HSBC has supported the UAE’s transformation over seven decades

Frank Johnson arrived in Dubai by seaplane in December 1945. As his seaplane descended, Mr Johnson was met by a skyline of small boats drifting up and down Dubai Creek, whose sands were scattered with single-storey stone huts cooled by wind towers.

On the ground was a pearl-harvesting economy in terminal decline and an import-export business ravaged by World War II.

But like Dubai’s leaders, Mr Johnson possessed vision. In January 1946, he opened the doors of Dubai’s first bank, which is now part of HSBC.

Seven decades later, Dubai has transformed from seaport to thriving entrepôt, its skyline remodelled by the world’s most dynamic architects.

Seven decades later, Dubai has transformed from seaport to thriving entrepôt, its skyline remodelled by the world’s most dynamic architects

Zaha Hadid’s Opera House, inspired by the shape of the traditional dhow boat, opens this year. The performing arts venue is at the foot of the Burj Khalifa, which, at close to a kilometre high, is the world’s tallest building. 

Oil has supported the UAE’s rapid transformation. But ever since oil revenue began to flow into the UAE in the 1960s, a significant proportion has been invested in non-oil infrastructure, including transport and free-trade zones. Today, oil accounts for less than 50 per cent of the UAE’s export receipts.

Modernisation can be seen in every corner of the economy – from the supercarriers jetting off to more than 150 destinations to the refrigerated storage at Dubai’s Jebel Ali, the world’s ninth largest container terminal.

Retailing is big business. Some 324,000 people visit Dubai’s two busiest international shopping centres each day, generating an annual footfall equivalent to France and Spain’s population combined. The sector is predicted to contribute about USD55 billion to the economy by 2017, according to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce.

Healthcare is another area where the future is being redefined. Dubai has more than 3,000 health facilities ranging from hospitals and clinics to advanced surgery centres, with more than 35,000 health specialists working in the sector. These numbers are forecast to grow to 40,000 specialists and 4,000 health centres by 2020, the Government of Dubai estimates.

Combining technology with travel capabilities, the UAE now offers patients the opportunity to book procedures online and receive discounted travel rates. Dubai attracted 630,833 medical tourists in 2015 generating USD400 million. Half of these were international travellers, according to Dubai Health Authority figures.

Finance is a further area of focus. The Dubai International Finance Centre, the Middle East’s financial hub, aims to break into the world’s top ten financial centres by 2024, increasing the number of firms located there to 1,000, up from 362 in 2014.

Nurturing entrepreneurial spirit is also a priority. The UAE offers a number of accelerators and incubators designed to help small companies grow. Free zones such as Dubai Silicon Oasis encourage technology-based start-ups, providing equity funding along with mentorship and legal support, and helping to build the UAE’s post-oil future.

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