First coined by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash in 1992, as a portmanteau of ‘meta’ and ‘universe – ‘metaverse’ became a household word when Facebook rebranded its corporate identity to Meta in late 2021.
Since then, the ‘metaverse’ – defined as an online space where people, represented by avatars or 3D representations, can interact in virtual worlds – has exploded into everyone’s consciousness and into all aspects of life.
According to recent research by Accenture, growing consumer and business interest in the metaverse as a creator economy and tool to enhance day-to-day tasks is expected to fuel a US$1 trillion commerce opportunity by the end of 2025.
The findings indicate that not only do more than half (55%) of consumers want to be active users of the metaverse but that most C-suite executives (89%) believe the metaverse will have an important role in their organisation’s future growth.
And increasingly, innovative business leaders across all industries from are looking at how they can position themselves as crucial players in this emerging ecosystem, while governments are creating strategies to facilitate the growth of the metaverse in their own countries.
How the UAE is leading the world on metaverse strategy
Among the most ambitious of these is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has taken a number of major steps to integrating the metaverse and its related technology, including cryptocurrencies, into the economy, government and society – introducing a law governing virtual assets, a regulatory body for cryptocurrencies, and welcoming major crypto exchange platforms.
And in July last year, the government unveiled the Dubai Metaverse Strategy – which aims to turn the Gulf city into one of the world’s top 10 metaverse economies as well as a global hub for the metaverse community with plans to create 40,000 jobs and add US$4bn to the emirate’s economy over the next five years.
The following month, the UAE hosted the Dubai Metaverse Assembly, during which the Minister of State for AI and the Digital Economy, Omar Al-Olama, said the country is planning to launch a metric called the “gross metaverse product’ to showcase the future ways in which the technology will contribute to the economy.
It’s an ambitious strategy and one that is giving rise to equally ambitious metaverse projects, as the UAE looks to put itself on the global metaverse map and show just how pioneering it can be in the virtual world.
The latest announcement is that the UAE is set to launch a virtual economy ministry in the metaverse.
From launching the world’s first government-backed, publicly visible virtual city (Sharjahverse) to the world’s first regulator in the metaverse (VARA MetaHQ) to the world’s first metaverse police force (Ajman Police), here are the top 10 UAE metaverse projects.
Named after the dream of Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid to colonise Mars a century from now, 2117 is one of the UAE’s early private sector metaverse projects having been given the go-ahead in 2017. And late last year, the 2117 metaverse was unveiled.
“With 2117, we aspire to deliver a full experience-driven Metaverse that focuses on creating endless opportunities for both individuals and organisations,” said Amin Al Zarouni, chief executive officer at Bedu.
A collaboration between UAE-based Web3 pioneer BEDU and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), the 2117 metaverse – which will include virtual experience es for visitors, allowing them to explore “the sensations of being in space and setting foot on the Red Planet” – aims to become an environment that will host 100 million users in the next decade. It is in line with the UAE’s Mars 2117 project, which aims to establish the first inhabitable human settlement in the Red Planet by 2117.
“As we set our sights on challenging destinations for exploration with humans and robots, innovative ideas and future thinking will be critical to helping us reach new milestones,” said Adnan Al Rais, program manager at MBRSC.
Metaverse users can now buy tickets to join a virtual shuttle carrying settlers to the red planet.
Marking the first in a handful of metaverse world firsts, the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) became the world’s first virtual reality customer happiness service centre when it was unveiled a year ago at Arab Health 2022.
Titled MetaHealth and yet to fully launch, the virtual service will address customer needs in 3D spaces in an easy way while enjoying a digital and interactive sensory experience.
Aimed at providing a solution for those unable to move physically from their homes to one of the centres, the new offering will allow visitors to speak with real employees from the Customer Happiness Center, as well as request information, submit documents, pay fees.
"The customer happiness executive will be present virtually to assist the customer,” says Ali Al-Ajmi, director of the Digital Health Department in the Ministry of Health and Prevention. “This programme is part of the national digitalisation agenda, which will eventually reduce the number of visits to a physical happiness centre.”
Yas Island Metaverse
Announced late last year, the Yas Island Metaverse initiative will take Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island – home to and Formula 1 racetrack and the world’s fastest rollercoaster – into the metaverse, as a first phase in placing the UAE capital in the virtual world.
A private-public collaboration of six Abu Dhabi companies – Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, Aldar, Miral Abu Dhabi, twofour54, Abu Dhabi Motorsport, and Flash Entertainment – this pioneering initiative is a first for the UAE in recreating an entire physical destination across multiple world-leading immersive 3D platform (The Sandbox and Roblox).
The finished product will deliver a full-featured metaverse ecosystem, allowing visitors from all over the world to access the wonders and attractions of Yas island from home, and do everything from building and purchasing digital homes, to discovering cultural attractions enjoying theme park adventures (Warner Bros World to Ferrari World), and participate in special events.
Customisable avatars and surprise rewards will be part of every user’s personalised adventure.
Announced in October last year, the DEWAVerse platform marked the first local government organisation to launch its platform on the metaverse – with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) providing services to customers, employees, and members of society.
HE Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, CEO of DEWA, said the department was striving to “harness this technology to find new opportunities and provide innovative solutions that accelerate growth to enhance Dubai’s position regionally and globally.”
Among projects on the DEWAVerse are the customer service centre, enabling customers to communicate with the customer case-centre agents to answer inquiries and complete transactions in the virtual world; the DEWA workplace enabling users to move around the buildings and hold meetings in the virtual world; and the DEWA future lab enabling users to hold brainstorming sessions, discuss challenges and develop the best solutions using innovation tools in the virtual world.
Unveiling its metaverse project at GITEX in October last year, UAE born and bred technology and investment conglomerate e& (formerly Etisalat Group) is working closely with various partners to develop a platform “where audiences can interact in unique ways”.
Working with tech firm HTC VIVE, e& is developing the e& Universe, which uses the VIVERSE technology and is located on Mars, specifically ‘Arcadia Planitia’ – a location considered the most suitable in the real world for potentially supporting life on the planet, and therefore a “subtle nod to the UAE’s National Space Strategy”, according to e&.
Still in the construction stages, the plan is that the e& Universe will give customers the opportunity to buy digital assets and NFTs, watch virtual concerns and sporting events and engage in other digital experiences.
Alongside e& Universe, the company will also launch Metaverse Service, created with SK Telecom, which lets visitors use avatars to explore opportunities for social networking; while Etisalat by e&, developed with Huawei, is a virtual retail space where visitors can explore the service’s business centre and can collaborate, navigate and communicate using Etisalat by e&’s products and services in real time using hand movements, headsets, feedback controllers or voice commands.
Dubai Airport Freezone (DAFZ)
In October last year, Dubai Airport Freezone (DAFZ), part of Dubai Integrated Economic Zones Authority (DIEZ), launched METADAFZ – a project that aims to provide the free zone’s clients with a smooth digital experience in the metaverse.
Described by Bader Buhannad, Chief Corporate Support Officer at DIEZ as an “innovative and world-class experience that will take the free zone’s offerings to the next level”, METADAFZ will enable clients from the across the globe to conduct meetings via a virtual platform, offering a unique and semi-realistic experience regardless of the physical location and providing an alternative way to conduct business activities.
Not only will this initiative contribute to the digitisation of businesses in the free zone but further encourage and support businesses to establish themselves in the Emirate, ultimately attracting direct foreign investment. “The metaverse experience is set to attract new clients and foreign businesses, in addition to creating new investment opportunities and enhancing the business framework,” Buhannad adds.
The Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority has launched Sharjahverse, a metaverse tourism platform with AI ecosystem Multiverse Labs platform. Unveiled in October last year with the aim of bringing a new generation of metaverse tourism to the emirate of Sharjah, Sharjahverse is the world’s first government-backed, publicly visible metaverse city.
It is also the world’s most realistic metaverse, described as being a “photorealistic and physically accurate” metaverse, according to Cliff Szu, CEO of Multiverse Labs, whose platform features avatars created from the photographs of real people.
Encompassing all of Sharjah at 2,590 sqkm, Sharjahverse will not only bring the emirate to a global audience and boost the tourism economy, but also create metaverse jobs for local employees at Sharjah’s iconic sights.
The world’s first regulator to invest in the metaverse, The Dubai Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority (VARA) purchased a piece of land in The Sandbox in May last year to create its virtual HQ.
The aim? To reach a “borderless audience” and ensure that the regulator is accessible to its industry in their environment, to improve social inclusion and environmental sustainability, and to facilitate collaborative engagement between global Virtual Asset Service Providers (VASPs), industry thought leaders and International Regulatory Authorities.
VARA’s MetaHQ will serve as the main channel to share experiences and information with all developers, younger people, and players who frequent the Metaverse, enabling ‘secure adoption’ to drive global interoperability.
The bold move reflects Dubai Government’s confidence in virtual assets being integral to the future digital economy and its ambitions in the metaverse.
Ajman Police became the first police force worldwide to provide its services to customers in the metaverse last May.
The platform, whose aim is to help those who may not be able to access the station in the real-world, will allow users to interact with police officers using avatars in the metaverse. The public will be able to query the police and receive answers without the need of using a real-world service.
Ajman police have trained seven officers to use metaverse technology, including instructions on how to use VR glasses and headsets, with the service already having been piloted locally to gauge its success. According to Major Noura Sultan Al Shamsi, head of Ajman Police’s media relations team, “this was a trial but having proved successful, officers will continue to meet residents virtually”.
Plans are in progress for other services to be facilitated via the metaverse.
Mediation in the Metaverse – ADGM Arbitration Centre
Another world first comes courtesy of the ADGM Arbitration Centre, a unique digitised hearing facility for arbitration and mediation located in Abu Dhabi but serving the international dispute resolution community, with the recent launch of the world’s first Mediation in the Metaverse service.
Designed to revolutionise the delivery of mediation across the globe by transforming the court-annexed mediation schemed conducted by ADGM Courts into the next generation approach to mediation, the metaverse service will provide a more immersive experience, enhancing virtual mediation by allowing participants to access a 3D office space. This virtual space will be based on the physical space within the Centre, with video imaging of participants integrated into the virtual surroundings.
This comes as ADGM looks to increase the reach of mediation to parties who wish to explore a resolution of their dispute on their own terms without their physical presence and is in line with its commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of international dispute resolution.