According to Betteridge’s Law, any headline that ends with a question mark can be answered with a “no”. But let’s not be hasty. A few months ago, the UAE declared a shift in its healthcare policy towards longevity and healthy aging. Throughout its fairly short history, the UAE has been a remarkably ambitious country. Could it become one of the world’s longevity capitals – a global centre for longevity research?
In the 51 years since its creation in 1971, the UAE has gone through a series of remarkable transformations. It has developed from a collection of Bedouin tribes to one of the 21st-century’s richest countries, with a GDP per head of $50,000 according to the IMF, slightly ahead of the UK. Its population has grown from half a million in 1975 to 10 million today, 90% of whom are expatriate workers, mostly from south-east Asia. When I first visited Dubai in 1983, the World Trade Centre was the tallest building in the Middle East, with 30 floors. Now it is almost invisible amid a forest of much taller buildings.
It is true that much of this wealth came from oil, but of the seven emirates which comprise the UAE, only Abu Dhabi has large oil reserves. The other emirates, and especially Dubai, became rich through trade, finance, and latterly tourism.
The UAE embraces new technologies enthusiastically. It was the first country in the world to appoint a Minister for Artificial Intelligence, and it is keen to establish a new Silicon Valley on the site of the World Expo 2020, which actually took place in 2021 because of the pandemic. Many countries have tried to emulate Silicon Valley, but the UAE’s track record of achieving its ambitions is more impressive than most. Last year, the UAE placed a spacecraft into Mars orbit. It was was only the fifth country to do so, and the second country (after India) to do it successfully on the first attempt.
Can the UAE apply its ingenuity, its vision, and its money to longevity research? The information and consultancy firm Deep Knowledge reckons there are 400 mature longevity companies in the world (meaning firms heading towards IPO), of which over half are in the USA, and none in the UAE. Can the UAE hope to catch up?
The key ingredient is modern AI systems is data. As patients, we generate vast amounts of data, but in most countries, the majority of it is not captured, or is stored in mutually incomprehensible databases. In 2019, Abu Dhabi launched Malaffi (“my file”), the Middle East’s first universal healthcare platform. All the emirate’s hospitals are connected to the system, providing the basis for one of the best patient data collection systems in the world.
The UAE is working to attract the world’s leading healthcare companies, to incubate successful startups, and to provide these firms with talented scientists and engineers, both home-grown and imported. One company which has been persuaded by the vision is Insilico Medicine, a company at the forefront of AI drug discovery. Insilico applies AI in three phases: First, a platform called PandaOmics identifies potential targets for new drugs by combing through vast libraries of clinical data and research papers. A second platform called Chemistry42 identifies molecules which could form the heart of an effective drug against the identified target. Third, Inclinico applies AI to the testing of candidate drugs, first in simulations, and then in animal and human tests. Insilico is sufficiently enthused by the opportunities in the UAE that Alex Aliper, one of the company’s co-founders, has moved there to forge ties with partners and suppliers, and open up research facilities.
To cultivate startups, the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) has a $545 million Innovation Program for life science start-ups. As yet it boasts no unicorns (startups valued at more than £1bn) but it does have some “soonicorns” (startups that are expected to cross that threshold soon), including Takalam, an online counselling platform, and Predictiv, which uses patients’ DNA to create their simulated digital genetic twins in order to assess the risk of disease, and offer preventative advice.
To attract foreign talent, qualified individuals are offered ten-year Golden Visas, easier pathways to citizenship, and of course, they can benefit from the country’s famous zero-percent rate of income tax.
Becoming a global centre for longevity research could generate enormous revenues in adjacent industries. For instance, medical health tourism is already a big business in Dubai, worth $14 bn in 2021. If the UAE does become a global centre for longevity research, this could explode, with excellent longevity-oriented healthcare combined with the country’s natural advantages of great weather and beaches, impressive tourism infrastructure, and the endless fascination of the desert.
And while people of means are spending time in the UAE, combining vacation with healthcare, they could also be offered solutions by some of the UAE’s other trademark industries. Like financial services. After all, if you’re going to live longer, you need your money to work for you for longer.
Warts and all
No country is perfect, and the UAE is no exception. It is not a democracy, the media is not free, and the rule of law can be arbitrary. Homosexuality is a crime, and of course the position of women is often invidious. Some, though not all of these and other blemishes are being addressed. Capital punishment has not been applied since 2014, and corporal punishment is now rare. Alcohol consumption for both Muslims and non-Muslims was legalised in 2020. Paradoxically, women are more prominent in professional roles than in many Western countries: 80% of the science team which put the Hope spacecraft into orbit around Mars were women. Westerners attending conferences in the UAE are often surprised how many of the local delegates are women.
Much of the world is in denial that longevity really deserves to be a science. Many people think 80 years or so should be long enough for anyone, and more would be tedious. They think investments in the field by tech magnates like Jeff Bezos and the Google founders are the selfish, irresponsible indulgences of very rich men. Others think that extending lifespan is impossible, and we should settle for improving healthspan. In a couple of decades, these opinions may well be seen as barbaric, and death recognised as the tragedy that it is in peace as well as in war. The UAE has the opportunity, the resources, and above all the vision to help make that future arrive sooner.