The UAE: The next startup hub?

Say the word “tech” and the first thing that comes to mind for most people is its epicenter, Silicon Valley. While the close association is warranted given the number of disruptive companies that have started and scaled in the Valley, there are many other places that are trying to prove that transformative tech companies can exist elsewhere.

The UAE is one such place. During our time here, we visited two organizations that are part of the growing tech scene and changing the perception of where innovative tech companies can thrive.

The first up: Fetchr. The startup sits in the intersection between tech and last-mile logistics. The idea was inspired by the lack of street addresses in Dubai, which presents a huge obstacle to e-commerce and other delivery-based businesses. And this problem isn’t limited to Dubai; it’s an issue across the UAE and in many countries in emerging markets (a market of 5.7B). The founders of Fetchr, Idriss Al Rifai, Joy Ajlouny, and Omar Yaghmour noticed this gap in the market and came up with the solution to use GPS to pinpoint customers so their fleet of on-demand drivers can deliver packages. In addition to solving the delivery conundrum, it also allows companies to take advantage of the customer’s desire to pay cash for their products (drivers can receive payments on behalf of the retailer).

Fetchr describes itself as the fastest growing startup in the world hitting a 400% revenue CAGR. The company has been backed by well-known VCs in and outside of the region like Winklevoss Capital. It also landed the largest Series B funding in the Gulf after securing $41M in 2017. Despite the company’s incredible success, the founder notes that Fetchr is still has many challenges to overcome including attracting top talent, creating a strong company culture, and overcoming misconceptions that outside funders have about the region.

Thankfully, Fetchr is not alone in proving that the UAE is a great environment for startups. It’s getting plenty of help from Sheraa: Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center. As the name indicates, Sheraa is an incubator that is trying to find, fund, and grow the next generation of entrepreneurs in the UAE.

The center was established three years ago to provide support for burgeoning entrepreneurs from the idea phase all the way to funding. The center offers programming on different topics related to entrepreneurship, founder-matching, and mentorship. About 10,000 people have attended events since the center was established. So far, 72 companies have graduated the program (raising $32.7M collectively), which have created 500 jobs and many of the startups have a social impact component. Moreover, 50% of program participants are women and over 30 nationalities are represented among all members. These early stats show Sheraa is filling a needed gap.

Yet, Sheraa recognizes it has a lot of work to do in order to change the perception of being an entrepreneur. For Emiratis in particular, there is a lot of stigma attached to forgo a high-paying and stable government job for the volatile world of startups. However, Sheraa (which is funded by the government) believes that everyone may not be destined for entrepreneurship, it shouldn’t be a from a lack of resources.

And given the vast resources in the UAE — government support, funding opportunities, access to talent — the startup scene’s growth isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

Come fly with us…to Dubai!

Ask anyone who lives in Dubai to describe the booming city and they all use the same word: cosmopolitan. And it makes sense. The UAE is comprised of a high number of foreigners (some estimates point to 80%). Many of them live and work in the UAE full-time in Dubai or its neighbor Abu Dhabi.

With these many foreigners living here, it’s no surprise that there are even more visitors.

Tourism is becoming a key driver in the push to diversify the nation’s economy. According to the Dubai’s Tourism Vision 2020, the government has set a target for attracting 20 million visitors annually by that magical year.

But how will all these tourists get here? Flying the friendly skies with Emirates.

Established in 1985, the company operates over 3,600+ flights per week traveling to more than 150 destinations. Emirates wants to be the premiere airline for every traveler. Thanks to Dubai’s central location, two thirds of the world are within an 8-hour flight, making that goal more achievable.

For Emirates, it’s not just about getting passengers to their destination, it’s also important to focus on how they get there. The airline prides itself on being able to provide top-notch service to all of its customers whether they’re flying economy or in the $12,000 suite (which is only available on the Boeing 777). This is only possible through the precise training all that all 22,000+ members must go through.

As a group, we spent the day at the Emirates Crew Training facility located just outside of Dubai’s city center. Our group got a behind-the-scenes glance at how the flight crew is trained for any issue from turbulence to a medical emergency, even a crash landing in the ocean (don’t worry, everyone survived). 

Following our safety training, we got to see how Emirates provides its trademark service. During our tour, our guide stressed the important of attention detail. Whether it’s lining up liquor bottles just so on the shelf behind the bar in the first-class cabin (the Belvedere should always be to the left of the Bacardi) or the image of a crew member, there’s a set of rules for everything. For example, crew members are given detailed instructions on how to appear whenever on duty. This includes appropriate hairstyles for women (a bun or French roll are two acceptable styles, facial hair for men (none), and other personal grooming tips.

While the requirements for cabin crew are decidedly strict, the benefits for airline employees might make up for them. In addition to receiving a base salary (that does not include a minimum of flying hours), Emirates crew can buy heavily discounted tickets on the airline paying only 10% of the normal ticket price. This means a crew member can fly business-class from Dubai to New York for only $369.

For many of us, this was our first time seeing how an airline works. From the demanding training that cabin and crew go through to the high cost of customizing everything that’s needed for a plane, running an airline is time and capital intensive. However, Emirates believes the investment is worth it in order to provide the best experience to the most passengers possible. And considering the growing number of people using Emirates, passengers from around the world seem to agree.

Looks like all the effort might be worth it.

The building(s) of Dubai

Moving through the streets of Dubai, it’s impossible to ignore the skyscrapers that reach the sky. Most are brand new. Many have some claim to fame including the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (830m tall) to the world’s largest shopping mall, Dubai Mall (1,124,000m2),

The majority of Dubai’s most (in)famous structures are the handiwork of two large real estate developers: Emaar and Nakheel. During our stay in the UAE, we visited the two companies (on separate days, of course) to learn how they see their work fitting into Dubai’s grand future.

The Burj Khalifa (we went to the top!)

Emaar has made a name for itself through building some of Dubai’s architectural feats including the Burj Khalifa (which receives 3 million visitors annually). The company is not shy about promoting its work; the firm’s name is prominently displayed on most of its buildings, which means it can be seen all over the city.

The company, which is partly owned by the government, has set it sights on dreaming bigger by planning to build the world’s next largest tower. The hope is that this new development, in combination with the many other projects in progress, will make Dubai stand tall among other nations.

Emaar was very excited to welcome CBS students for the first time.

Nakheel shares a similar dream though its approach is slightly different than Emaar’s.

Nakheel is the mind and the muscle behind the celebrated Palm Jumeirah, a development that doubled the coastline of Dubai. The inspiration for the man-made island came from the fact that the majority of Dubai’s coastline had already been developed, however, there was growing demand for coastal views. Therefore, the company had to get creative about how to increase the amount of prime real estate the small nation could offer. In doing so, Nakheel came up with the idea to create man-made islands that could host a mix of commercial and private developments. Oh, and this island is in the shape of a palm tree (a connection to the company’s name).

The Palm Jumeirah and The World Islands

The building of the Palm Jumeirah is a technical masterpiece. Requiring 7 million tons of rock formed into a barrier as well as 120 million m3 of sea sand that was relocated to build the island. Unsurprisingly, all of this development does have an environmental impact on the region. Nakheel is very aware of this and says it has done its best to minimize any damage and in some cases, improve the ecosystem for native plants. Moreover, it requires any investors to adhere by strict environmental guidelines.

CBS students are one of the few groups that receive an exclusive boat tour around the Palm Jumeirah

Although Nakheel and Emaar don’t view each other as competition; the friendly rivalry between the two has pushed each other to dream bigger and do what some have said is impossible. Though the question remains; is bigger really better for Dubai?

UAE: The countdown is on

In less than 24 hours, I will hop on a non-stop Emirates flight to Dubai, the commercial hub of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Along with 29 of my CBS classmates, I’m embarking on an adventure to discover how the UAE became an economic powerhouse.

The UAE was founded 48 years ago when the seven emirates that make up the nation united. In less than half a century, the country’s economy has changed immensely. Once powered by pearl-divers and fishers, now the UAE’s economy relies on exporting oil. This shift has transformed the UAE, making it one of the most prosperous nations in the Gulf.

To prepare for the trip, my classmates and I have spent the last six weeks exploring topics related to the UAE. Every week, a group of students discussed issues ranging from trade and tourism to labor relations, and more. The presentations provided a general overview though we learned more nuanced details from experts on the UAE. Guest speakers, such as His Excellency Majid Al Suwaidi, Consul General of the UAE in New York and PwC Advisory Director Alexis Crow, shared an insider’s view on what makes the UAE so special. These perspectives gave us a better idea of the benefits and challenges of living and working in the UAE.

Of course, the more we learned, the more questions we developed. We began to wonder…
– Is the unique political structure of the UAE a strength or a risk as the country continues to grow?
– What steps is the government taking to diversify its economy? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so?
– How will the labor market change in response to the increasing number of foreign nationals working and living in Dubai?

To get these questions answered, our class will spend the next week in the UAE. We’ll visit companies, hear from ministry officials, and take part in cultural activities. By doing so, we’ll immerse ourselves in UAE society and learn more than we ever could in only a classroom.

So, we’re off to the UAE! An unforgettable trip is just around the corner.

UAE #5: Land of tolerance, financial growth, and visionaries

I still can’t believe that our trip has come to an end. As my circadian rhythm slowly but surely reverts back to eastern daylight savings time, I am recalling my experiences fondly and appreciatively. When I signed up for this Chazen trip to the United Arab Emirates, I certainly felt that I was operating “outside my comfort zone,” and acting on the advice that alumni have given me about “taking a step into the unknown.” I thought that it would broaden my horizons to travel to the Middle East, a region of the world that I had never before visited.

Certainly I learned a lot during my trip and saw how the other half of the earth lives, but I was surprised to realize how similar the UAE is to the USA, despite its differences in geography, founding stories an demographic makeup. Both the emirates in which we stayed (Abu Dhabi and Dubai) had a diverse population – nationally, ethnically, and in perspectives. But nonetheless, in a region of the world that has seen its share of conflict, the UAE remains a beacon of civility and tolerance.  Below are some of the lessons and highlights from the trip. Needless to say, I will definitely be returning to visit again in the future.

Experiencing Arab hospitality across the spectrum

The UAE is an easy place to visit, because one cannot help but feel welcome. Our entrance to any hotel or business meeting was greeted with the traditional welcome offering of dates and coffee (especially needed on those first few days). Our flight and hotel experiences were out of the world. The flight attendants were well trained to accommodate flyers from all parts of the world and spoke multiple languages. The Sofitel had breakfast spreads that offered a mix of traditional American breakfast meats, curries and middle eastern dishes, as well as fresh fruit, all kinds of coffees and teas. There was even a Nutella station, which was a game change, personally.

The UAE, particularly Dubai, aims to be a hub of international logistics as well as a tourist destination. It is ideally located for that, uniquely at the hinge of east meets west. However, I think it extends father than that.  Hospitality is inherent in how the people of the Emirates treat one another and their foreign visitors. On our 9-day trip, we were hosted by two CBS alum – Haig ’17 and Kush ‘16. They invited us into their businesses and homes, provided such a lovely dining and networking experience, and made sure that we got the best seat in the house at Music Hall, a truly unique variety show experience on the Palm Jumeirah.

Enjoying live performances in a variety of languages at Music Hall on the Palm Jumeirah.

Skirt dancing on a desert safari!

It is good to know friends in the UAE!


Learning about Financial Priorities

The UAE was a great place to learn and discuss macroeconomics, because it is a country which has grown up so quickly and in such a measured and intentional way. They knew from the beginning that they must develop an economy that was not just reliant on oil, which is something which will deplete over time and has historically shown great volatility. As a result, they invested the wealth to be had from the petrochemicals business back into the infrastructure of the UAE and into other tangible and financial assets that would provide a more diversified and stable source of sustained returns. It is through this deliberateness that cities of glass towers emerged from desert sands and palm huts.

On our first day, we visited Heritage Village, which is a recreation the old Abu Dhabi, before the massive development of the past 4 decades. It’s really striking to see the juxtaposition of the palm frond huts against the backdrop of tall glass buildings.

Dubai didn’t stop there, however. It went a step further to develop its tourism and logistics industries to provide entertainment to the world and a meeting hub between the east and west. This is evidenced by the development of its airline (Emirates), its luxury real estate and manmade islands, and even the surreal shopping experience that is the Dubai Mall – which has its own aquarium. Nothing accentuates a trip to Chanel like a shark in the wall.

Anastacia ’19 enjoying first class seating during our tour of the Emirates training facility.

Scaled model of the Palm Jumeirah resort island.

CBS at the very center of Atlantis.

Building around a harsh environment

Visiting in March, we experienced the Emirates in the balmy range of 65F – 80F, a welcome change from the blizzard-stricken Manhattan winter. But we heard enough from the locals to know that it is … well, a real scorcher. In order to develop into modernity, the scorching heat and arid climate of the Middle Eastern desert needed to be overcome. The UAE has done exactly that. Sky bridges and underground walkways afforded air conditioned commutes. Water, of course, is a scarcity with the UAE’s lack of rivers. So it developed desalination plants to convert the ample ocean water into something that is potable and even delicious for its populace and visitors. Building such prodigious cities out of the thirsty stand is truly a testament of human ingenuity in construction.

Governing vision

UAE would not be where it is had it not had such visionary leaders who 1) acknowledged the finite nature of their natural resource assets (which are coveted globally), 2) accepted the need to move into more enduring businesses utilizing existing wealth, and 3) developed ways to do so through funding of specialized vehicles to build tourism and other services. The UAE is still a young nation, with just a generation of succession since its own founding fathers laid down the foundation for building this federation of distinct yet united emirates. It will be interesting to see the future work that the next generation of leaders will do in economic development.

I can’t wait to see where the UAE is next time I visit!

– Shelley Han ’18

UAE #4: Dubai – East meets West, Past meets Present

Last time, I talked about the business and financial development of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah through the lens of the companies that I visited with my classmates. Certainly, we had our days full of company visits. But you know what they say about all work and no play!

Dubai is especially fascinating as a tourist center. Located in the desert and deplete of close potable water supply, Dubai does not strike one as a place that would easily support a large enough population to become a city. Reality is a far cry from these expectations, however. Dubai is not only a world-renowned city but one that boasts the tallest skyscraper in the world (the Burj Khalifa, aka Burj Dubai), soon to be outranked by another tower (surprise, in Dubai).

It is also incredibly international. Contrast this with the sand dunes just miles outside of city center, and one could understand how operationally complex this development must have been. But one could also appreciate how much the city has changed and become more like the Western cities that many of the expats in the city came from. Fortunately, we found time between meetings to visit historical and cultural sites of the UAE to see this transition over time.

Souk (Spice, Gold and Perfume Markets)

Spices souk on a Saturday.

In the evening, after slipping out of our business formal, a few classmates and I took the metro to the traditional souks, which are bazaar shops that sell everything from spices and clothing to gold and perfume. Even though the souks today, being so close to the metro station on the Dubai green line, probably receive a large volume of foreign visitors, they still retain much of their history. The majority of products for sale are located within the store, but the store fronts are also covered with rows of colorful garments and dyes. There is also always at least one representative from each store standing right at the door fronts, ushering in potential customers.

CBS Chazen ladies Elena and Katie purchasing some colorful spices from the souk

In addition, bargaining is still a big part of the transaction. Ute, our tour guide, advised us to ask their reservation price first, then offer at most 1/3. Then we would go back and forth until we hit about ~1/2 of the initial quoted price. Some of us were better than others. My friend, Tricia, for example, who had lived in China (where bargaining was also prevalent), was a natural at it, and went home with some lovely saffron and tea at a fraction of the ask price!

More souk knickknacks for sale

Desert Safari

Before heading back to the US, a group of us went on a desert safari, which included dune-bashing (essentially driving erratically through hilly sands in a rugged vehicle), and then going through a “beduoin experience,” where we dined together and enjoyed activities that the settlers of olden times did.

For example, there was an opportunity to ride camels. They were much higher than I expected and definitely more difficult to mount than your average county fair pony.  I also learned that one sits on their actual hump, which was very bony (for some reason, I thought it would be filled with fat/water and therefore soft).

Fearless CBS camel riders – Harold, Seokhoon, Celine, Tricia, Karina and Fabian

We also enjoyed traditional hospitality. The safari organizers sat us in groups on cushions next to low tables. The tables were organized around a center stage, which was for performances. Around the periphery of the encampment were several tents with different vendors and activities. Some of my classmates enjoyed a good shisha session. Others of us (especially the ladies of the group) flocked around the henna tent. I loved how mine turned out!

My first henna tattoo!

When we ate, we chatted, much in the way that the earlier settlers of the area must have, around the dinner table. Our conversation topics must have differed substantially from those of the Bedouins, though: we talked about the relative ranks of different mobile-based dating apps and the logistics of long-distance relationships with our better halves during the MBA.

CBS students (Desmond, Chris, Harold, Sam, Seokhoon, Cory, Jess, Mariano, Liz, Bryan and Vikram) enjoying the sunset on the Desert Safari.

Before and after our meal of traditional eastern dishes (meats and veggies in lots of sauce and grains), we enjoyed musical performances. First, we had a man who I can only describe as a light-up  skirt-spinner (it’s one of those you-had-to-be-there things). [Ed. note: the traditional name for this person is a Whirling Dervish.] It was great fun! He spun and acted out scenes like a one-man play. Then, he asked for audience participation, and our classmate Harold was the first chosen. Harold was pretty good at it!


We also had a belly-dancing performance. The dancer was so beautiful, graceful and talented!


Grand Mosque

Finally, this post wouldn’t be complete without mention of the Grand Mosque, though it is not in Dubai per se. A few days ago, we were able to squeeze in a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, located ~30 minutes outside the capital city. Completed in 2007, it serves as the place of worship for not only the residents of Abu Dhabi and Muslim visitors from around the world, but also as a place of interest for scholars of Islam and curious travelers.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi.

The first thing that strikes you about the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is its sheer size. The largest mosque in the country, it boasts 180,000 sq. ft. of gleaming white mosaic marble. When we arrived, the mosque was full of visitors. As a female traveler, I came prepared, with an outfit which encompassed everything up to wrist and ankle (thanks, Hermes Society, for the great hoodie, which not only covered me to the wrist but also serves as great defender against airport AC). I also covered my hair with a scarf. While most of us on the trip were not Muslim, it was still important to be respectful of religious observations

Colorful chandeliers adorned the domes within the mosque

Visitors enjoyed beautiful mosaic art. This one of a fountain adorned the top of an actual water fountain.

We were in awe of the mosque’s beauty!

It was indeed, a very grand mosque. The walls were adorned with beautiful floral hand paintings, and white pillars supported a tall ceiling topped with qubbas (the white domes with points). Despite the multitude of visitors, the floors are kept absolutely spotless. Walking through the open halls was truly awe-inspiring! It just goes to show that no matter your differences from others around you, beauty and spirituality are universal and can serve as powerful connectors.

The CBS Chazen crew at the Grand Mosque.

Well, gotta go pack for my long trip back to the Big Apple!


-Shelley Han ‘18

UAE #3: From Palm-Frond Huts to Urban Skyscrapers in 40 years

“We’re approaching the border between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There is no real border in the sense of passport checking. But you’ll notice it because the trees disappear.” – Ute, our tour guide

On Wednesday (ET), we journeyed out of Abu Dhabi and headed out toward Dubai, making a quick stop at Sharjah for a bite to eat and a company visit. Three emirates in one day – what a treat! In our class discussions on the political structure of the UAE, we found in our research that though the 7 emirates are bound together by a Treaty of Union, they individually exercise a great deal of autonomy. The structure of dual judicial, executive and legislative branches (federal and emirate-level) as well as the emirates’ own determination of revenue priorities indicate that it is a more decentralized form of government.

We had the opportunity to meet with several firms in Dubai who were charged with developing Dubai and the UAE at large. It was truly astonishing to see how much the UAE has been able to grow over the past 47 years of unity. I recall visiting the Heritage Village on my first day in Abu Dhabi. It was a small village built solely to show how people lived in the region before the modern day development. Today, Abu Dhabi and Dubai look a lot like New York or Shanghai, with skyscrapers and extensive business districts. Our company visits allowed us to understand how these emirates have grown so successfully, thanks to a combination of strong financial structures, investment in the right areas, and visionary government, combined with the endogenous wealth of the region from its energy assets.

Relationship-driven banking

Our first visit in the emirate of Sharjah was with the Bank of Sharjah, a commercial bank that has supported the economic development of the area with a focus on corporate loans. We were excited to visit as the M&A function of the bank is headed by our very own Haig Nerguizian (CBS ‘17). Haig grew up in the UAE, and after a stint in New York (spent in investment banking and business school), Haig decided to capitalize on the opportunity to help grow the business at home.

This visit was quite different from others on our trip in that it was a purely private sector business with no support from the Emirate government. Because of this, clients are not a given and must be won. The way to do this is very familiar to those of us who worked in banking in the US – it involves getting to know a client’s needs a step ahead of their actions and then making the case to them, through presentations and discussions, that your bank is the best fit to take them through those future processes. Our Bank of Sharjah visit showed me that relationship-building and maintenance (coming into the office on Saturdays to have coffee with old clients – “old friends”) was a key component of the job and indeed, probably more important than the excel models.

Haig is in a very exciting place where he is helping to build out a full-scale M&A division, using his prior experience in banking. Bank of Sharjah has already been an innovator in finance, for example issuing the first convertible (??). We will surely be tracking Bank of Sharjah’s development as it accelerates in the future!

Up, up and beyond

By Thursday, we were all almost fully adjusted to the 8-hour time difference between Manhattan and Dubai. Just in time to visit the aircraft that brought us forward in time!

Emirates Training Center

At the Emirates Training Center, we learned about how the cabin crew of the airline facilitates the operations of the planes and provides a positive in-flight experience to all classes of the aircraft. The flight attendants have a detailed process for every stage of the plane, and a very well-practiced procedure for any scenario that could happen – smoke in the plane, emergency landing, water landing, etc. There were some fail-proof measures put into place that would have made my operations management professor very proud. For example, to reduce the risk of misplacing a name tag, the name tags are placed on all four levels of the flight attendant’s outfit – their outer coat, their vest, their shirt or dress. And each time there is a redesign of the uniform, all flight attendants turn over their old one for the new one.

The CBS Cabin Crew!

From oil fields to thermal shirts

A premier diversified Sharjah-based business named Crescent Enterprises hosted us for a lovely meeting to wrap up the day. Crescent was originally formed to financially support the oil production efforts of the emirates, but in keeping with the vision of Sheikh Zayed (as detailed in my last blog post, it has been diversifying its investments into other businesses. Indeed, today, Crescent is divided into two subsidiaries – Crescent Petroleum and Crescent Enterprises – with the latter focusing on diversifying businesses running the gamut from allocations to private equity funds to individual investments in very early stage ventures. The portfolio even includes some renewable energy.

My favorite is their new investment in performance material for clothing. As we learned, the UAE has an enormous migrant population, largely comprised of construction and temporary workers who are sometimes outdoors working in 130F conditions. Crescent’s investments here would directly help the people of the emirates by providing more comfortable clothing for the unforgiving desert heat if they must work outdoors.

What an exciting time to be part of the Emirates!



-Shelley Han ‘18

UAE: Abu Dhabi – Beginnings and Dreams

We must not rely on oil alone as the main source of our national income. We have to diversify the sources of our revenue and construct economic projects that will ensure a free, stable and dignified life for the people

— Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan

Columbia Business School students visiting the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, translates to “Father of gazelles,” commemorative of the leaping ruminants that once grazed in the region. And like a herd of gazelle, the people of Abu Dhabi has relied on growing in a way that accommodates the group and collective, finding common ground to leap forward as a nation. It is in the business of forging new beginnings – leading the region in its thoughtful economic development and diversification.

Aerial view of Abu Dhabi from Etihad Towers.

The Melting Pot of the Middle East

I was surprised by how quickly my classmates and I became accustomed to Abu Dhabi and felt a sense of “belonging.” One of this capital city’s great strengths is the ability to bring out the best of all people – natives Emiratis, and expatriates and visitors alike – to create a truly unique blended society. This was evident through business organizations, the general hospitality of the city, and of course, the food!

For example, in our first two days, we visited several financial services firms and Cleveland Clinic, Abu Dhabi’s premier hospital center of such large scale. Each organization boasted dozens of nationalities and indeed, cite the diversity as a competitive advantage. The city itself is filled with so many global perspectives that my class mates and I felt immediately at home. No matter what our backgrounds (and CBS itself is quite globally diverse), we were able to find an Abu Dhabi resident with similar background. In this way it felt a lot like New York City.

Finally, the food – oh my goodness! What an amazing fusion of the bests of every continent! In the three days we’ve been here, we’ve already had Asian, Cuban, Lebanese, Armenian, Indian, and seafood. We are too spoiled. I foresee the thirty of us hitting the Dodge Fitness Center together as our first post-trip reunion.

Decorative glass pieces from Heritage Village, a town center with historical flair which is meant to commemorate the founding of Abu Dhabi by early settlers.

Putting Money Where your Mouth Is

Abu Dhabi is the financial center of the UAE and as such, leads the investment and monetary management of the entire federation. Before coming out to the UAE, our class collectively researched many aspects of the country including its trade agreements, economic policies, fiscal management and government system. We discovered that despite the historical vast wealth from oil and petroleum, the government is very focused on developing the nation as a first tier center for logistics and tourism, real estate, and eventually healthcare. This trickles down through policy, which leads to firms directly investing into these areas.

We saw this in action during our company visits. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi (CCAD), a joint venture between investment firm Mubadala and the Cleveland Clinic in the US, was developed to stem the amount of Emirati healthcare flowing abroad. Our guide quoted 1-2 billion AED being spent annually, prior to the creation of CCAD, by the government to accommodate medical tourism because the people of the Emirates did not have access to their care needs within the country. Since its founding only 3 years ago, CCAD has already lept ahead in tertiary and quaternary care: not only is it providing a lot of the procedures that Emiratis would have otherwise gone to the US or other countries to receive, it has also achieved several firsts for the region, including some forms of robotic surgery. CCAD can also be credited with helping to stem the prevalence of diabetes in the region.

Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, whose spacious corridors and internal greenery make it feel equal parts hotel and medical center.

Another example is the investment direction of Mubadala, which is a sovereign wealth fund that is not only mandated with preserving capital long term through diligent and risk-adjusted returning investments but also doing so in a way that supports the growth of the UAE. During our presentation at Mubadala, two investment professionals walked us through their portfolio choices, many of which were aimed at directly developing wind farming (sustainable energy), tourism/logistics, and healthcare (such as CCAD), and other sectors that are not oil/gas related.

In short, Abu Dhabi’s rapid economic development as a nation is no accident. It was the serendipitous mix of its natural resources and its thoughtful approach to preserving and diversifying that wealth. I would say that the former can be true of many nations but the latter is unique to top leadership at the government and private business level. They have put their money where their mouth is by investing in the areas that they have publicly stated they hoped to develop as the nation matures.

Respect Is Paramount

Abu Dhabi is an incredibly respectful society, embracing the plethora of backgrounds of individuals who have moved here, many to work for a few years and others to stay long term. When we attended the meeting with investment manager Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), this realization really struck me when the investment professionals filed up to the front of the room for panel discussions. Men and women sat side-by-side, and US/Canadian nationals in western business attire sat side-by-side with Emiratis in traditional clothing. Throughout the panel, all parties shared equal air time, and it was very obvious that every single member of that team had equal say and contribution, regardless of their background.

I believe that this has a lot to do with its history. When the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan formed the nation, he was known for his tolerance. While Islam is the official religion of this nation and while the rulers themselves practice Islamic religious observations, they also open their arms to people of all religious beliefs and walks of life. This year, 2018, is the Year of Zayed, He would have been 100 years old.

Mosaic decorations in underground pedestrian passageway on the Corniche, Abu Dhabi.

Respect runs both ways, however. There is an expectation of visitors to observe the local practices of the region. For example, when visiting the Grand Mosque (more on that in the next post), we women covered our hair. In stepping into the place of worship, it was the least we could do. In addition, we dressed conservatively to make sure that our outfits are not offensive. In return, we were treated with a level of hospitality that is truly unparalleled.


All in all, Abu Dhabi was an amazing experience. It was more familiar than foreign, and I learned a lot about how government visions and policies, enacted through smart investments, can drive such rapid economic development for a young nation.

Shelley Han ’18

UAE: A glimpse into A Young Nation’s Macroeconomic Ventures

It is my last night in New York before flying out to Abu Dhabi and Dubai for the edu-vacational experience of a lifetime with my 29 classmates and Professor Yared, and I can hardly sleep.  At 1:34AM, the groupchat is still buzzing with last minute travel anxieties (“What type of power adapter do we need?”, “Is 200 dirham enough on-hand cash?”).  Might as well get started on adjusting to the 9 hour time difference in the United Arab Emirates!

etihad towers
Etihad Towers. Source:

So why are we – a cohort of 1st and 2nd year MBA students with  diverse backgrounds and future career aspirations – flying all the way across the Atlantic in the middle of March? Speaking for the class, it boils down to two overarching reasons.

The first is that the UAE is a great fishbowl for the study of macroeconomics: as a young nation founded just 47 years ago, this federation of 7 emirates is still developing a cohesive economic system. It is exploring key questions like: what is the optimal level and structure of tax, if any? How should we diversify our economy to ascertain that it is sustainable and less sensitive to commodity markets? What sorts of financial innovation would allow our citizens to partake in the asset markets while still keeping the spirit of Islamic principles of finance?

My classmates and I are so excited to be able to see that first hand in our meetings with organizations like ADIA (Abu Dhabi Investment Authority) and Bank of Sharjah, where we hope to see how financial and investment institutions in UAE think about funding the nation’s growth and development (while also maintaining traditional values). We are also looking forward to visiting Emirates, one of the Emirati airlines that is supporting the UAE’s economic diversification away from oil/gas and into tourism and global logistics. In addition, our visit to Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi will enable us to see the progress that the UAE has made in its development of the healthcare sector, an undertaking which has allowed the young nation to draw lucrative medical tourism travelers. Finally, we are excited to meet with other firms that are enabling the government’s Vision 2021, an aspirational set of goals set to drive the nation’s near term development.

Source: Emirates Airline (

Some of the questions that I personally hope to answer during this trip include:

  • What are some of the key lessons that the UAE has learned from seeing the development of other nations that have informed its own policies?
  • To what extent does the relatively decentralized government system of the UAE (compared to e.g., the US where federal decisions have greater impact than state) impact the scale and type of development it experiences.
  • How do financial institutions strike a balance between maintaining Islamic finance rules (e.g., equal distribution of risk) and earning the highest potential return for their clients?

The second reason is a little bit more nefarious: it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to spend a week in March basking in 81 degree Fahrenheit weather… especially after the most recent nor’easter to sweep through Manhattan. Pass me the Coppertone!

Shelley Han ’18

Top 10 Moments from GIP: Economic Growth in the UAE

It’s hard to believe our trip to the UAE has come and gone so quickly. Our whirlwind week brought us from soaring skyscrapers to desert safaris, sovereign wealth funds to night clubs, man-made islands to mosques.

Leaving the UAE, I’m left with a few most striking impressions. First, the country is a crazy case of development done right upon the discovery of oil. The UAE is second to none when it comes to the astute management of natural resources. The country’s leadership truly did an exceptional job diversifying the economy beyond oil and gas, allowing the relatively oil-poor Emirate of Dubai to become a global financial center and tourism destination to rival few others.

Second, the UAE is a country of stark contrasts. In a matter of minutes you can travel from beach resorts to an urban metropolis, and then drive off into the desert horizon. You can see a man trailed by his four wives in a mega-mall of retailers from Europe and North America. The UAE is home to the planet’s largest mosque, which was built in the past decade. And you’ll find groups of women in headscarf letting loose at pricey nightclubs. Put simply, the UAE is a very unique place, that feels like no where else I’ve ever been.

In an effort to sum up such a jam packed week, I’ll share 10 of the top moments from the trip:

  1. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. The massive and beautiful hospital — believe me I never thought I’d describe a hospital that way — that was built two years ago and offers free healthcare to Emirati citizens. In addition to an array of cafes, restaurants, and a salon, the hospital has VIP suites with adjacent hotel rooms for family members to stay.


2. Shopping malls galore. After visiting so many of the world’s largest malls, it’s safe to say I’ll never view shopping malls the same way again. Dubai’s malls — which all seem to be connected by elevated walkways — don’t just feature some of the stores from back home, they’s feature all of the stores from back home, as well as from Europe, Asia, and a swath of local Middle Eastern retailers. What’s more, inside the malls you’ll find things like indoor skiing, pictured below.


3. Enviable Office Buildings. Living in New York City, you never expect to return home and feel like your city is filled with old, modest buildings. But after a week in the UAE, that’s bound to be your feeling upon returning home. Pictured below, we attended a meeting at the Dubai International Financial Center, one of the “Free Zones” that allow foreign business ownership.


4. Camel selfies. During our desert safari on our last day, we rode SUVs through sand dunes, rode camels, got henna tattoos, and watched fire and belly dancers. As nice as it was to be out in the desert, it was crazy to see just how many SUVs of tourists were out in the same part of the desert, suggesting that Dubai could be doing more to promote desert tourism.


5. The Palm Islands. One of the most memorable company visits was to the real estate developer, Nakheel, responsible for developing the Palm Islands and The World. We toured the original palm-tree shaped, reclaimed land island by boat, seeing the expanse of the project that doubled Dubai’s coastline. I found touring the original Palm Island, Palm Jumeira, to be so fascinating I devoted an entire blog post to it.


6. The Sheik Zayyed Mosque. The construction of the Sheik Zayyed Mosque was completed less than a decade ago, making it an unusually modern national landmark. Visiting the picturesque mosque was a special break from a week of company visits, as we got to see another side of the UAE, pertaining to the country’s cultural heritage.


7. Music Hall. It’s rare to have high expectations for a place and to have them surpassed, but that was our experience at Music Hall, a night club in a hotel on the Palm Island that was a unanimous favorite experience from the trip. Featuring a variety show of musical guests from around the world, Music Hall delivered on its reputation set by our professor and TA. We’re proud to say we closed the club down.


8. Emirates Training College. Touring Emirates Airlines, one of if not the top global airline according to many rankings, training facilities was a treat. During the super interactive visit, we tested life jackets in a lesson on flight safety, learned about flight attendant hair and makeup, and tested the different first and business class seats in an out of commission airplane.


9. Burj Khalifa. Visiting the 125th floor of the world’s tallest building was exciting even for New Yorkers, used to being surrounded by tall buildings. From across Dubai, you can see “The Burj,” the super modern skyscrapper that is soon to be replaced by an even taller building in Dubai.


10. Old Dubai. It’s hard to find remnants of the fishing village along the Dubai Creek that was the entire city of Dubai less than a half century ago, but if you look hard enough, you can find them. After touring the souks, frequented mostly by locals unlike in some other Middle Easterern countries, we stumbled across some non-modern boats used for transportation by foreign workers who flock to the UAE by the millions. That boat ride across the Dubai Creek was one of the most fascinating experiences of the trip, as one of the few glimpses into the village that was.