17 Mar 20

How competition is turning UAE into a mobility hotspot

From hyperloops to sky pods: the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are serious about mobility innovation. And it’s not just for domestic consumption: the country is a hub for start-ups operating in the wider Middle East. The UAE’s pole position in the race towards the future of mobility is driven by ambition… and rivalry. 

At the start of March, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) signed an agreement with mobility provider BeemCar for the development of sky pods in the city. Sky pods are capsules suspended from and transported by steel cables, connecting stations via the air. 

Eye-catching addition
The sky pods (pictured) will be an eye-catching addition to Dubai’s future-oriented mobility landscape. They’re just the latest example of a concerted drive to innovate mobility, driven by ambition and rivalry. 

Dubai is just one of the emirates that constitute the UAE, a fairly loose federation of seven sovereign coastal states – think European Union rather than United States. 

There exists a certain degree of rivalry and competition between the emirates and especially between Dubai, the biggest city and the country’s commercial capital; and Abu Dhabi, somewhat smaller, and the country’s political capital – and in control of 90% of the country’s oil reserves. 

Two airlines
That rivalry is apparent in the existence of two ‘national’ airlines: Emirates and Etihad. Emirates, based in and owned by the royal family of Dubai, is the bigger and more successful brother of Etihad, which is based in and owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi.

There is a great deal of overlap between both companies, both in terms of corporate structure and customer offers. Yet talks of a merger seem (as yet) unlikely, since it would mean both royal houses have to give up one of their most prestigious assets. 

A similar mixture of prestige, ambition and high-tech is at play in the mobility sphere. With two main differences: because of the distinct geographies of each emirate, there is no overlap. And the need for mobility innovation is very acute in the huge cities that have sprung up in the desert in the space of just a few decades.  

Traffic jams
Take for instance Dubai’s plans to become the world’s first true ‘smart city’. 
Those plans are driven by the city’s chronic traffic jams. As soon as 2030, the city wants 25% of its journeys managed by driverless vehicles. Dubai has previously showcased trials of driverless and even flying taxis. The sky pods are yet another eye-catching solution.  

In 2019, Dubai’s RTA began tests with two models of sky pods: the small Unibike (designed for two riders and shorter trips) and the larger Unicar (for longer journeys). Both types of sky pods will travel autonomously, hanging from cables that connect large buildings in Dubai. 

Because they travel in the air, sky pods occupy almost no space on the ground (except the footprint of their stations) and the transport they offer is fast, reliable and efficient. 

The smaller emirate of Sharjah, meanwhile, is developing its own hanging track transport system, called the SkyWay, which will transport both people and cargo. 

Similar ambition
As in other matters, Abu Dhabi has a similar ambition to Dubai’s also in terms of mobility – and a slightly different path. In fact, according to a recent McKinsey report, the smaller of the two cities is actually slightly ahead of Dubai when it comes to smart city ranking.

Launched in 2018, Zayed Smart City Project is a five-year plan to develop smart city technologies in Abu Dhabi, largely via the use of Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. By the end of 2022, it should lead to a proliferation of smart city solutions and services throughout the city. 

The UAE’s grandest mobility project undoubtedly is the Hyperloop, the first 10 km of which is due to open later this year. It will eventually reduce the journey time between Dubai and its rival city (and UAE capital) Abu Dhabi to 12 minutes (down from an hour by car today) and confirm both as two increasingly complementary halves of the drive towards innovative mobility solutions.  

Wider Middle East
But the competing drives towards smart cities don’t just promise to deliver greater sustainability, efficiency and quality of life to the UAE’s own citizens. As a hub for innovation, the country is increasingly the go-to place for start-ups and disruptors who look to the wider Middle East as their playground. 

One example is iMile, a Dubai-based last-mile delivery startup. Earlier this month, the company announced that it had raised $10 million in Chinese capital to fund a planned expansion into Egypt, Kuwait and Morocco. 

When the coronavirus crisis subsides, it is more than likely that the UAE will resume its place as a global hub for airline travel, and a regional hub for mobility innovation. 

Image: Dubai Media Office

Authored by: Frank Jacobs