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Abu Dhabi builds aerospace careers for its citizens

Just 90min drive from the skyscrapers and bustle of Dubai, Abu Dhabi - the United Arab Emirates' once sedate capital - is several years into a mission to transform by 2030 its oil-dependent economy into a hub for high-tech and knowledge industries and an upscale leisure, sporting and cultural destination.

Abu Dhabi dominates the UAE in land area and wealth, but for years it watched its brash neighbour emerge as the de facto metropolis of the whole region, with spectacular beachfront hotels and luxury villas on artificial islands, a thriving business services sector and one of the world's fastest-growing airports and airlines.

Although Abu Dhabi embarked on its strategy well before the collapse of Dubai's property market at the end of 2008, its neighbour's troubles have served to reinforce the difference in approaches between the two emirates. While Dubai, with its few natural resources, relied largely on borrowed capital and a laissez-faire approach, Abu Dhabi is planning its economic diversification in a measured way, using sovereign wealth to underwrite investment and attract foreign expertise.

Etihad pilots, Etihad
 © Etihad
Abu Dhabi wants home-grown talent

Aerospace is key to its vision. After launching its own airline - Etihad - in 2003, Abu Dhabi, through its state investment fund Mubadala began investing in aviation assets, acquiring Swiss maintenance, repair and overhaul firm SR Technics and a stake, alongside Tata of India, in Italian business aircraft manufacturer Piaggio.

It took full control of the former Gulf Aircraft Maintenance Company (Gamco), renaming it Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies. Finally, it announced two years ago plans to establish an aerostructures facility in Al Ain called Strata as part of a planned aerospace cluster in the oasis city.

Abu Dhabi is not bidding to attract low-wage, low-skill outsourced assembly and manufacturing. All its aerospace plays are designed to create high-value industry and worthwhile career options for its young citizens, coupled with an education system to equip them for these professions, says Homaid Al Shemmari, executive director of business development for Mubadala's aerospace unit.

It is not an overnight task. The first stage has been to create "great operators of aviation platforms" and to build an infrastructure around them in MRO, training and other support services. The next step, says Al Shemmari, has been establishing an education system providing aerospace training, "enticing world class colleges to come to Abu Dhabi", and the establishment of Strata, which will supply structural parts to Airbus and Alenia among others.

The final piece of the jigsaw - 2018 is the target - is to become an integrator, and assemble a Piaggio business jet in Abu Dhabi. "Are we going to be build to print for the rest of our lives?" he says. "No, In 20 to 30 years we want to be owning the technologies of the future and developing our own IP [intellectual property]."

Although the emphasis is on developing home-grown talent, Shemmari is realistic about the need to continue tapping skills from outside the UAE in the medium-term.

"We have good capital sources and low-cost energy supplies. Our problem is that at the moment we do not have enough UAE nationals to populate these industries," Shemmari says. There has to be "a flow of knowledge from expats to locals."

Eventually, however, he believes the situation could reverse and the UAE could be a net exporter of skills, with Europe and North America recruiting talented and experienced Emiratis to their aerospace industries. "When the flow of knowledge is going the other way, that's when I can say we've created something of value in Abu Dhabi," he says.

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