Healthcare in the Gulf is booming, but governments cannot afford to fund the sector completely. Can the private sector step up and fill the gap?
Essa Al Maidoor doesn’t hold back when Arabian Business asks how big he wants the Dubai healthcare sector to become: “As big as the biggest,” he replies before chuckling in acknowledgement of his confidence. “We always like to work that way in Dubai. It is coming up, I am 100 percent sure.”
There is little reason to doubt the director-general of Dubai Health Authority, given investment in the healthcare sector across the United Arab Emirates has tripled in the past five years and is expected to soar from $3.2bn in 2012 to $11.9bn in 2015, contributing to more than 6 percent of non-oil gross domestic product.
The country has rapidly expanded since the 1970s oil boom, achieving all manner of world records, but the healthcare sector has significantly lagged behind. Spending on healthcare per capita across the Gulf Cooperation Council is only about $1,200 compared to up to $5,000 in developed countries, according to Deloitte.
The poor spending has seen a significant number of GCC nationals travel overseas for specialist medical attention they cannot get at home.
Deloitte estimates the Kuwaiti government spent $1.7bn on treatment costs for patients abroad in 2011, while the UAE paid $2.5bn for its nationals seeking medical care overseas.
“There’s quite a lot of outflow of patients in the GCC needing to seek medical treatment abroad in places like the US and Germany,” Deloitte’s director of healthcare consulting, Parham Gohari, says. “The quality of care... [is] why patients prefer to go abroad, especially for major treatments and major surgeries.”
But the story is gradually changing as governments rattled by the Arab Spring look to improve services and foreign investors identify lucrative gaps in the market.
While two thirds of the UAE’s healthcare spending in 2012 was by the government — significantly more than the global average — international private investors are quickly increasing their stake in what may be the last recession-proof industry.
“There are so many coming here; believe me, a lot and on so many levels,” Al Maidoor says of international investors in the Dubai healthcare sector.
“They not only [want] to establish hospitals [but also] the support services for hospitals. There is medical and non-medical support, logistics, which is required for the hospitals.”
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