From Dubai, with Love

Before the recession hit, establishing a presence in the Persian Gulf was fast becoming the “in” thing for American universities:

Before the recession hit, establishing a presence in the Persian Gulf was fast becoming the “in” thing for American universities: Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, New York University in Abu Dhabi, Michigan State University in Dubai—the list goes on and on. So being the global, ambitious, and well-endowed institution that it is, it’s no surprise that Harvard is keeping up with the times.

Meet the Harvard Medical School Dubai Center (HMSDC), a collaboration between the medical school, Partners Harvard Medical International, and Dubai Healthcare City, or DHCC.

Established as a response to Dubai’s call for improved health care infrastructure, HMSDC has served as both an educational institution and a hub for research on health problems endemic to the area, as well as health care strategies that could be applied worldwide. And even in the face of the global economic recession, it is still going strong.


A few years ago, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, then emir of Dubai, expressed concerns that health care levels in the United Arab Emirates were not up to par. The government of Dubai then approached Harvard for a center for medical education and research.

“A quality health care system is derived around an academic medical center,” says Richard G. Mills, Dean for Operations and Business Affairs at HMS.

Harvard agreed to help Dubai with its mission of modernizing health care, and in 2004, the HMSDC was launched. In addition to the research, the center offers programs in graduate education such as residencies and continuing education for established medical professionals. Located in DHCC, a zone designated by the emirate specifically for medical and pharmaceutical development, the center can also work with the DHCC-operated University Hospital.

However, unlike other American medical campuses that have been established in the Middle East, HMSDC offers no degree programs, and Harvard has no plans to establish a full-blown HMS campus in Dubai.

“Rather than establishing a franchised medical center in the Middle East, we want to help Dubai develop its own academic medical center,” says Mills. “We believe it’s a more robust approach.”

David E. Golan ’75, dean for graduate education at HMS, finds that taking such an approach gets local practitioners and researchers more invested in the project, and also allows for easier communication among them. Harvard-affiliated physicians will be brought in to teach, but any medical program that is eventually offered will be based around University Hospital rather than HMS. However, many of these programs are still only in the planning stage.

“There’s a long way to go between where they are now and a true academic medical center,” says Golan. “But this is the ultimate vision.”


Apart from the educational aspect, Dubai offers many unique opportunities in terms of clinical research, and Harvard researchers have already done significant work.

“We take advantage of problems that are common in the area and lend themselves to investigation,” says Ajay K. Singh, Chief Academic Officer at HMSDC and Executive Director of the Dubai Harvard Foundation for Medical Research, which spearheads research efforts in the area. For example, two major issues in the Middle East are autism and diabetes, which alone affects over 25 percent of the population, according to Singh.

Dubai also provides a rare chance to experiment with health care. On the one hand, because Dubai currently has no academic medical center, researchers get to see the actual effects of different initiatives on the quality of health care delivery, according to Golan. On the other hand, unlike other nations that lack a deep-rooted health care framework, Dubai has the resources to build a first-world health care delivery structure from the ground up.

“We don’t have the ability to do that [in the United States] because we’re not starting with a clean slate,” says Mills. “But there is just as much a need to redevelop here.”

The U.S. is in luck—the reforms that prove to be effective can easily be imported to its own system.


The economic crisis has hit much of the developed world, but it has especially affected Dubai. As the least oil-rich of the seven emirates, Dubai generates most of its revenue from trade, real estate, and finance—all industries which have slowed significantly. As might be expected, the Dubai Center has not gone unscathed.

Construction on the HMSDC building was halted for some time before a new contract could be negotiated, while progress on the pending five-star hotel in DHCC has been halted.

Verdi J. DiSesa ‘72, the surgeon-in-chief at University Hospital, says that there have been realistic considerations regarding progress on the center, such as prolongation of recruitment and program development efforts. However, he remains positive on the long-term Singh is also optimistic about the prospects for the center’s operations.

“The economic situation has affected all entities, whether it’s Harvard University in Boston or other academic institutions around the world,” says Singh. “But we plan to conduct the same amount of academic activities this year as we did last year, and we’re actually doing some at a higher level this year.”

Mills is encouraged by the willingness of Dubai’s leadership in staying committed to the project, citing the continued construction of the city’s monorail system as an example of the Dubai leadership’s dedication to public projects.

“There’s a long way to go, but there is evidence of a real commitment to change within their country,” he says. “We’re feeling quite hopeful.”