We talk to a start-up pro to find out why Dubai is the region’s leading tech destination.
Dubai has long been a popular destination for both holidaymakers and professionals seeking greener pastures abroad. The emirate’s decision to diversify its economy with a heavy investment in tourism infrastructure and a favourable corporate tax system has propelled Dubai to one of the five fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the world, while also playing a critical role in boosting its post-oil economy.
Now looking to attract tech start-ups and entrepreneurs from around the world, the city is transforming into an innovation hub and investing billions of dollars to make this goal a reality.
Support from government and semi-government institutions – in addition to the growth of incubators and accelerators like Turn8, ImpactHub and AstroLabs Dubai – has led to a string of home grown success stories. These include Bridg, a mobile-to-mobile payment platform that leverages Bluetooth, to Careem, a Dubai-based ride-hail start-up, and souq.com, the Middle East’s first unicorn.
As a result, the city’s technology ecosystem is booming. Dubai-based entrepreneurs launched 16,800 businesses in 2016, up 9 per cent from the year prior according to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce.
With over two billion people living within a four-hour flight radius and the highest penetration rate of smartphones than anywhere else in the world, Dubai is also quickly establishing itself as the destination of choice for tech start-ups seeking to access emerging markets.
Dany El-Eid, CEO and founder of tech start-up Pixelbug (which specialises in building advanced augmented reality applications for big name clients like Sony and Proctor & Gamble) says that while the region hasn’t traditionally been known for its innovation, it is working hard to change that perception.
“When I founded the company in 2012, there was a very small tech community and even smaller tech entrepreneur community. There was no real investment or VC community either. If you wanted to become an entrepreneur you had to have an insane amount of capital or come from a very wealthy family.
“There was no such thing as a bootstrap start-up where you could try and launch your ideas from scratch. At that time, the career path was very traditional where you either became an engineer, doctor or lawyer. That was the tendency in the Middle East,” he said.
“But the region has changed a lot since then. Ex-founders of successful startups, like Fadi Ghandour [Wamda Group] and Kamal Hassan [TURN8, The Cribb], have setup entrepreneurship ecosystems that invest in technology-enabled companies, and there are others who have been successful in places like Silicon Valley and are bringing that expertise back home. There are also various government-backed initiatives such as the Dubai Future Accelerators. As a result, entrepreneurs feel more encouraged to explore and experiment with ideas.”
El-Eid got his first break when he became a finalist in a regional program, which he says gave him the start he needed to get his AR business off the ground before returning to Dubai to grow his company.
In the emirate, the process of setting up a start-up has been “greatly streamlined” to the point where the bulk of administrative work can now be done online. To further help with the cost of establishing a new business, El-Eid also suggests that tech professionals considering the region should apply to the Dubai Future Accelerators program as a first step. Successful candidates of the program receive free airfares, accommodation, a dedicated creative workspace and direct access to mentors.
Another tip from the start-up pro: Set up shop in a ‘free-zone’ such as in Dubai Internet City. The areas enable non-native entrepreneurs to retain 100 per cent ownership of the company while also benefiting from a 50-year exemption from corporate and income taxes.