x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Arif Lalani, the Canadian Ambassador to UAE. Ravindranath K / The National
Arif Lalani, the Canadian Ambassador to UAE. Ravindranath K / The National

The chief executives of two of Canada’s top innovation hubs – MaRS Discovery District of Toronto and SDTC (Sustainable Development Technology – Canada) – are getting top billing at a Dubai conference on innovation and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) organised by the Ministry of Economy on Monday. The Canadian delegation will spend the rest of the week meeting UAE leaders in innovation. Here, Arif Lalani, the Canadian ambassador to the UAE, explains why Canada and the UAE have a shared interest in promoting innovation and how they plan to do this.

The UAE’s Ministry of Economy signed partnership agreements with MaRS and SDTC last year aimed at fostering innovation and R&D, and accelerating the growth of SMEs. Is this week’s visit a follow-up to that?

MaRS is one of our largest innovation incubators; SDTC [focuses on] energy, technology and sustainable resources. They both bring money to the table. MaRS probably has C$200 million (Dh713m) of money to do joint partnerships; SDTC probably has up to $1 billion of capital with which it can partner around the world. They are here really to do some concrete business-to-business matchmaking. Second is knowledge and technology transfer because part of this is Canadian companies partnering – even manufacturing – here, establishing themselves here. That tech transfer, I know, is very important to the diversification of the economy here. Third, the same goes for Canada: we are hoping to learn from Emirati institutions.

Can you give me an example?

Emiratis are smart people with vision, with access to their own money, who want to make things happen. Masdar is a great institution. We can partner with them, we can learn from how they have done things. And [in the same way] we hope they can learn from our [institutions]. There are young companies here in solar power, alternative energy. We have some interesting companies coming with SDTC and MaRS. One is Electrovaya, which makes lithium batteries for energy storage. There is a natural fit with what they are doing here with solar energy. There is Corvus Energy, which has a history of working here on maritime and marine energy issues.

I understand you see some similarities in the economic development of Canada and the UAE.

This country first became wealthy on the pearl trade. There was affluence, good times then literally almost overnight it collapses because of the Japanese cultured pearls. After a difficult period they discover oil wealth and the lesson of the pearl trade really is this could happen again so let’s make sure we reap everything and we reinvest. Canada became rich on the fur trade: that was our prosperity and that opened up the country. Then, again, literally overnight synthetic fur killed our economy. And then we discovered oil and we learnt this lesson too. So we kind of understand each other: let’s invest for the future, let’s reap the money from resources and let’s diversify the economy. We can work together on energy, on IT, health, education, capacity building – all the areas in which we think we can innovate together.

Can you tell me more about your new start-up visa that gives entrepreneurs permanent residency in Canada?

As Canada’s needs are changing, we want to bring people into the country that are going to innovate, that are going to invest in innovation with Canadian partners. So the start-up visa is basically that in a nutshell: it’s people creating partnerships with Canadian partners investing in innovation and that allows you to enter Canada. The government is partnering with private-sector associations to make them the real drivers of this. It’s better that the private sector defines what that [the driver of prosperity] is going to be, rather than governments.

Canada has not publicly endorsed any of the Expo 2020 bid cities. Why is that? And what do you think of Dubai’s case?

I don’t think we’ve ever declared publicly but, personally, I think that Dubai has made a very strong case.

If Dubai wins, will there be business opportunities for Canada?

We want to focus very much on what the opportunities here would be to help make Expo 2020 a success. If Dubai wins, we want to look at how we can partner to make it a success. The authorities for Expo 2020 are already in touch with Canadian cities who have hosted expos in the past to learn from them: Montreal hosted Expo ‘67, Vancouver Expo ‘86 – I was a student and spent my summer working at Expo ‘86 – and they are also in touch with Calgary, which hosted the Olympics. So we have a lot of expertise in management to help in partnering. And Canadian companies, especially in infrastructure, in terms of building and the kind of building that would take place, are really experienced in that.