As a global aviation hub with a highly mobile population that places it at heightened risk of exposure to Covid-19, Abu Dhabi has taken innovative measures to limit the impact of the pandemic on public health and the wider economy.
The UAE – of which Abu Dhabi is the capital – became the first country in the Middle East to report a case of the virus on January 29. Although figures for individual emirates are not available, the UAE had reported over 3,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 16 deaths as of April 10, out of a global total of 1.63m cases and 96,000 fatalities.
In an effort to prevent imported cases, Abu Dhabi announced the temporary closure of its airport and the suspension of all flights on March 24. On April 5 the airport partially reopened to allow the national airline Etihad to operate a limited number of repatriation flights for international travellers stuck overseas.
For residents, strict social distancing measures remain in force: a home curfew has been imposed from 8.00pm-6.00am, and people are only permitted out during the day to purchase necessary provisions or if they are deemed to work in essential professions.
Although such social distancing measures are broadly similar to other methods employed across the world, Abu Dhabi has distinguished itself in its use of medical innovation to limit community transmission.
As of April 7, the UAE as a whole had tested 220,000 people for Covid-19 out of a population of approximately 9.9m – the 12th-highest number of tests in the world by volume and the seventh-highest per capita.
At a local level, the rate of testing in Abu Dhabi is set to increase further following the opening of a pioneering drive-through testing centre on April 1, which conducted some 3,000 tests in its first two days of operation.
The Abu Dhabi authorities are also carrying out a daily disinfectant programme on the emirate’s streets, and have engaged a robot normally used for firefighting purposes to aid in this task.
While the government response to Covid-19 has been robust, Abu Dhabi’s private sector has also stepped up to boost resilience against the pandemic.
On March 31 Abu Dhabi-based technology firm Group 42 (G42) and Chinese genomics firm BGI announced they had built a vast throughput laboratory in the emirate’s Masdar City in just 14 days.
The lab is designed for population-scale detection of Covid-19 and is the largest of its kind outside China, capable of conducting tens of thousands of tests per day.
Although initially to be used for scaling up testing in Abu Dhabi and its fellow emirates, the facility could also be expanded to receive samples from elsewhere, helping to build Abu Dhabi’s growing reputation as an international medical tourism and technology hub.
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, Abu Dhabi’s government was working to establish the emirate as a “central destination on the global medical tourism map”. A November 2019 Abu Dhabi Department of Health policy document outlined a vision for attracting medical tourists through high-quality medical facilities and services that are supported by modern medical technology and facilitated by ease of travel.
Abu Dhabi’s efforts to develop non-oil growth engines, such as medical tourism and technology, are underpinned by investments in the local start-up ecosystem.
In October 2019 Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s investment vehicle, announced a $250m tech fund to accelerate domestic innovation. Of this, some $150m is allocated for venture capital to support the emirate’s tech incubator Hub71, which had been launched earlier that year.
Speaking to international media on April 2, Ibrahim Ajami, head of ventures at Mubadala Capital and Acting CEO of Hub71, said that Mubadala’s venture capital arm was considering setting up a dedicated health care fund in 2021 to tap into growing demand for investment in digital health technology and life sciences following the Covid-19 outbreak.
The fund is expected to be larger than Mubadala’s previous venture funds, which include a €400m vehicle launched last year for investment in Europe.
Ajami predicts a proliferation of start-ups in Abu Dhabi focused on quick testing, diagnostics and the development of health care supply chains.
Private sector stimulus
Although the opportunities for long-term private sector growth in health care and medical technology in Abu Dhabi are significant, action has also been taken to shore up businesses against the short-term negative effects of the pandemic.
On March 16 the Abu Dhabi Executive Council passed a comprehensive stimulus package with a 16-point strategy for protecting vulnerable firms and households.
Key measures include a Dh3bn ($816.9m) allocation to the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) credit guarantee scheme managed by Abu Dhabi Investment Office, designed to stimulate financing by local banks to SMEs; electricity subsidies for start-ups until the end of the year; and the establishment of a Dh1bn ($272.3m) market maker fund to boost liquidity in the stock market.
Despite the recent collapse in the oil price due to weakened demand and a supply dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council has signalled its intention to press ahead with long-term development plans, including fiscal reform, monetary policy initiatives and capital projects.
“Abu Dhabi has the resources, even at these levels of crude oil prices, to continue with its planned progression,” Mohammed Ali al-Shorafa, Executive Council member and chair of the Department of Economic Development, said in a televised interview with CNBC on March 19.