With a unique economic infrastructure and diversification of industrial sectors, Sharjah is well on track to position itself as one of MENA’s strongest platforms for strategic networks and trade services. HE Marwan Al Sarkal, CEO of Shurooq, the investment and development authority of Sharjah, tells Curiosity Middle East, how the emirate is moving towards achieving this vision.
Since years, Sharjah has been known as an industrial hub, cultural centre and educational hotspot of UAE. With time the emirate has made tremendous strides towards diversifying its economy by laying strong foundations for future growth. In recent years, Sharjah has emerged as a complete destination in terms of business and leisure offering a perfect mix of interests to tourist and businessmen.
HE Marwan Al Sarkal, CEO of Shurooq – the official investment and development authority of Sharjah, says that the emirate aims to create a business friendly environment by identifying new investment opportunities across different sectors, developing breathtaking destinations and managing some of the emirate’s most recognizable landmarks.
He talks to us further and explains why he calls Sharjah “a city that speaks from the soul with a soul.”
How does Shurooq facilitate investment in Sharjah?
Our core focus as Shurooq is to promote Sharjah’s unique economic advantages to as many investors as possible, and enable them a hands-on access to all the available information and facilities that allow them a transparent and strategic process for their asset management and long-term business ventures. This year we’ve successfully completed a series of international events which included traveling to and welcoming delegates across multiple countries covering all 7 continents.
Our objectives behind these events is to capitalise on promoting Sharjah’s unique economic infrastructure build on the diversity of work cultures and the diversification of sectors giving international investors a new take towards investing in Sharjah. Through these events we were successful in creating new partnerships, share insights on Sharjah’s economic growth, create new investment ventures as well as sign agreements to improve our economic ties with our associates across the world.
Shurooq has targeted four sectors for growth tourism, environment, transport and logistics, and healthcare. What kind of progress has been made in the various sectors during the last 3 years?
Sharjah’s leisure and tourism sector has witnessed a strong and sustainable growth through recent years. The market size for tourism in Sharjah grew from £287.3 million in 2014, to £304.4 million in 2015, with expectations to increase up to 7% this year reaching a market size of £326 million.
Moreover, Sharjah has been moving swiftly towards researching and developing its existing trade laws and regulations, with means to grow and sustain its logistics and transport sector, positioning it as one of MENA’s most supreme platform for strategic networks and trade services. This sector has also witnessed a rapid growth where in 2014, the market for Sharjah’s logistics and transport sector achieved £338.8 million, which then increased up to £385.7 million with expectations to hit £436 million by year-end 2016.
Sharjah’s health sector has also witnessed a positive and stable growth thanks to the growing number of health tourists visiting the UAE for unique and exclusive health and fitness treatments. In 2015, Sharjah’s health sector achieved a growth of up to £763 million in market size over its 2014 standing which was recorded at approximately £700 million. Our forecast confidently reflects the market potential for this sector, with many new facilities and premium healthcare services offered at our new and upcoming Sharjah Healthcare City project, projecting a market size of £824 million by year-end.
Finally, Sharjah has successfully positioned itself as a central hub for innovation and responsibility when it comes to developing environmentally friendly projects and initiatives. Its continuous search in creating the most advanced renewable energy technologies opened for investors an array of new doors to invest in multiple environmental projects. This achievement has led its market size to grow from £172.8 million in 2014, to £184 million in 2015. We forecast that the market size will continue to grow progressively, reaching £192 million by year-end.
What do you have to say about the tourism and aviation industry and how Sharjah is positioned globally as well as in the Gulf region?
Sharjah International Airport is the UAE’s third busiest airport and in 2015 it set a record of more than 10 million passengers with a growth of 5.5 per cent over the previous year. According to data from the Airports Council International, Sharjah International is the eighth busiest airport in the Middle East. In October 2014, Sharjah Airport completed a major £103.9 million runway expansion project that would allow it to receive large-bodied aircrafts such as the Boeing 747-800 and Airbus A380 as well as giant freighters like AN124 and AN225. Sharjah International is also regarded by some as a regional airport since it serves the important demographic of the Middle East and South Asia with carriers such as Pakistan’s PIA and Air India in addition to Egypt Air and Saudi Airlines.
Is Sharjah a complete destination in terms of business and leisure? Please throw some light on the upcoming attractions in the emirate.
From a business perspective, Sharjah has developed rules and regulations on trade policies, taxation, safety and customs to cater to the demands of international markets. Shurooq has travelled to numerous high-level trade events across the world exchanging expertise and presenting Sharjah’s array of facilities for the businessperson, including its tax-free environment, free zones and wealth of special incentives.
Furthermore, Sharjah hosts some of the major business and entertainment and fairs in the region, delivering communities some of the most exclusive and interactive workshops, seminars and other activities catering to a diverse set of audiences. What makes Sharjah an attractive platform for these types of events are all its services, facilities, consumer demand and economic opportunities it provides that attract event organizers to the emirate.
For example, Sharjah is home to the Expo Centre Sharjah, which is considered Sharjah’s main hub for multiple B2B and B2C events. Expo Centre Sharjah organizes events such as STEELFAB, which is the region’s biggest steel manufacturing and molding exhibition, The Middle East Watch and Jewelry Show, one of the most popular consumer and jewelry shows attracting visitors across all of the UAE, Plastivision Arabia, which is considered one of the biggest events and exhibition for plastic products in the Middle East and much more.
Tourists visiting Sharjah will genuinely experience one of the most modern, Arabic, Islamic and authentic cities in the region
Other destinations which have played a major role in hosting key events include Al Majaz Waterfront, where early this year the Sharjah Color Run was organized there receiving large sums of fitness fans and visitors across the UAE, also early this year we organized the Sharjah Food Festival, which took place across a variety of our tourism destination across the emirate such as Al Qasba, Al Majaz Waterfront, Heart of Sharjah and Al Montazah Amusement and Water Park.
Sharjah is also home to some of the biggest events of their kind in the region, such as the Sharjah International Book Fair, the Sharjah Government Communication Forum and, organized for its second edition this year by Shurooq in partnership with Financial Times and FDI magazine, the Sharjah FDI Forum.
With regards to tourism and leisure, in January this year we launched the first phase of the Mleiha Archaeological and Eco-tourism project which combines an authentic archeological experience with more adventurous activities such as paragliding, dune-bashing and safari-trips. Our forthcoming plans focus on similar eco-tourism projects that deliver authentic experiences to visitors.
If you were a tourist yourself on a first visit to Sharjah, how would you have described it and rated it?
Sharjah is a distinctive destination which offers tourists a fully-integrated experience enabling them to record the most memorable sightings such as Sharjah’s wide natural landscapes, mountains, sand dunes and its cosmopolitan features of the Sharjah city.
Sharjah as a destination allows tourists to visit and trek on natural and restored landmarks dating back to 1,500 AD. The Mleiha Archaeological and Eco-tourism destination is the most iconic destination to experience this history, it represents one of the most important chapters on the origins of Sharjah and the GCC area.
Sharjah enjoys a unique geographic location between both the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, which are all rich in aquatic life attracting tourists to undergo the scuba diving and other water-related sports.
Overall, Sharjah is a city that speaks from the soul, with a soul. Even its University City has become an attraction for some tourists, as they take note of the city’s remarkable architecture designed universities as well as its massive green landscapes. Its rich cultural heritage can be visited, witnessed and experienced across more than 18 museums scattered all around the emirate. Therefore a tourist visiting Sharjah will genuinely experience one of the most modern, Arabic, Islamic and authentic cities in the region.
What are the major challenges facing Sharjah in the various sectors of your operation?
With challenges come great innovations and results. We believe that with more challenges we face the more we become innovative therefore the more we become in-line with market demands. The UAE has maintained one of the most ideal and iconic political stabilities and safety measures across MENA. Our laws and regulations have helped develop one of the most family-friendly and diversified communities in the world. This has been a key attribution to why the UAE has become one of the most favored destinations for investments and businesses.
Do you have the adequate resources to meet those challenges?
Absolutely. Shurooq is aware that securing investment is not a ‘one man show.’ This is why we have been working closely with the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in our ventures. We also collaborate with the Sharjah International Airport Free Zone, the Hamriyah Free Zone, the Sharjah Economic Development Department, the Sharjah Health Authority and several other government entities.
What are your unique strengths and key differentiators?
Sharjah’s economy is diverse and flexible Our free zones and ports have sustained the businesses of a multitude of international brands who have begun their operations from the emirate. Today, the majority of these brands are operating across the entire MENA network, with some also covering Asian markets. Our manufacturing sphere and various trade sectors show ongoing growth due to our strategic partnership with trade organizations across the world and our ease-of-doing-business incentives continue to attract SMEs and small business owners.
What is being done to develop mid-market hotels in Sharjah?
One of our strategies is developing the mid-market hospitality sector in Sharjah is by developing a series of mid-level to luxury hotels by Shurooq. For instance, we’re in the process of developing a brand-new boutique hotel called Al Bait Hotel. Located in the Heart of Sharjah, this project is a retreat where the traditional and contemporary experiences meet together and offer the truest most authentic form of Sharjah heritage and tradition integrated with the most modern-form of hospitality. Our mission behind this development is to incentivize hotel operators to invest on a diversified set of mid-market to luxury hotels while, more importantly, delivering guests some of the most unique and distinctive hospitality experiences and lifestyles.
Sharjah has an adequate number of hotel rooms for the mid-market hospitality industry; however our objective is to position Sharjah as a destination which offers tourists and visitors new hospitality experiences versus an ordinary room. We are doing so by developing authentic tourism experiences in Sharjah and across all its different cities.
Some of the concepts we are developing are, for instance, creating lodges that will enable tourists the experience of the area’s natural surroundings, creating king fisher lodges to experience some of Sharjah’s iconic mangrove sites, studying unique lifestyles for new hotels in Mleiha to experience its fossil rocks the mountains in the heart of Sharjah’s desert, and developing the Bait Khalid Bin Ibrahim museum to allow tourists to experience the most authentic form of an Emarati house in the 50’s.
This is all genuinely attributed to two things, the first one is based on a report by Hotelier Middle East in 2015, stating that millennial travellers will account for 75% of the world’s travel population in the next five years. The second one attribution is the fact that Sharjah is such a flexible market with a growing consumer demand for diversified offerings and unique experiences.
What is the latest news from Shurooq?
Shurooq continues to develop new and existing tourism projects in Sharjah.We are also preparing for the Sharjah FDI Forum, which is one of the largest economic and business forums in the Middle East in collaboration with the Financial Times. The Sharjah FDI Forum 2016 will analyse the current economic conditions prevailing in Sharjah and the UAE and evaluate the potential opportunities that derive from them. Comprising presentations, discussion panels and keynote addresses, the forum follows on from last year’s successful inaugural event, which was held to capitalise on the UAE’s 2014 first placed position as the most attractive FDI country in the Middle East and Africa.
How do you see Dubai Expo 2020 as an opportunity for Sharjah?
All of the UAE’s emirates play a key role in complementing one another with their respective businesses and economies. Shurooq continues to promote Sharjah as a strategic partner for international investors and a gateway to the MENA region. We’re confident that Expo 2020 will result in many international investors touch-basing with us for new projects and partnering with us on mutually lucrative initiatives.