Umej Bhatia talks and thinks fast. “There’s a point when you’re driving from Abu Dhabi to Dubai on Sheikh Zayed Road and you begin to feel the frenetic energy,” says the Singaporean Ambassador to the UAE, a former broadcast journalist.
That energy has seen Bhatia reshape the landscape in relations between the UAE and Singapore over the past four years as he established his country’s first diplomatic post in the Gulf country.
Today, the UAE is Singapore’s 14th largest trading partner worldwide, up three spots since 2013. Outside of Western and Asian countries, it tops the list. That’s $18.3bn to be precise, or as Bhatia prefers to say: “That’s the same cost as building 12 Burj Khalifas”.
Singapore and Dubai are two of the most trade dependent cities in the world, where the trade value is four times that of either city’s gross domestic product (GDP). Both are focused on non-oil industries, including foreign investment, tourism and financial free zones. One such free zone, the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), is even based on and inspired by the international business common law jurisdictions of Singapore and Hong Kong.
But that was not the first time the two countries shared a common ground.
In 2014, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan said numerous Emirati companies were looking forward to operating in Singapore. Firms with existing investment in the island city include Borouge Private Limited, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Dnata, Drydocks World Dubai, Emirates Investment Group and Al Thuraya Telecommunications.
As Bhatia prepares to leave the UAE for his next global ambassadorial posting, it is a lot more than memories he will be taking away with him. Smart city development, economic diversification and the UAE’s entrepreneurial spirit are now firmly etched in his mind.
According to the 46-year-old diplomat, Singapore is increasingly becoming a world-class global benchmark for smart city development, having launched the Smart Nation programme to push it into the digital age. Considering there are three mobile devices for every two of its citizens, according to the Centre for Public Impact, it might not be too long before that happens.
Smart Nation looks to solve urban issues of high-density living by testing for smart solutions on the island.
“Singapore has a smart nation office that wants to see how we can use technology to overcome our limitations in size, workforce and population. Singapore is a small place. We’re the size of Bahrain, but we can also be a very effective living land attested for all sorts of smart city solutions that can be scaled down," Bhatia says. "So you see a lot of mega cities where there are problems like how to provide water, energy and utilities to populations and how to deal with demographics and traffic congestions. We have all this in a micro scale where we tested all these solutions.
“With all these interesting automotive technology innovations and testing [of them], we can then provide solutions that are actually carried out. That also includes technology in homes, such as sensors.
"In Singapore, when you have to do your electricity and water reading, you have two different dials and someone has to come and check these dials every two months. [However], in certain areas, we have tested new sensors where you can actually do live-time dial checking connected to your phone. You can see how much electricity and water you used. And then you can scale down. You can tell your children, ‘stop having such a long shower’,” Bhatia adds, laughing.
The charismatic diplomat says smart cities is another common feature between Dubai and Singapore.
“Dubai is also very interested in becoming a smart city example. I think both of us, in terms of our size and our goal, need to be more efficiently organised in building up this area," Bhatia says.
"Companies in Singapore, including a number of start-ups, actually provide some value to Dubai’s own aims, because we offer integration of software into single platforms. So we have the right integration platforms. In terms of building smart city projects in Dubai, I think Singapore can offer its experience."
It seems to have done so already. While Singapore introduced the world’s first driverless taxi on its streets in August 2016, Dubai launched a month-long trial of a driverless vehicle in the same month. The trial was part of Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s plan to become the smartest city in the world. The plan aims to switch 25 percent of total mobility in the city to driverless journeys by 2030.
While Singapore and the UAE are neck and neck in the race to driverless mobility, Bhatia says the two can still help each other grow separately.
“I think there are certain areas where Dubai has led a path globally and there are certain areas where Singapore has made certain benchmarks," he says. "I’d say each have regional benchmarks in their own right and I can see Singapore and Dubai as benchmark partners [that] look at each other and say, ‘okay, you’ve grown this far in this area and you’ve done certain things, certain processes that have allowed you to go this far'.
"Look at Emirates Airline, for example. It built itself from two planes it loaned from Pakistan International Airlines in the 1980s and today, it is [one] of the biggest single airlines in the world. Singapore Airlines has also been, in the past, the benchmark for airlines. And today I think they can both benchmark each other.
“There is something similar in Singapore and Dubai — the business processes, the organisation, the value. [They’re both] about getting things done. They have that same ethos, which allows them to continue delivering solutions. Singapore has built a global brand name for doing things and actually delivering and I think you see that in Dubai every day."
Bhatia says Singaporeans hear stories of Sheikh Mohammed's vision.
"[He] is famous for people coming up to him and saying: ‘We want to build something’ and he will say, ‘Do it in half the time and half the cost’. [In other words], ‘get it done fast’. That kind of ethos gets things done," Bhatia says.
"In a way, both sides have a lot to share with each other. I don’t see whether one is 10 years ahead or behind. I think in some areas, we are ahead and in others, we are behind. But the idea is we’re neck and neck, benchmarking each other and helping each other have this sort of virtuous cycle of healthy competition so that each side can grow."
It is no secret that both Singapore and Dubai made a prompt jump from developing nation/city to first-world destinations and business hubs in their respective regions. And despite “benchmarking each other”, Bhatia says there is one thing Dubai might take from Singapore: diversification.
“Singapore has no oil, no gas and every drop of water that comes from the sky we save. We don’t have natural resources like tin or manganese or things that power the modern-day economy," he says.
"But what we do have is human capital, people, a workforce and in a world where we’re seeing structural change in terms of fossil fuels going towards renewables. You have to diversify your economy. And you can always rely on your people, how you educate them, the sort of education and skills you give them so they are ready for a very different world where change and disruption are the new norm, where less international trade is the new norm."
But the young ambassador says there is much to admire about the Gulf city, too, including its entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“The entrepreneurial energy of many of the UAE-based businessmen, the entrepreneurs and the expats that come here, they are very, very committed to building things of value and they’re given an ecosystem to do that. I think the way the system’s organised allows people from all over the world to interact. You have economic zones like Dubai Internet City, for example, which clusters certain industries together and gives people opportunities to start a business from the ground up. Giving people opportunities and seeing the entrepreneurial ecosystem being built here has been remarkable,” he says.
Despite Bhatia’s high praises for Dubai’s startup community, many are yet to be satisfied by the city’s ecosystem, saying there is a critical shortage in funding. One such opinion belongs to Aramex founder and Wamda Capital chairman Fadi Ghandour, who called on investors to support start-ups in their early stages. Speaking at the Arabian Business Digital Forum in November, Ghandour said: “Thousands of startups, if we don’t fund them, we don’t have an excuse that our ecosystem is falling. I’m not a believer that winner takes all. There is unfair building in the ecosystem if you think it can only happen with one set of investors or companies. We have to talk about the $200,000 investments. It’s like you want to have adults without having a baby first. You need to go to school before you become an adult.”
Ghandour pointed out banks are completely absent from the game, with just 4 percent of bank loans in the GCC going to SMEs and zero going to startups. The Jordanian entrepreneur also called on more trade between GCC countries, something Bhatia strongly agrees with, despite having a slightly more optimistic standpoint.
“I see things in a positive light instead of a negative light. I think there’s a lot more room to grow, especially intra-GCC trade. The GCC countries have great trade relations with the outside world, but I think intra-GCC trade is a work in progress," he says. "There’s a lot more potential and it will come when you see more interconnectivity like the Etihad Rail or the road between Oman and Saudi that cuts down a lot of the travel time. And eventually you’ll see more of this happening when you have events like the Expo2020 and World Cup. Another challenge on the entrepreneurial side, which is a problem we see as well, is small and medium-sized enterprises; how do you encourage SMEs to have ingredients to grow? I think they’re doing a lot to help SMEs, especially in the UAE, so I think it’s going in the right direction."
While Bhatia is ever the diplomat, smoothing out any statements that may seem in the tiny bit controversial, he has a spark about him that glimmered long before his ambassadorial days, when he was a young journalist striving to make a difference in the world.
Sporting a dark blue suit and a quirky red polka dot bowtie, Bhatia says being a diplomat is similar to being a journalist. Laughing at the thought of his days in journalism, he says, “It was a long, long time ago. I think being a diplomat [or journalist], you have to analyse trends around you. So I can use the skills I developed as a journalist. It was two decades ago and I don’t miss anything. I just go with what I have and make the most of it. And I’m very happy that I’m paid to do a job that I actually love,” he says, answering, for the first time, in a more relaxed manner.
Yet despite his career switch, Bhatia says diplomacy is not for everyone.
“You need to have tact and sensitivity and curiosity of other cultures. [You need to have] tact because you need to do things which [involve] how another person feels, how a culture feels. So I think if you don’t have tact and sensitivity towards other cultures, don’t become a diplomat,” he says.
While there are character traits essential to being a successful diplomat, one real benefit is that if you do your job well, chances are pretty good that unlike journalism, which is going through layoffs and cutbacks globally, you will always have a job.
“Today, I think the profession of diplomacy and foreign service is also going through a disruptive change. We’re not in any danger of being replaced by robots because diplomacy is not one of those jobs that is essentially high-concept and non-routine. We’re really surprised every day. So I would tell young people that diplomacy is one of those jobs that isn't going to be replaced by robots,” Bhatia says, laughing.
While the ambassador will soon be replaced, it is safe to say his work to strengthen relations between Singapore and the UAE will not be forgotten.
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