Analysis |

How Coronavirus Opened a Window of Opportunity for the UAE

The pandemic accelerated trends in business and employment in the Emirates that could revolutionize the education system, in a good way

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A boat cruises past the Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai, on Wednesday.
A boat cruises past the Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai, on Wednesday.Credit: GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A new app arrived in the United Arab Emirates last July. It’s called Mulk E-Health and it looks like other medical apps. The user enters some initial personal information, chooses a password, and can then search online for a doctor, or medical service. The difference is that this app links to thousands of doctors, hospitals and medical service providers around the world, not only in the patient’s own country.

The user can schedule an appointment for a long-distance conversation with a doctor and even request prescriptions or medical care without setting foot in a hospital or doctor’s office.

According to Mulk Holdings, the Indian company behind the app, which operates out of Sharjah, one of the seven emirates comprising the UAE, the global virtual medical market is expected to grow to about $40 billion this year.

Mulk is not only the first company to establish a virtual hospital in the Middle East: it’s actually better known as a global producer of metal alloys. It is not only the owner of the metal composite brand Alubond, the largest in the world; it also owns Abu Dhabi’s leading cricket league.

Virtual medicine received a major boost over the past year “thanks” to the coronavirus pandemic, which created the need for social distancing and, when possible, avoiding the traditional face-to-face visit to the doctor. The UAE quickly became a leader in the field by virtue of its advanced, sophisticated technical equipment and the range of experts employed there.

And just this month, a cooperation agreement to develop medical tourism was signed between the Zulekha group, which runs two private hospitals and dozens of pharmacies and medical treatment centers in the UAE, and the Health Plus group, the international marketing arm of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Organization.

Expanding in virtual medicine requires the medical institutions in the UAE to take a new approach, including by hiring more skilled people in high tech and training. The shortage of appropriate local staff creates a wide range of enticing employment prospects for foreign programmers, consultants and marketing people, in addition of course to medical professionals. The positions are at the top of the help-wanted lists on international job websites and the salaries being offered are commensurate.

The UAE provides free health insurance to all of its citizens, but foreign residents are required to provide proof that they have insurance of their own before they can accept employment in the Emirates. The insurance is expensive: it can run as high as $9,000 per year for a family of four or $2,700 per individual. People medical coverage can expect to pay $1,500 to $5,000 per day for hospital care in the Emirates.

In the UAE’s business hub Dubai, in 2019 alone, people shelled out more than $6 billion in medical insurance premiums. This year the figure is expected to jump by 20 percent. Hence shifting to online, cheaper medicine ought not only to increase the number of high-tech people who travel to the Emirates to work; it should also lower the cost of insurance, while also creating a new sense of service as well as new areas of medical practice.

A survey conducted by the Aetna insurance group found that about 80 percent of the expat workers in the UAE list health insurance as the most important employment benefit they can get, mainly because of its cost. This year, moreover, workers are exhibiting new needs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A third of the companies operating in the UAE have reportedly begun providing their employees with online psychological counseling. Some companies are also providing fitness club memberships as part of their medical coverage.

Solar panels at the Dubai Expo 2020, UAECredit: KARIM SAHIB - AFP

A survey by the international accounting firm KPMG found that 23 percent of employees in the UAE who are currently working from home due to the pandemic expect to continue to do so once it’s over. Many others will have to learn new specialties to adapt themselves to the new job market that is taking shape.

Lagging behind in the Middle East

These developments suggest the conclusion that technological developments such as service and marketing apps will be a hot field in the coming years. It appears, however, that for the time being at least, the start-up scene in the Middle East (excluding Israel) is lagging behind.

Reports on tech-news websites suggest that in 2020, start-ups in the Middle East (excluding Israel) raised about a billion dollars, an increase of 13 percent from 2019. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE accounted for 68 percent of that sum. For comparison, in 2020, Israeli start-ups raised about $10 billion in new investment.

Outside Israel, the major field of innovation in the Middle East is e-commerce. In the UAE alone that grew fivefold from the year before and is expected to be worth $29 billion in 2021 and $50 billion by 2025.

To be fulfilled, this optimistic scenario will require increasingly sophisticated approaches to sales, distribution, banking and information security, and like advances in medicine, this will require change in the Middle East’s education systems, in order to provide skilled professionals in the space of three to five years. Meanwhile these countries will have to continue importing people to fill the gap.

That is where the disparity between countries like the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and the poorer nations in the region, will become apparent in all its starkness. The others will have trouble offering competitive employment terms and salaries to the people they need.

The new situation the pandemic created has opened a new major window of opportunity in the high-tech sector that could substantially change the education system in the Middle East, and professional training in particular. The biggest obstacle is the ability of local investors to lift up the sector, rather than relying on government as usual to bear the burden of financing development.

The impressive development of virtual medicine has demonstrated that when the right opportunity arises, investors will follow. In the Emirates, most of the hospitals are private while government hospitals serve the patients who don’t have the means of paying for private services or whose insurance doesn’t cover treatment beyond the minimum required by law.

Yet the coronavirus has hit the wealthy in the UAE too. An analysis by the British real estate consulting firm Knight Frank found that last year, the number of millionaires in the Emirates declined by about 1,600 due to the pandemic, and that the collective private wealth in the country declined from $534 billion in 2018 to $517 billion in 2020.

Granted, the wealth in the country is still fantastic and Dubai is still considered the richest city in the Middle East (ahead of Tel Aviv and Istanbul), but the contraction of wealth there is leading investors to study potential investments more closely, and to seek new ways to cut expenses and rebuild their capital.

It isn’t only millionaires looking closely at costs. According to the results of polling conducted by the British firm YouGov in the UAE, more than half the respondents said they had to cut spending because of the pandemic. Forty-one percent said they would prefer to scrimp in the short term rather than repay debt with the cash that they had on hand.

It’s too early to assess what impact this trend might have on the private sector in the Gulf, but when countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia suffer budget deficits, one can assume that grandiose projects such as the new city of Neom that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated or huge construction projects in the Gulf states could be deferred or suspended in part. That in turn would affect other sectors, such as tourism, real estate sales, telecommunications, entertainment and health.

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