As cities around the world piece together their post-pandemic investment plans, Abu Dhabi is thriving. Its Covid-19 response is regarded as the world’s success case, and data from fDi Markets shows that, in 2020, the emirate saw more greenfield foreign direct investment (FDI) announcements than any year since 2008.

Tariq Bin Hendi, director general of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO), reflects on the agency’s eight new offices, how to de-risk failure, and the desire to learn from Israel’s innovation model following the countries’ normalisation of relations.

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Q: Why is the ADIO opening offices in Beijing, Frankfurt, London, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Seoul and Tel Aviv? 

A: It’s the result of an ambitious exercise we started in late 2019 that looked at how to expand globally quite rapidly. These are our first offices abroad, and we started with Tel Aviv which went live a few weeks ago. Given the amount of interest and potential we see between Abu Dhabi and Israel, we wanted to move quickly. These offices will work with local export agencies, multinationals and smaller enterprises to help them grow in Abu Dhabi and ultimately into the wider region. Travel isn’t as easy as it used to be, so we feel it’s even more important to have representation in local markets. 

Q: What are your hopes for the ADIO’s new cooperation agreements with Israel’s innovation and investment agencies?

A: FDI is about quantity and quality, but for us it’s primarily driven by quality. I look at how investment contributes to both the dollar and non-dollar development and expansion of our economy. The Israeli model in terms of innovation and tech has been very successful, and a lot of Abu Dhabi’s development is anchored in innovation. So we are keen to see what these relationships — be they industry-led or via government engagement — bring in terms of success and failure stories. We want to know how, for instance, you can build an economy around innovation, failure (and de-risking that failure), and allowing people to start over again. 

Q: In 2020 the UAE was the highest climber in Kearney's Confidence Index and Abu Dhabi saw its most greenfield FDI announcements in 12 years. What’s your secret? 

A: There are a few things behind that. One is our unequivocally straightforward response to Covid-19: it was lives over livelihoods. That was the initial focus and then it moved to a balance between lives and livelihoods. I talk to companies that are now looking at the business disruption and other countries’ policies, and they tell me they like what the UAE did. Our response woke a lot of institutions up to how organised, thorough and consistent Abu Dhabi’s policymaking is. 

We are also focused on building long-term partnerships with companies. We don’t look at this from a transactional point of view. These factors, coupled with the opportunities here, have brought investors to the table. 

Q: What do you expect from 2021?

A: The traction so far this year has been phenomenal. We are amplifying our focus on the core sectors we want to grow. For those where we already have a competitive advantage, such as energy and telecoms, we want to build an entrepreneurship ecosystem around national champions. In areas we are trying to develop, such as agritech and health tech, we want everyone to come in and participate in everything from genome projects to typical hospital operations. 

Q: What distinguishes Abu Dhabi from Dubai? Is there healthy competition for FDI between the two?

A: A lot of people ask me this, but it is like asking ‘do I go to California or Texas’ — only on a smaller scale. It depends on what lifestyle and benefits you want. There is healthy competition, which is useful, but we ultimately work together towards long-term federal initiatives. 

Everyone in the region is positioning for talent, innovation and growth. But we all have complimentary, value-added sectors that can work together. We aren’t focused on establishing a single dominant tech ecosystem. Riyadh, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Manama — many places have their own thriving ecosystems and we want to play a part in that by working together. That has been our approach, and I think it has resonated quite well with the institutions we work with.

Tariq Bin Hendi is director general of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office.

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