x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Economics and education for next 40 years ...

As the UAE celebrates its 40th National Day, it's clear that economic diversification and education are the keys to the nation's future.

This National Day is a time for celebration of all that has been accomplished over the first four bustling decades of the UAE's history. The festivities will touch everyone in the country, whether citizen or expatriate. And they are an opportunity to look ahead as the Gulf, and the UAE in particular, take on a more central role in the region's future. With much of the region in turmoil, the UAE is in a strong position to show the way into the future.

The state of the country on its 50th National Day, and its 100th, will depend in large part on the way government and people think and plan during the UAE's 41st year.

Strategic thinking has been a national asset for some time, going back to the union's founding. As the country's oil industry has established a basis of wealth and opportunity, planning attention has already been focused on what can be described as the country's next economy.

The key elements here are economic diversification and sophisticated modern education.

In Abu Dhabi, for example, the first two pillars of the future economy as foreseen in the Abu Dhabi 2030 plan are "a large empowered private sector" and "a sustainable knowledge-based economy".

The challenges in moving forward are immense; recognising and planning for them are the first step.

The UAE's stability and ease of doing business have long been assets that have propelled the country forward, and now they can be leveraged to accelerate private-sector economic growth outside the free zones and the retailing field. For now, government continues to break ground in many other sectors of the economy.

As private sector property development rebounds from the setbacks of 2008-09, new private-investment confidence should be encouraged by sound policy.

Diversification, meanwhile, has been pursued vigorously, with emphasis on industries with long-term promise, notably renewable energy (including nuclear power), commercial aviation, aircraft component production, tourism, steel and aluminium, to name a few. The challenge now is to build on those areas to become a net creator of new concepts, technologies, and ideas.

Closely tied to that issue is the challenge of preparing Emiratis for a new kind of workforce. Few countries have as high a proportion of expatriates as the UAE, and while Emiratis have many employment opportunities in the public sector, Emirati representation in the private sector workforce remains comparatively low. New forms of public-private partnership are already under study to address this. One approach is the idea of subsidising private employers, so that Emiratis can be paid as much as they might earn in the public sector.

Education, from the early years to university level, remains the most critical priority for policymakers and planners. The country's education departments have focused on their task, trying a variety of approaches, but more needs to be done. The knowledge economy envisioned for the future depends on students getting a firm grounding in grade school. This is an issue that continues to demand concerted national attention.

The university sector, meanwhile, is expanding with branches of dozens of foreign universities competing for students from all over the world.

The next decade will be challenging for the whole region, but the UAE is well placed to tackle some of those challenges, which involve not only diversification and schooling but also environmental issues, food security, the global economy and more. Many of those issues are already being tackled multilaterally, in cooperation with our neighbours and the world community.

The UAE has rightly focused on education and economic diversity as fundamental to future development. That focus moves this great nation towards a leadership role in the region.