‘Disruptive Innovation’ debated in Dubai

Business leaders discuss future developments as emirate approaches crossroads between a knowledge driven economy and an innovation led environment

The UAE Minister of Culture, Youth and Community, His Highness Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, graced the list of speakers at the third annual Harvard Business School Club of the GCC Conference in Dubai in April, many of them distinguished HBS alumni from around the region.

‘Disruptive Innovation’ was the focus of the ‘Crossroads 2015’ programme, introduced by Dubai-based club president Goulam Amarsy, with speakers spanning a wide range of sectors from financial services, aviation and petrochemicals to freezone clusters, trade, tourism and education, retail, and healthcare.

Contemplating future developments in the financial sector, keynote speaker Omar Alghanim, CEO of Alghanim Industries, also Chairman of Gulf Bank, and an MBA graduate of Harvard Business School, highlighted the burgeoning influence of digital technology. Mobile won’t drive much new business in the sector, he said, but understanding mobile, and therefore the bank’s customers – who they are and how they bank – was critical. It could soon become the “core of banking”.

He also believed that new competitors for savings and payments might not be conventional banks in the future, but could be an Apple or a Google. “Customers are fertile ground for innovators,” he said.

Who would have thought the biggest taxi company in the world, Uber, would have no taxis, that the biggest hotel operator, Airbnb, no hotels, AliBaba no inventory, and Facebook no content of its own?

Tariq Qureishy, CEO of Vantage Holdings

The potential for “pure disruption” around innovation was a theme that moderator Tariq Qureishy, CEO of Vantage Holdings, returned to throughout the day. “Who would have thought the biggest taxi company in the world, Uber, would have no taxis,” he said, “that the biggest hotel operator, Airbnb, no hotels, AliBaba no inventory, and Facebook no content of its own?”

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum was at the forefront of disruptive innovation in Dubai and the wider MENA region when, in 1999, he set the emirate on a path from being a trading economy to a knowledge economy, and launched TECOM, said speaker Malek Al Malek, CEO of Technology, Electronic Commerce and Media (TECOM) Business Parks. The launch of the TECOM cluster created the environment to grow a number of sectors, and now includes 11 freezone business parks covering ICT, media, education, industrial science and design.

Today TECOM is home to 4,500 companies and 70,000 knowledge workers, forming an “ecosystem for innovation” to which, for instance, the 1,600 tech companies in Dubai are clearly linked, and playing a valuable role in, the emirate as a smart city, and where the ICT hub is contributing to the development of e-government and new telecom services.

“We are at the crossroads of the knowledge economy today and moving towards an innovation-driven economy in the future,” added Al Malek.

Innovation is driven by common sense rather than infrastructure

Ajay Bindroo, CEO and Managing Director of Clasico Brands

TECOM is currently investing AED4.5bn in the creation of the 1.6m sq ft Dubai Internet City Innovation Hub, and the 1m sq ft d3 Creative Community, but part of this investment sum will be ring-fenced for start-up funds, and incubation packages.

Later in the programme, Ajay Bindroo, CEO and Managing Director of Clasico Brands added his take that “innovation is driven by common sense rather than infrastructure”. His business has challenged the existing personal grooming industry by taking the alcohol content out of his care and grooming products to cater for the booming Islamic economy.

We are in a period of “maximum volatility and uncertainty”, commented Tarek Elmasry, Managing Director of McKinsey & Co CEO in the Middle East, “an incredibly exciting time and an unbelievable time to make a difference,” but one, he said, full of threats as well as opportunities.

He argued that Dubai is superbly positioned to take long-term advantage of the continued growth of Africa and Asia, provided that the emirate continued to scale up in every department, from “bits and bytes to ports and airlines”.

The education system and the jobs market are like ships that pass in the night. The model is so last century.

Tarek Elmasry, Managing Director of McKinsey & Co CEO in the Middle East

However, Elmasry highlighted one specific problem area which he argued should become a focus of disruptive innovation internationally – the education system. Fostering a step change here would, he said, be a way for Dubai to future-proof itself. “We need a complete reinvention of the education system,” he said. “The education system and the jobs market are like ships that pass in the night. The model is so last century.”

Panel member Abdulla Al Awar, CEO of the Dubai Islamic Economy Development Centre, outlined the emirate’s strategy to become a global leader and pioneer in the global US$2.5tn Islamic economy sector, utilising competencies in which it excels. He said the move was being made possible because of Dubai’s “enabling environment for disruptive thinking”.

On the same panel, Deputy Chairman of Kanoo Group, Mishal Kanoo, brought another interesting perspective to the overall debate, arguing that a sound philosophy – where profits are ultimately shared more widely – should underpin trade, “disruptive innovation”, and the pursuit of scale.  As a businessman, “I don’t want to eat everybody’s lunch!” he told the audience.

Other special guest speakers during the day included Badr Al Olama, the CEO of Strata Manufacturing, Yogesh Mehta, Managing Director of Petrochem, Osman Sultan, the CEO of Du, and Dr BR Shetty, the Founder, Executive Vice President and CEO of NMC Healthcare.