Mass. expanding ties to United Arab Emirates

The equivalent of 2 million standard containers move through Khalifa Port each day.
The equivalent of 2 million standard containers move through Khalifa Port each day.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Just two years ago, when seen from a vantage point outside this capital city, the blue waters of the Persian Gulf stretched uninterrupted to the horizon. Today, that view is broken by a man-made peninsula, where stacks of shipping containers in red, yellow, blue, and green rise like multicolored buildings.

This is Khalifa Port, more than 9 acres of landfill packed with cranes, docks, and warehouses, a symbol of this Arab nation’s goal to become the West’s gateway to Asia and diversify its oil-dependent economy. Already, the equivalent of 2 million standard containers move through Khalifa each day, eight times the 250,000 handled daily at Boston’s Conley terminal.

As the United Arab Emirates pursues its ambitions, it is providing opportunities for Massachusetts companies such as American Science and Engineering Inc., a Billerica maker of X-ray equipment, including systems used to inspect cargo, cars, and trucks for explosives and contraband at Khalifa Port. The Middle East last year accounted for more than a third of overall revenue, according to financial filings.


“More Massachusetts companies should look at the UAE,” said Chuck Dougherty, the Billerica company’s chief executive.

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And more apparently are. The United Arab Emirates has become one of the state’s fastest growing export markets and a key component of Governor Deval Patrick’s efforts to expand trade ties with the Middle East. Patrick recently returned from his second trade mission to the region, where he visited the Emirates and Israel.

Gregory Bialecki, state secretary of Housing and Economic Development, said the Emirates provides opportunities for several of Massachusetts major industries, including financial services, technology, and clean energy. Many corporate leaders, he said, have expressed interest in strengthening ties with the fast growing, wealthy nation, which in turn wants to build relations with companies and innovators in the United States.

“They [UAE] are major players in international investing and financing,” Bialecki said. “We want to convey the message that a lot of those great organizations and companies are here in Massachusetts.”

The state’s exports to the UAE, led by technology products from Raytheon’s radar systems to ThermoFisher Scientific’s lab equipment, jumped more than 60 percent in 2013 to $225 million, making the Emirates the Commonwealth’s largest market in the Middle East. Of the state’s top 25 foreign markets (UAE ranks 23d), only Hong Kong and Switzerland grew faster last year.


Emirates Airlines began nonstop service between Boston and Dubai, the country’s largest city, in March. In the first three months of service, Emirates Airlines operated 96 flights out of Boston. The airline, a privately held company, declined to disclose passenger numbers, but said business has met their expectations.

“There is a growing trade relationship between us in many key sectors of the economy,” said Richard Elam, executive director at the Massachusetts Office of International Trade and Investment. “The UAE recognizes Massachusetts as a hub of innovation and technology and they seek out the businesses that focus on scientific instruments, computers, defense, and life sciences.”

The United Arab Emirates is the world’s 48th largest national economy, with gross domestic product, a measure of economic output, totaling $383 billion last year, according to the World Bank. In Massachusetts last year, economic output reached nearly $450 billion, according to the US Commerce Department.

The UAE is a desert nation, where modern cities of steel and glass, seemingly out of science fiction novels, rise dramatically from the barren landscape. Here, in Abu Dhabi, some buildings look like modern versions of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A soccer ball-shaped building reflects the blue waters of nearby Al Raha Beach.

The UAE, which gained its independence from Great Britain in 1971, is a federation of seven sheikdoms or emirates. Once a nation of Bedouin pearl divers, the UAE owes its wealth to offshore oil discoveries made by British Petroleum and French oil giant Total SA in the 1960s.


Oil made the country one of the richest in the world, but by 2000, the ruling Al Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi convinced the six other emirates that the future lay in science, green technology, financial services, and – as Khalifa attests – trade and travel. Oil and gas today account for around 25 percent the country’s economy.

‘They are major players in international investing and financing. We want to convey the message that a lot of those great organizations and companies are here in Massachusetts.’

This strategy has made Massachusetts, with its diverse, technology-driven economy, a likely partner. In Abu Dhabi, for example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has joined with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in research focused on clean energy.

The United Arab Emirates’s investment in clean technology represents a particular opportunity for Massachusetts, which has one of the world’s leading clean-tech clusters, said Alicia Barton, head of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and a member of the delegation that recently visited the UAE.

“Really the goal for us was to draw that connection to the cutting-edge companies we have here,” she said, “and to make sure we have a line of dialogue open.”

Other key Massachusetts sectors are also finding opportunities, including the state’s defense industry. Raytheon Corp. executives were at the Dubai Air Show in November to showcase its AutoTracIII air traffic control system made in Marlborough. AutoTrac operates at three UAE airports plus the Al Minhad Air Force Base.

Since 2002, Partners HealthCare International, a division of Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest health care network, has worked with Dubai Healthcare City, a planned development of medical schools, research institutes, and clinics.

Erin Ailworth of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Silvia Maria Busetti can be reached at