A growing number of entrepreneurs based in the Emirates are bridging the gap between the Middle East and California: in establishing and developing strong links with Silicon Valley to take their tech businesses to the next level. This is creating an exciting new tech hub here in the UAE that could one day rival its California counterpart for innovation. Let’s look at how the UAE’s leading tech pioneers are making this leap, then examine the support available to entrepreneurs seeking to follow suit of those trailblazers who have already put the UAE on the global tech map.
1. Careem: Beating Silicon Valley at its own game
Careem was started in 2012 by two guys who wanted to create something ‘big and meaningful’ that would ‘move our region towards better living’. Six years later it is the leading ride hailing app in the MENA region, Pakistan and Turkey, and a serious rival to Uber. The business is based on innovative technology which enables users to locate a local car and driver, get picked up and taken to their destination, and choose to pay by cash, credit card or Careem credits. The company’s success is far more than just monetary: it’s in the caring value it brings in helping its customers get to and from work daily and aiding communities by providing employment, which assists drivers in supporting their families.
How to ‘Careem’ your startup
This idea of creating a better world rather than simply making money, or at least presenting the business ethos in this way, could be straight out of the Silicon Valley startup handbook. Indeed, it comes as no surprise that prior to becoming CEO and co-founder of Careem, Mudassir Sheikha spent a decade in the Valley before becoming a management consultant in Dubai. Creating a brand and adding value over and above what the customer expects is something to seriously consider when launching your business.
2. Souq.com: The Amazon of the Middle East
Smart technology is also behind the rise of souq.com, the Middle East’s online marketplace that connects people and products. Souq.com offers a convenient, secure and cost-effective platform for entrepreneurs and SMEs to own a shop online rather than having a physical presence in a mall. It provides customers with an unparalleled range of products while giving them the freedom to shop however, whenever and wherever they like. The company not only mirrors the early success of Amazon in Silicon Valley, it actually became part of the US online giant In March 2017. In joining Amazon, souq.com enables customers in the UAE to access one million products from Amazon directly on the Souq site, in Arabic or English. The technology also enables payment in AED using a credit card or cash on delivery.
What can we learn from Souq.com? Joining forces adds weight, opportunity and authority from an existing brand to a growing business. Entrepreneurs and startups looking to collaborate can take note of the scope of growth and expansion that this can bring.
3. Dubizzle: The low-cost startup that struck gold
Since its launch in 2005 by American duo JC Butler and Sim Whatley, Dubizzle has become the number one platform for users to buy, sell, or find anything in their community. ‘The story of Dubizzle is a testament to the fact that the UAE has always been a lucrative destination for entrepreneurs who have what it takes to strike gold’, according to Dubai digital consultancy IBG Digital. Working in Dubai at the time, the duo hit on an innovative way for underused goods to be redistributed to fill a new need, and become wanted again, and for ‘non-product assets’ such as space, skills and money to be exchanged and traded in new ways that don’t always require centralized institutions or ‘middlemen’.
Lessons from Dubizzle The founders developed the business and used tactical strategies common in Silicon Valley, including guerrilla marketing to spread the word on a limited budget, reacting quickly to changing market conditions and restructuring every six months. Finding a niche and identifying a gap will help to cement your place within the market. Startups should consistently work to maintain optimum presence online.
5. Fetchr: Kickstarted by US venture capital
One of the clearest signals that the UAE is now a global tech hub is the fact that US investors are prepared to put huge sums into startups here. A case in point is Fetchr, the international express, mail delivery and logistics services company, operating an app-based on-demand delivery service model. The six-year-old startup tackles delivery challenges in Arab countries, where streets often lack a formal address. Customers can download its app and pinpoint their location on a Google map, allowing Fetchr drivers to rely on GPS to deliver packages.
Can we learn something from Fetchr? In June 2015, co-founders Joy Ajlouny and CEO Idriss Al Rifai raised US$ 11million in a round led by Silicon Valley’s venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates. Fetchr was the first Arab startup to get early stage funding from a major US venture capital firm. By keeping their business idea simple (and by identifying the need to find capital early on from major US firms in Silicon Valley) Fetchr has gained more traction and momentum for growth and success.
What incentives are available to new startups and entrepreneurs in the UAE?
What makes the Emirates a truly exciting place for tech startups is the extensive support now available to foster technology, innovation sustainability and entrepreneurship. This includes:
Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development: The Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development is a not-for-profit SME development agency set up by the Government of Abu Dhabi. The fund is keen to spread freelance culture, encourage innovation, and set up SMEs in the UAE to contribute to the social and economic development of the country. Funding now covers all of the UAE and is available for UAE nationals. The agency has launched more than 800 awareness campaigns that cater to university and school students in a bid to encourage tech innovation among young entrepreneurs.
Innovation month: One of the largest festivals of its kind in the world, this event aims to help in creating a widespread culture of innovation in the UAE and strengthen its position as a global hub.
Tech centers: New research institutions and technical centres have been established to promote research, creativity and innovation, such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, and Dubai Science Park.
Emirates Science, Technology and Innovation Higher Policy: Featuring more than 100 national initiatives with an investment budget of over AED 300 billion, this new policy aims to encourage industries moving away from the oil sector in favour of science, knowledge and technology.
Lower fees and extra incentives: In Dubai, government fees have been frozen for the next three years, while the Department of Economic Development (DED) is implementing a new package of government reforms including proposals to allocate government tenders to SMEs, a local production and procurement support programme, and plans to attract the world’s leading business incubators and accelerators.
Support for the government sector: In September 2014, the Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation was established to stimulate the culture of innovation within the government sector, making the UAE one of the most innovative governments around the world.
Free zones: A key aspect of the UAE’s unique business landscape, the free zones –such as Sharjah Media City, DMCC and Fujairah Creative City, to name just three– are designated geographical areas where certain business restrictions, taxes and employment conditions do not apply. Each free zone has its own specific benefits –for example DMCC offers 0% corporate and personal tax for 50 years – so it’s worth researching which is the best ‘fit’ for your startup. As if this wasn’t enough, the UAE government has also recently announced it will be allowing 100% foreign ownership of mainland companies.
Silicon Valley, the Middle East, and your startup
Bridging the gap between the Middle East and Silicon Valley has never been clearer. And what finds success in Dubai certainly has the chance of attracting investment from California. Two distinct startup regions, but now with increasing links. That’s a great recipe for any entrepreneur.