Hongkongers blazing a trail in the Middle East: seizing on creative ideas, learning Arabic and beating desert heat all part of a day’s work

But they also recognise the need to navigate difficult and unpredictable terrain like cultural differences, the region’s unique ways of sealing deals and liaising with bureaucracy.

Many said they also would like more government support on the ground.

The Post spoke to five Hong Kong trailblazers, established and emerging, from a variety of fields ranging from architecture to property technology, to map their path to success.

The numbers game

Tony Chan Fan-cheong, a Chinese-American mathematician, best known to Hongkongers as a former president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, took up the top post at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in 2018.

Chan, a Hong Kong-born, United States-educated academic, has boosted the global visibility of the university, based in Thuwal, a village on the Red Sea coast of the kingdom, making it one of the top 10 fastest-rising young universities for research output according to 2019’s Nature Index.

His international experience in education has also led to appointments to advise more than 10 technology-related government committees in the oil-rich state.

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Chan also led a delegation to Shenzhen earlier this year to discuss Saudi-Greater Bay Area scientific and educational cooperation.

He said water and food technologies were among the university’s priorities, driven by the country’s ambition to reach net zero emissions by 2060.

“Both pose huge challenges in the region with saltwater and desert heat,” Chan said. “In such a harsh environment, we need bolder efforts to attain sustainable development through technological breakthroughs.”

The university houses a research and development centre of the Red Sea Farm Cooperative, which deploys technologies for sustainable desert agriculture.

Jewellery mogul Aaron Shum arrived in the Middle East in 1978 and has risen to become the founder of the Hong Kong-Middle East Business Chamber. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Putting the sparkle into the Middle East

Aaron Shum Wan-lung, who arrived in the region in 1978 aged just 21, started off as an accountant at a factory in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, owned by a Hong Kong businessman, that made building materials used in the construction of dormitories for the American army.

His starting salary of HK$3,500 (US$448) per month was higher than that of many professionals in Hong Kong 45 years ago.

Shum learned Arabic, rose through the ranks, and later started his own small trading business selling a wide range of Chinese handicrafts, embroidery and woollen garments in Saudi Arabia.

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Despite a setback after a legal battle over a trademark infringement, Shum, the president of Aaron Shum Jewellery, refined his strategies to grow his jewellery brand.

He ran more than 35 stores in cities in the UAE and Bahrain at the peak of the business.

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“At that time, Hong Kong was renowned for its jewellery craftsmanship,” he said. “The flexibility and efficiency we could offer gained recognition in the Arab market.”

Shum founded the Hong Kong-Middle East Business Chamber in July, hoping to bridge the cultural and knowledge gap between the two regions.

The membership list soon grew to 250, which he said reflected the Hong Kong business community’s huge interest in forging closer ties with its counterparts in the region.

The group has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre to bolster exchanges.

The Pad, a 26-storey giant iPod-like tower build by Cybertecture’s James Law. Photo: Handout

Building success across the region

A 26-storey giant iPod-like tower called The Pad, sitting in the central business district of Dubai, helped Hong Kong architect James Law make a name for himself in the city.

He beat top names, including Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, in a competition 16 years ago and won the contract to build the landmark.

“The Middle East is where bold, innovative designs and solutions that the world has never tried are embraced,” Law, the founder and CEO of Cybertecture, said.

The architecture firm, founded in Hong Kong 22 years ago, now has footholds in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha in Qatar and Riyadh.

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Law, Hong Kong-born and educated in Britain, said his firm was on the brink of confirming projects in Riyadh and Neom, also in Saudi Arabia, to reimagine urban living with the creation of sustainable, decentralised and futuristic communities.

He added that Hong Kong’s advantages lay in its creativity, efficiency in project execution and the city’s experience in delivering prefabricated flats with the modular integrated construction (MiC) method.

MiC involves the construction of free-standing modules in a factory, which are transported for installation into a building on-site. The technique has been used in Hong Kong public housing for years and recently for Covid-19 isolation units.

“Hong Kong has mature experience in running, maintaining, and evolving MiC designs,” Law said. “That’s exactly what the Middle East countries need when they face a shortage of labour and their productivity is constrained by the heat.”

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Energy goes a long way for tech firm

“No unicorns can do well only focusing on the Hong Kong market,” Arthur Lam, the co-founder and CEO of Negawatt Utility, said.

“Strategies in going global need to be inclusive, and not in tunnel vision.”

His engineering company, which uses information technology to make energy management smarter, has successfully entered the Middle East market.

Soon after he secured a landmark project last year, partnering with the Housing Society to roll out an award-winning mobile platform to provide incentives for 30,000 households in Hong Kong to foster a low carbon lifestyle, he pitched the idea to Masdar City, a smart city in Abu Dhabi that aims to be the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city powered by renewable energy.

Arthur Lam, the co-founder and CEO of Negawatt Utility, says unicorns should not solely focus on projects in Hong Kong. Photo: Elson LI
The firm signed a partnership with the city in February during John Lee’s high-profile trip to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The collaboration was sealed in September by a more strategic agreement made at the annual Belt and Road Summit.

“I am very happy that we could find a niche where we can help them to frame the concept of sustainability on a different level, when most of the solutions they’re doing are hardware-focused,” Lam said.

“We engage people with our app, help them digitalise the impact and make every impact count.”

And more projects are in the pipeline. The company is planning to adopt its Internet of Things (IoT) solutions for mixed-use buildings in Arab states to help them pursue decarbonisation goals.

Gary Ng’s technology start-up viAct was the only Hong Kong firm invited by authorities to join the Dubai Centre for AI’s accelerator programmes. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Safety first with construction site tech

Gary Ng Chun-kui’s technology start-up viAct was the only Hong Kong firm invited by authorities to join the Dubai Centre for AI’s accelerator programmes to discuss the future of generative artificial intelligence (AI) in government services.

Ng said his success in securing six contracts from government departments in the UAE during the accelerator event came from long-term planning and accurate assessments of the Middle East market.

Headquartered in Hong Kong, viAct focused on its proprietary AI, coupled with computer vision, to improve worker safety and productivity, first in Asian countries and later the Middle East, with the Saudi Arabian market a prime target.

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Saudi Arabia, driven by its ambitious Vision 2030 goals to cut the country’s reliance on oil, is building mega-city projects of unprecedented scale combining advanced technology and sustainable practices.

Ng said localisation was crucial to tapping into the emerging market.

He added that, for his firm, enhancement of technological capabilities was vital because of climate differences in the region.

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“Many workers there start working in the late afternoon to avoid midday heat,” Ng explained.

“This became a challenge because the kind of AI technologies in vision intelligence that we rely on, the cameras perform much better during daytime.

“A lot needs to be done to enhance data capability to cope with the nighttime environment.”

Ng added that viAct had carried out significant adaptations to ensure its devices and servers performed well in high temperatures.


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