The UAE represents a historic ally in the region for the United States and is its largest export market in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). President of the US-UAE Business Council Danny E. Sebright has no doubt that with the strong diplomatic affinity, defense and security ties, as well as economic interests—in areas such as trade, education, and healthcare—bilateral US-UAE relations are set to reach a new high. Here, he also discusses the global connectivity potential of Dubai’s Expo 2020.
The UAE’s winning bid to host Expo 2020 has placed the country under the media spotlight. This global event provides an opportunity to show the UAE’s transformation from a tiny Gulf oil producer into a global center for connectivity, innovation, and trade. What does Expo 2020 stand for in your opinion?
Expo 2020, from the very beginning, has been about the theme of connecting people, connecting minds. I have been working with Dubai and UAE’s authorities for the last four years trying to help Dubai win the successful bid from the Bureau International des Expositions in Paris. We have been involved from the preparatory stage and it was natural that the core theme was Dubai being a hub in the region; the connection point between East and West, North and South.
Expo 2020 will be the first ever expo hosted in the Middle East, thereby providing people in emerging markets the opportunity to participate for the first time in such a global event. There was an Expo in China but it was primarily an Expo for the Chinese rather than a global window. This Expo will connect people from India, China, from the “Stans,” Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.
The Emirati officials hope to have approximately 20-25 million visitors during the course of Expo. I was just in Italy for Milan 2015 Expo. They had 25 million visitors. I think Dubai will have far more. Dubai will be surprising and could have up to 35-40 million visitors.
As President of the US–UAE Business Council, you chair the US-UAE World Expo 2020 Standing Committee. What are the current activities that you are undertaking in order to raise awareness about the importance of this event?
First, we are working closely with the Expo 2020 Dubai Higher Committee to help bring the best in class of American industry to the table. Second, we are working to raise awareness in the US about what are the trade and business opportunities—not only in relation to Expo—in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and all the other Emirates, because Expo 2020 will bring all seven of the Emirates together for the 50th anniversary of the country. 2021 will mark the Golden Jubilee of the United Arab Emirates. Expo will start in October 2020 and continue for six months into 2021.
And if we look at the US-UAE relations, the two countries enjoy great political and economic relations. What would you say are the main milestones in the trade and business relations in the past decade or so?
I always refer to the US-UAE relationships as a stool with three legs. The first and the most historic leg is our diplomatic and political relationship. The second is the defense and security bond that started in the 1990s. The third leg of the stool is represented by our economic and trade relations. Bilateral trade has reached $25 billion. This is the biggest export market for the United States in the broader Middle East region that includes India, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. We export more goods and services to the UAE than any of these other countries.
One of the crucial milestones in the last 10 years is the diversification of the UAE economy. Currently, 70% of the UAE’s GDP comes from the non-oil sectors and only 30% from oil and gas. Diversification meant opportunities for American companies. The US has been right at the forefront of the UAE’s aviation growth by bringing our Boeing 777s to Emirates and Etihad. In addition, we contributed with our aluminium production technology for DUBAL (Dubai Aluminium) and EMAL (Emirates Aluminium)—what is today EGA (Emirates Global Aluminium)—to shape the fifth largest aluminium industry in the world. The US has also been instrumental in the development of world-class ports infrastructure. Furthermore, our locomotives, produced by EMD, are on the new Etihad railway, an infrastructure that is going to link all of the countries here in the Gulf. Therefore, in addition to oil and gas, the US has been part of the economic growth of the UAE in every single business vertical.
Other major milestones are the nuclear agreement that we concluded about five years ago; the sale of over $100 billion-worth of aircrafts and aircraft engines two years ago at Dubai Air Show; and the continuous defense and security relationship whereby we have sold to the UAE approximately $20 billion in defense equipment in the last 10 years.
As many other countries experiencing a rapid growth, the UAE is seeking to become a knowledge-based economy. What can be the contribution of the US in this transition?
Seven or eight years ago, I was involved with two critical projects. One was the New York University project to build a campus in Abu Dhabi. The second regarded Cleveland Clinic and its plan to build a world-class hospital in Abu Dhabi.
Today, we can say we managed to bring to the UAE the most liberal and progressive university in United States, and provide a unique educational experience here in the Arab world.
If we consider Cleveland Clinic, this is one the top three and most sophisticated healthcare providers in the United States, along with Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins. We have approximately 3,000 world-class health professionals and experts now working in Abu Dhabi. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi is certainly the most advanced healthcare facility in the broader Middle East area. I believe Cleveland Clinic, as a top-notch American hospital, will be a game-changer for the healthcare sector in the region, in the same way New York University is going to change the education model.
You’ve been here in the UAE many times. What aspects of this country have surprised you the most?
What makes me feel very good about coming to the UAE is the Emiratis’ spirit of welcoming the traveler, regardless of the origin, religion, gender. Emiratis make everyone feel that they have a place here. If you live and work in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you see societies where there are almost 200 different nationalities. The world’s cultures live together and are able to practice their religion; raise their families; have good education and healthcare. This is the spirit that I find wonderful about the UAE.