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Foreign professionals and upskilled locals in demand as UAE sets ambitious coding targets

The United Arab Emirates is on a mission to grow its tech sector as part of its economic diversification plans, but it needs more talent from inside and outside the country

Talent, talent, talent is the phrase quoted by almost every tech entrepreneur asked to list the biggest challenges to growth, and it’s much the same for countries on their digital journeys.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country that traditionally attracts overseas workers to fill gaps in its economy, is looking inwards and outwards to build the case for coders deemed necessary to fuel its digital renaissance.

By the end of this year, the country wants to have 100,000 coders, compared with the 30,000 it had before kicking off two initiatives earlier this year, both designed to help the country hit its target.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Omar Al Olama, UAE minister for artificial intelligence, remote working and the digital economy, explains the country’s ambitions in tech and its strategy to more than treble its base of coders.

The strategy aims to support tech ambitions such as doubling the contribution of the IT sector to the UAE economy over the next 10 years and includes dramatically increasing the number of women in IT to make up half of the workforce eventually, and attracting more oversees talent to stay longer.

In June, the UAE launched its National Program for Coders to upskill local people with tech skills and offer “golden visas” to foreign entrepreneurs, owners of enterprises and startups specialised in coding.

The programme’s organisers want to give the UAE the highest number of coders per capita of any country in the world.

To this end, Al Olama says the country has adopted a two-fronted approach, with upskilling locals and luring overseas coders both core to its efforts.

“We are trying to upskill as many people as possible because we are entering into a new phase of technology development,” he says. “Today low-code and no-code techniques mean people can do a lot of things with technology without being as proficient as they needed to be 10 years ago.

“But we also want to attract the best talent from around the world to the UAE.”

“We are trying to upskill as many people as possible because we are entering into a new phase of technology development”

Omar Al Olama, UAE government

It is the UAE’s “golden visa” and the oversees talent it attracts that will have the most overt impact in the short term. A couple of thousand golden visas, which last 10 years, have already been approved for foreign talent. Al Olama says this comes at a time when some countries are taking a closed approach to how they deal with talent.

“What you are seeing now is talent in countries like Russia, China and India finding it very difficult to get visas to go to the US or Europe,” he says. “We give them an alternative to the established markets where they can come.”

The new 10-year visa is part of a strategy to help highly skilled people feel secure in the UAE and to want to be part of the ecosystem, says Al Olama. The visas are available to coders with the right skills from across the world.

“There is a natural uptake from certain countries, such as the UK and India, that want to be part of our renaissance, but we are not targeting geographies but talent,” he adds.

Al Olama says coders from countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, as well as African countries, are moving to the UAE, which will have a multiplying effect. “As communities from certain countries expand in the UAE, it will attract more people from the same country,” he adds.

According to Al Olama, the UAE’s strategy is not just about offering the most money. “If it is about how much people earn, they would probably all go to the US,” he says. “What people are looking for is a good quality of life, and the ability to work with interesting people from different backgrounds.”

Another challenge the UAE government wants to take on is getting talented people to stay longer and even make the UAE their home. In the past, workers have tended to spend a couple of years in the UAE before returning to their home country or moving on. Short-term visas linked to jobs and cultural challenges mean many foreigners leave after a couple of years, but the UAE leadership wants this to change and the golden visa is one way of addressing this, as is offering people the opportunity to gain citizenship.

The UAE government is also supportive of entrepreneurs setting up their businesses, to encourage them to stay for longer periods. The ease of setting up businesses in the UAE is a major pull as tech entrepreneurs consider their options, and there is also a growing pot of venture capital targeting Middle East-based tech startups, with the country open to foreign entrepreneurs.

Al Olama says in terms of the ease of doing business, the UAE is one of the world’s leading countries and is constantly trying to make the situation better. “Every country is trying to be the easiest to do business, so we have to constantly improve it,” he says.

Read more about IT skills in the UAE

Supporting tech is high on the government’s agenda, says the minister, adding: “There is a clear and direct line of communication between the government and the people working in this space with an open dialogue.”

On the local talent front, the National Program for Coders has already trained more than 15,000 people of different levels in coding. This included teaching people with zero experience to be proficient in coding and taking existing coders to the next level, including teaching different coding languages, as well as looking at very specific applications and applying coding to that.

“If you look at every sector that is a success story, things trickle down into the local community to locals and while we are attracting top talent from around the world, we are also going to create tech communities locally through the National Program for Coders,” says Al Olama.

Part of the development of local talent includes the creation of a ranking system so that coders understand where they stand, he says. People are scored on their core coding ability, as well as their logic, at testing centres. “This will create celebrity status for those who are at the top,” says Al Olama.

Women, massively under-represented in the UAE tech sector, will also play an important role going forward if the country is to reach its ambitious target for coders – a fact that the government recognises. “Realistically, we want to start with between 10% and 20% women and gradually increase to potentially and hopefully 50%,” says Al Olama.

If successful, the UAE’s strategy to build its coder base will support another of the country’s lofty targets. Technology currently contributes about 4.7% of the total UAE economy, but Al Olama says there is no reason why that figure should not double over the next 10 years. “There is no reason why we cannot be like Israel and Singapore,” he adds.

The role of minister for artificial intelligence, remote working and the digital economy was created to ensure the UAE develops and adopts technology in a responsible way. Al Olama says of the role: “We are hearing a lot about the importance of artificial intelligence and governments not being left behind, and the leadership in the UAE believe we need to have a person that oversees this mandate and puts in the regulations that ensure we are part of the growth of AI and ensure we don’t use it in a way that harms future generations.”

His department also aims to ensure that it is not just places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi that advance in the tech sector. “Every city has its niche and we have a council that brings the relevant people from all cities together to ensure there is no crossover and ways to collaborate,” he says.

Before becoming a civil servant, Al Olama was a tech entrepreneur, establishing a software-as-a-service business in the UAE almost a decade ago.

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