The City of the Future: In Conversation with HE Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of Dubai Future Foundation

The City of the Future: In Conversation with HE Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of Dubai Future Foundation

. 6 min read

His Excellence Khalfan Belhoul is the Chief Executive Officer of the Dubai Future Foundation (DFF). He brings more than a decade of experience as a driving force in transforming businesses and organizations that contribute to Dubai's strategy of economic diversification. He also serves as a board member of the Emirates Development Bank and the UAE Football Association. Belhoul holds a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Management Information Systems and a Master’s degree in E-Commerce, both from Boston University.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, is seen as the visionary behind the City’s transformation. How is he such an effective leader, and can you tell me what it’s like to work for him?

Working with His Highness has been such a dynamic experience. To witness the rise of Dubai from behind the scenes is to see the incredible weight of responsibility and duty our leadership carries. This is seen in the eyes of our guests – when an international delegation visits, they see the product of effective policies, forward-thinking strategies, and a focus on nurturing domestic talent and attracting the world’s brightest minds. These guests tend to unintentionally turn a blind eye to the fact that this country is just over 50 years old. Our main source of income in the early days was the pearl trade. Now we’re sitting here discussing blockchain, artificial intelligence, the metaverse, and genome sequencing. Sheikh Mohammed always aims to achieve No. 1, and while it’s a challenge to apply this to everything, this mentality pushes us to impressive heights. He's a risk-taker for the betterment of humanity. You can think of him as a government entrepreneur slash venture capitalist. Many of Dubai’s bets have been successes, such as the globally renowned Emirates Airlines, the Museum of the Future, and all the ports we established in the early days as vital gateways to global trade. Those were massively ambitious projects back then because this was all simply a desert.

The Foundation has launched an ambitious lineup of forward-thinking projects, reports, and partnerships. How will these initiatives address the critical challenges that the world is facing, and how can Dubai capitalize on opportunities that will inevitably emerge?

Indeed, the world is facing several unprecedented challenges – from climate change to a rising population, to food security, to pandemics. At the Dubai Future Foundation, we approach these challenges as opportunities. We explore how to understand and approach the future, firstly through research from our dedicated foresight team that is responsible for disseminating its findings through reports, such as our Future Opportunities Report: The Global 50 that outlines how breakthroughs in generative AI, quantum computing, and climate technologies can solve the world’s most pressing concerns. Simultaneously, we convene global events, such as our annual Dubai Future Forum which brings together 400 of the world’s brightest minds. Partnerships are also created to enhance knowledge sharing and dissemination. Among them is the UAE’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR), launched in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, which aims to embed the latest foresight and research from expert groups into projects in the UAE.

What role do you see emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and robotics playing in shaping the future of Dubai, and how is the Foundation investing in these areas?

DFF always acts as an enabler for all emerging tech, including artificial intelligence and beyond. We aim to stay ahead in terms of policy change, investment, and acceleration towards new technologies as they have a significant role to play in Dubai’s future – and in many ways are already doing so. That is why we are investing so heavily in realizing their potential. At the Dubai Future Labs, the Dubai Robotics and Automation (R&A) Program will boost the development, testing, and adoption of R&A, and accelerate the use of its application in key economic sectors including aviation and logistics. The Program aims to increase the sector’s contribution to Dubai’s GDP to 9% within 10 years. It also seeks to make Dubai one of the world’s top 10 cities in R&A by adopting and developing advanced robotic technologies and empowering national talent. 200,000 robots will be funded over the next 10 years to boost efficiency and productivity across various sectors.

Dubai, like any major city, grapples with serious traffic. However, the government is proactively addressing this issue by investing in autonomous vehicles and drone technology. Tell me more about how the Dubai Future Foundation is driving innovation and shaping the future of transportation.

Yes, I completely understand the city’s busy mornings, especially during Dubai’s event season! We work closely with our stakeholders towards future challenges, and the busy roads are a priority for our partners at Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA). As busy as the roads are, the RTA has built some of the world’s most sophisticated road networks and mass transit infrastructure, mitigating risks to manage the continuous growth of the city. I’d love to share with you the autonomous transportation strategy we are working on, which includes deploying autonomous vehicle testing in sandboxes around the city. The Foundation also launched the Dubai Programme to Enable Drone Transportation, in partnership with the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Emirates SkyCargo, among other key partners. Within this program, Dubai Future Labs will develop the digital infrastructure and regulatory legislation to employ drone technology in Dubai and the wider UAE.

The Museum of the Future is one of Dubai's most exciting new attractions, and the Dubai Future Foundation played a key role in its development. Can you talk about the vision behind the museum and how it aims to inspire visitors to think differently about the future?

The Museum of the Future is a reflection of our leadership’s foresight and the visionary culture that has transformed Dubai into one of the world’s most advanced cities in less than 50 years. Construction began in 2017, and the final piece of the Museum of the Future’s exterior façade was completed in October 2020. The museum’s design and construction were immensely complex. It was built without supporting pillars and enveloped by a 17,600 square meter façade made from steel panels and engraved with Arabic calligraphy. Today, the Museum of the Future is a global landmark of future foresight provided by Dubai and the UAE to the world. The museum hosted one million visitors in just a year, from 163 countries around the globe.

In recent years, we’ve seen rising competition from other cities in the region such as Riyadh and Doha. How do you see Dubai differentiating itself and maintaining its status as a global hub for business and innovation? What initiatives is the Foundation spearheading to further boost the city's appeal?

This kind of healthy competition is extremely positive for the region. Some fortunate things fell into place that are credited to the governments, combined with some unfortunate circumstances around the world that created opportunities for the Middle East and North Africa. There are geopolitical issues happening everywhere in the world, whether it’s China-US disagreements or Ukraine and Russia. In some ways, we have created a Switzerland for our region. On the economic front, I think it’s in everyone’s best interests to work hand-in-hand. In the United States, when Boston is doing well, so is New York and Los Angeles. GDP growth in Qatar or Saudi, or even Abu Dhabi at the city level, is nothing but good news for the region.

In terms of boosting the city’s appeal, one of the [more recent] catalysts has been the recently-launched Dubai Future District Fund, with an initial investment of AED 1 billion. The fund focuses on supporting efforts to establish 1,000 tech companies in the country within five years, leveraging emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, 5G, augmented reality, and robotics. And the statistics are encouraging. The UAE’s venture capital market crossed $1bn in total funding in 2022, crowning it as the highest-funded market in the region. I believe one of the keys to unlocking this success is Dubai having created a VC arena, where the regulators, funders, and accelerators are able to interact in a close-knit ecosystem.

Tel Aviv and Dubai are the two big tech hubs in the Middle East. Building off the Abraham Accords, how does the Dubai Future Foundation collaborate with Israelis? How do you navigate ideological differences to promote innovation in the region?

The Abraham Accords were a major milestone for us driven by peace and tolerance. I was there on one of the first flights to Tel Aviv, and I’ve had some productive meetings with [Israeli] leadership [in] the tourism, innovation, and business sectors. When it comes to the Dubai Future Foundation, clearly, building innovation ecosystems is a priority for us. And we cannot deny that the Israeli model, which involves large-scale investment in R&D, private-public sector partnerships, and collaboration with academia, has done a fantastic job of pulling everything together. Of course, there was a major focus on cybersecurity and agri-tech on their front. But across the board, many interesting conversations have taken place. The moment the Accords were signed, I had a surge of emails in my inbox. The opportunity was clearly recognized, and we understood the areas of dialogue we could explore together.

Ohrenstein spoke with His Excellence Khelfan Belhoul on April 16, 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.