TBY talks to HE Marwan Bin Jassim Al Sarkal, CEO of Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), on Sharjah's strongest sectors for attracting investment, SME growth, and new opportunities.

HE Marwan Bin Jassim Al Sarkal
Following his appointment to CEO in 2009, HE Marwan Bin Jassim Al Sarkal has contributed to the transformation of Sharjah as an investment, tourism, and business destination, as well as developing the Emirate’s arts and culture scene through Maraya Art Centre. He is also a board member of the Sharjah Football Club and Chairman of the German Emirati Joint Council for Industry and Commerce (AHK), Sharjah chapter. In addition to several previous board memberships, he currently serves on the Sharjah Tourism Advisory Committee and several UAE Ministry of Economy joint councils.

How would you evaluate the growth of Sharjah's strongest sectors over the last 12 months, and which areas are you looking to develop?

Shurooq's activities throughout 2016 have focused on increasing investment in four key sectors: tourism and leisure, healthcare, transport and logistics, and real estate and the environment. With regards to the first sector, Shurooq has committed itself to meeting the continuing tourist demand for different experiences. Sharjah manages and develops a number of the Emirate's key lifestyle and leisure projects, and has seen a number of heritage projects become fully established in the last year. Cultural tourism visitors in Sharjah grew from 548,115 in 2012 to 682,734 in 2013 and 706,777 in 2014. With respect to healthcare, Sharjah is positioning itself to be a medical services hub in the region, with growth being fueled by the increasing demand for specialized tests and procedures. Sharjah's healthcare sector is expected to grow to approximately USD2.5 billion by 2019, with its pharmaceutical market size predicted to reach USD1 billion by the same year.

How is Shurooq actively supporting and encouraging SME growth in Sharjah?

Sharjah is considered one of the top SME-friendly destinations in the MENA region and is currently home to more than 55,000 SMEs, with the growth of this sector influenced by easy and cost-effective market access, growing confidence, sustainable profitability, and the Emirate's SME-friendly services and facilities. Sharjah hosts a number of organizations dedicated to promoting and facilitating entrepreneurship across sectors, including Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa), Sharjah Business Women Council, NAMA Women Advancement Establishment, Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, and Ruwaad Establishment, which work to provide new startups with everything they need to become established and profitable ventures. Future opportunities that Shurooq is aiming to capitalize on are the upcoming free zones Sharjah Healthcare City, Sharjah Publishing Free Zone, and Sharjah Media City. We have strong hopes for this sector. Sharjah Economic Development Department issued 35% more new trade licenses during the first two months of 2016 than over the same period in 2015, indicating its underlying importance for Sharjah's investment landscape.

What was achieved in your meeting with the Macedonian delegation and what potential do you see there?

Shurooq's hosting of the Macedonian business delegation was just one of a series of meetings undertaken by the authority in the last 12 months to explore initiatives that will lead to mutual benefits for countries that ally themselves with Sharjah's economic growth plans. Shurooq is committed to exploring diversified and tailored opportunities with economies from around the world, strategically creating business advantages, new jobs, and new room for profitability for both Sharjah and its partner countries. From a business perspective, Sharjah has developed rules and regulations on trade policies, taxation, safety, and customs to cater to the demands of international markets.

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges facing Sharjah in the medium to long term?

The biggest challenge we continue to face is one of perception, and enabling countries and nation states across the world to find out about Sharjah and to understand the plethora of economic advantages it offers. Global economic growth and ever-changing investment trends are factors that we continuously assess to make sure that our investment promotion strategies are in line with market demands. Sharjah offers fertile ground for investment across its various sectors and industries, meaning economic powerhouses can perceive the Emirate as a new area for investment growth and one that provides access to a network of opportunities across the MENA region. Thanks to its wise leadership that is committed to enhancing economic growth, more global investors are seeing the UAE as a prime destination for business expansion into the Middle East and other markets.