have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in others, and I think that is the only way to succeed.