The health of the UAE’s biotechnology sector is, in many ways, harder to call than most other sectors.

On one hand, the UAE leads the Arab world in biotechnology, with cutting-edge research in areas such as sustainable energy and biofuels. These efforts are receiving increased global attention.

On the other hand, some of the barriers the sector faces – particularly in terms of getting products to market – are proving enduringly problematic, especially for SMEs. One thing that is agreed on is that even greater collaboration between industry, academia and government is required to help this sector truly take off.


This year, for the first time, the UAE was included in the Scientific American Worldview Report and Bio-Innovation Scorecard. This is a list issued by the Biotechnology Industry Organisation of 54 countries demonstrating biotech innovation and potential. The UAE clinched 40th spot, behind China and just ahead of Russia, and was also the top Arabian Gulf state. (Source: BIO)


Several factors – including geography, infrastructure, economic benefits and available capital –position the UAE as a prime location for biotech innovation.

In addition, a growing and ageing population, combined with significantly rising healthcare spending per capita, support growth in areas like medicinal biotechnology. (Source: Deloitte)


The UAE currently imports 80% of its medicines. This makes healthcare relatively expensive compared to countries where more medicine is developed and manufactured locally. The first local companies to reverse this trend will be well-positioned to profit.

There are two free zone areas where biotechnology firms can ‘cluster’, with all the benefits that brings: The Dubai Biotechnology & Research Park, and Masdar in Abu Dhabi. The Dubai Biotechnology & Research Park, for example, offers incentives and services such as regulatory affairs management, partner development, registration and licensing, leasing and government services. Its facilities range from offices and warehouses to laboratories, creating a vibrant, dedicated community.

Joint ventures between local SMEs and large, global players offer huge potential. The 2012 partnership between German company Merck Serono and local manufacturer Neopharma is one major success story. “I think tie-ups will dominate the market, and I wish there were more companies like Neopharma, because there are not enough companies to do tie-ups with here,” said Marwan Abdulaziz, Executive Director of Dubai Biotechnology & Research Park. “I receive so many enquiries from international companies looking for a joint venture with a local company.”


The time and cost of getting a new drug through testing, then national and international approval (for example, from the US-based FDA) is prohibitive for many SMEs. This difficulty, along with price controls, are the barriers most holding back international drug makers from setting up in the MENA region. (Source: Deloitte)

For example, biosimilars are one of the fastest-growing areas of biotechnology worldwide. These are medical products, whose active drug substance is made by a living organism. Their R&D costs are significant: it is estimated that a biosimilar product costs $75m – $250m to produce, and takes six to seven years to develop to the point of sale.


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