Dubai: Not just a R&R destination but a strategic opportunity for NGOs | Opinion

ByAli Al Mokdad

Dubai: Not just a R&R destination but a strategic opportunity for NGOs | Opinion

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a country that provokes a wide range of opinions. To some, it’s a model of modernity and luxury, a place where strategic projects make futuristic cities rise from the desert sands. Others view it as overly artificial, a land that lacks authenticity. There are those who admire its ambitious projects, events and rapid development, seeing this as a testament to human capabilities and vision. However, some critics argue that this growth comes at an environmental, ethical and societal cost, suggesting complexities lie beneath the surface veneer.

For those in NGOs, the UAE, particularly the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are considered to be prime destinations for rest and relaxation (R&R) leave. However, through this article, I aim to highlight a strategic opportunity for NGOs to consider, showing the benefits (and challenges) of establishing a presence in the UAE. From securing funding and improving coordination to engaging in advocacy, providing humanitarian assistance, and developing sustainability projects, the range of advantages for NGOs is extensive.

The UAE’s rise

If you have been listening to the news over the last few years, especially after 2020, you will have noticed that the UAE has made a name for itself worldwide showing a combination of social, economic, and technological strengths. Fueled by its oil riches, global investments, tourism, and a welcoming market, the UAE has embarked on a bold path to diversify its economy and has emerged as a center of wealth and new ideas in the Middle East. It has become a magnet for big international companies and startups alike that are drawn to cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi for their modern facilities and key positions as global finance centers.

The country’s drive for tech progress is clear from its heavy investment in digitalization, AI, blockchain, and particularly in leading renewable energy initiatives, setting itself up as a technological front-runner in the worldwide move towards digitalization. In addition, the UAE’s role on the world stage is underlined by its organization and hosting of major events, from the World Expo to significant sports occasions such as the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and UFC fights among many other sporting events. The UAE even has a space program as well as a Future Museum. All of this has been driven by strategic vision, innovation, and a business-friendly environment which highlights its new important role as a center for global trade as well as driving its regional role.

Strategic opportunities for NGOs

To understand the opportunities available, we need to look at the UAE’s increasing involvement in humanitarian and development efforts both regionally and globally. My own understanding comes from observing its role and, to share what I’ve learned, I’d like to ask you a few questions:

Did you know that philanthropic and charitable donations in the Gulf are estimated to be US$210 billion and expected to grow? Have you noticed the increasing number of events hosted by the UAE that focus on environmental protection, policies and the achievement of green agenda/global sustainability goals? Did the news of the UAE becoming a hub for the United Nations’ sustainability initiatives catch your attention demonstrating its commitment to a greener future? Have you heard of the International Humanitarian City, the logistics hub in Dubai that facilitates global humanitarian aid operations? What about the UAE’s air bridge operations during COVID-19 and its responses to the Turkey and Syria earthquake and the Lebanon explosion as well as its input in Pakistan and Kabul? Have you seen how quickly the UAE responds to crises in Middle Eastern countries, providing emergency aid or funding? And when it comes to peace and conflict resolution, have you observed the UAE’s growing role in facilitating peace talks? Do you know how Abu Dhabi licenses new NGOs? And did you know the number of NGOs there increased to over 110 in just a short time?

The UAE’s increasing strategic role as a development actor involved in international cooperation could present an environment in which NGOs can engage, innovate, and broaden their impact. Furthermore, the nation’s initiatives to meet its ambition to become a center for sustainability and its humanitarian initiatives are supported by significant investments in Dubai and Abu Dhabi infrastructure as well as global collaborations.

In the past three years, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have hosted many events aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as renewable energy conferences, water conservation forums, summits on digital transformation for social good and, most recently, the COP28 conference.

The International Humanitarian City in Dubai provides NGOs with opportunities for collaboration in logistics and distribution to ensure efficient aid delivery. The UAE’s swift air bridge operations during crises underscore its ability and readiness to support global humanitarian efforts promptly and it has established diplomatic ties across many nations.

It is important for NGOs to engage with the UAE’s funding and development projects which provide investments for global development and humanitarian efforts and present NGOs with the opportunity to partner on projects that align with their mission. Whether it involves contributing to sustainable development, economic recovery, meeting basic needs, establishing education programs, or peacekeeping efforts and conflict resolution, the UAE provides a unique setting for NGO activities.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are emerging as players in sports, global events, technology, and more. I anticipate humanitarian and development efforts to become areas which they will increasingly include within their regional and global influence role.

Eyes wide open: Ensuring values align

All the above shows a positive strategic perspective but those considering engagement must acknowledge certain concerns regarding income inequality and doubts about whether the UAE’s ambitious sustainability goals are realistic given the air pollution and the fact it is a country that still depends so heavily on oil. NGOs exploring partnerships must enter the arena with open eyes, be prepared to have complex conversations regarding labor standards, consider environmental commitments from collaborators, and voice expectations of transparency.

According to the latest information available, there were over 280 NGOs registered in the UAE in 2022.

Securing ethical guidelines, equitable inclusion policies, accountability structures and impact reporting procedures before engagement is very important. Beyond financial traceability, the operational risks tied to partnering with UAE cannot be underestimated. Ultimately, the onus falls on NGO leadership to probe the fine print, gauge any constraints in light of their mission, and determine if these partnerships will catalyze or undermine their intended impact along the way.

Establishing a physical presence in Dubai presents a range of operational considerations for NGOs, particularly those with regional representation in cities like Amman that may be contemplating expansion into Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The key factors include the costs associated with setting up and maintaining a representation, navigating the complexities of registration and compliance with local laws and taxes, and understanding the implications these might have on operational efficiency and resource allocation.

Furthermore, NGOs should carefully evaluate the strategic value of expanding their presence into the United Arab Emirates. This includes assessing the potential for advocacy efforts, considering the unique political and social dynamics of the Middle East, and the opportunity to forge meaningful networks within a region that is both strategically important and complex. The ability to effectively engage with local communities, stakeholders, and government entities, while aligning with the broader mission and values of the NGO, is crucial.

In summary, while the decision to establish a physical presence in Dubai or Abu Dhabi will offer significant strategic benefits, it requires a thoughtful analysis of the operational, legal, and cultural implications, as well as a comprehensive risk assessment to ensure the long-term success and sustainability of the NGO’s mission.

I’m not selling you Dubai; I’m highlighting the opportunity

My intention isn’t to sell Dubai or the UAE to you; it’s to highlight an opportunity that’s emerging on the horizon. I acknowledge that receiving funding from the UAE, working there, or having representation there is accompanied by certain dilemmas, considerations, and mixed opinions. But whether we go for it or not, the UAE’s dynamic role on the global stage – marked by its commitment to innovation, sustainability, and technological efforts – presents a foundation for NGOs looking to amplify their impact, possibly through funding, coordination, or advocacy. This is about recognizing the UAE not just as a location but as an investor or a partner in driving change. As we navigate the complexities and potential of engagement, the call to action for NGOs is clear: explore, connect, and contribute to a shared vision for the future.