Special operation: Dubai healthcare

Vision explores how the Al Jalila Foundation’s plans to revolutionise medical innovation in Dubai have got off to a flying start

Healthcare reform in Dubai occurs at a breakneck pace. The emirate built its first clinic in 1951, a 12-bed facility that doled out vaccinations and basic medical care to local residents. Today, Dubai’s gleaming hospitals are on a par with those in the US and Europe, offering the latest in medical equipment and cutting-edge care, and often in five-star luxury.

This rapid-fire overhaul has left some fields of medicine scrambling to catch up and the Gulf state does require more Emirati medics, nurses and scientists, to help build in-country capacity and keep pace with a swelling population. 

Dubai’s Al Jalila Foundation has these issues in its sights. The charity, which launched in April, plans to raise US$27.2m to drive research into the UAE’s most prevalent medical conditions and to fund scholarships for its brightest students and healthcare professionals. Its overarching goal is to spur a thriving biomedical industry and transform Dubai into a hub for medical innovation, able to lure scientists from around the world. It is, maintains Dr Abdulkareem Sultan Al Olama, Chief Executive Officer of the Foundation, an exciting challenge.

Culture of research

“We have highly qualified doctors but we don’t yet have a pool of scientists. That is our target and what we need to advance the healthcare industry. Our aim is to create a culture of research,” he says.

The engine of this change will be funding. Al Jalila plans to invest more than 25 per cent of its capital in research, with the biggest slice going to fund tie-ups between local institutes and foreign labor- atories or research centres. The charity is already in early talks with institutes in the US and Europe, with a view to forging research links. “These will be the big grants that will go to two or three institutes, to work with local partners in certain research areas,” says Al Olama.

The foundation will also offer seed grants to aid UAE-based scientists, to help support their research, and extend research fellowship awards to promising candidates. A further 15 scholarships will be allocated to postgraduates hoping to specialise in a field of healthcare. The charity’s third pillar will target treatment, helping to pay for medical care for poorer patients in the Emirates.

“These scholarships aren’t only open to doctors. You could be a nurse, a therapist or someone who would like to go into healthcare management or leadership,” says Al Olama. “Equally, if you’re a doctor and you’d like to continue with cardiology or paediatrics, we could help you with that. Overall, we need leaders.”

Al Jalila plans to cluster its efforts around specific clinical themes, with each of its three pillars – research, education and treatment – weaving back into these topics. Its first programme, announced in May, will target paediatric development disorders, to support children in the UAE with special needs.

“Each of the pillars will fall within the scope of the programme,” says Al Olama. “There is no point in trying to be every-where – it dilutes our impact. I imagine we’ll have between one and four programmes, and we’ll try to address the most pressing clinical needs in the UAE.”

Knowledge-based economy

The charity will rely on donations from private individuals, corporations and the public, and will roll out campaign boxes in petrol stations, malls and other public spots. Despite being just a few weeks old, the response to Al Jalila’s initial fundraising call has been dramatic.

“Our goal is to raise US$27.3m this year, and to work towards creating a permanent endowment of US$27.3m over five years,” says Al Olama. “In the meantime, we’ll spend money to fund our programmes. People need to see results.”

Al Jalila’s success will be critical. The charity speaks directly to Dubai’s plan to craft a knowledge-based economy, igniting private sector growth and creating jobs for its population. It’s a sign of its strategic potential that Al Jalila was foun- ded by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, and is named after his daughter.

Al Olama is optimistic but realistic about the challenges ahead.

“The key thing is that we find scientists here, and support them. We can’t wait until we have big laboratories and teaching hospitals. We have to work with those who already have them. So let’s get started.”