The Middle East's Startup Hub: Making Dubai A Launchpad For Innovation

Early-stage startups make up nearly 50% of all companies registered in Dubai, validating the Emirate's appeal as a global center for entrepreneurship, knowledge transfer, and innovation.

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With an estimated contribution of over 47% to the UAE’s annual GDP, as revealed by Dubai Statistics Centre, early-stage startups make up nearly 50% of all companies registered in Dubai, validating the Emirate's appeal as a global center for entrepreneurship, knowledge transfer, and innovation.

Dubai Internet City
A view of Dubai Internet City.

Furthermore, according to the 2018 MENA Venture Investment Report, total startup funding in the MENA region jumped by 31% last year over 2017 figures, with a record number of 366 startup deals being signed across the region that amounted to a cumulative investment of US$893 million (AED3 billion).

The country is today considered a number one environment for innovation in the Arab World, according to the Global Innovation Index, and has succeeded in expanding its homegrown SMEs, as well as in attracting international talent.

The place to be for entrepreneurs

Dubai offers aspiring entrepreneurs a comprehensive package, from world-class infrastructure and lifestyle, to easy business setup models, access to mentors, workshops and events, and a dynamic regional investment community. The Emirate acts as a gateway to the emerging markets of the Middle East, and is considered a preferred business hub for the region as a whole.

We have seen accelerators and incubators routinely pop up across the country, providing attractive incentives for startups and early-stage entrepreneurs– including administrative support for setting up a business, co-working spaces at affordable rates, and networking opportunities with likeminded innovators. Dubai provides entrepreneurs with a plethora of options, from in5 Dubai, which provides infrastructure, funding, and mentorship facilities to its members in the tech, media, and design fields, to the Dubai Future Accelerators program, which links startups with government organizations.

Related: Top Companies Announce Deals With Winners Of The Third Edition Of Dubai Startup Hub's Market Access

Initiatives such as the STEP Conference and GITEX Technology Week also provide digital natives, startups in pre-seeding stages, and entrepreneurs with a platform to showcase their innovative concepts, engage with investors, gain exposure, and participate in mentorship sessions. With the myriad opportunities available for startups and entrepreneurs, Dubai serves as a launchpad for the most scalable, diverse, and successful startups of our time.

The UAE’s jump to the 11th rank in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business list for 2019 can be largely attributed to the initiatives of government and semi-government entities. The supportive legislature, modern infrastructure, and access to networking opportunities has not only attracted talent, but also business of all sizes– from startups in nascent stages, to medium enterprises, to multinational tech giants.

Made in the UAE

The remarkable success stories emerging from the emirate speak volumes. E-commerce enterprise Souq.com and ride-hailing company Careem are two Dubai-based unicorns that have achieved cult status in the startup community.

Souq.com received initial seed funding, grew astronomically, and eventually was acquired by U.S. retail giant Amazon, while in the process defining the roadmap for the UAE’s e-commerce industry.

Related: Making History (Literally): Souq.com CEO Ronaldo Mouchawar

Careem’s journey of success witnessed ride-hailing services become the preferred transportation choice for many in the region. From a homegrown application, it has now grown into an established company with a presence in 14 countries. More importantly, it has become a constant source of inspiration and innovation to up-and-coming startups.

Anghami, an Arabic music streaming platform with over 60 million users, and the Middle East’s answer to Spotify, has grown rapidly in business volume and subscriptions since 2011. Powered by the UAE’s high smartphone penetration rates, Anghami is now tasting extraordinary success, with 100% year-on-year growth in user subscriptions alone.

Similar to the Souq.com story, Dubai-based startup Wrappup, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to take capture meeting notes and analyze them, was acquired by U.S. tech firm Voicera to better serve users’ needs during the great many meetings that don’t involve conference call services.  

Policymakers and regulators, investors, incubators, and entrepreneurs have all played their roles in shaping Dubai’s vibrant startup ecosystem. With the industry at the apex of growth, now is the time to be bullish about starting your own business, and investing in UAE startups leveraging the platforms and services offered by the Dubai ecosystem.

2018 was a spectacular year for the startup industry, and 2019 promises to be no less exciting, with new technologies to adopt, and new frontiers to explore. The year ahead will provide entrepreneurs with opportunities to unleash their innovative capabilities like never before.

Related: The Middle East Is Ripe For Technology Entrepreneurship

Ammar Al Malik

Written By

Ammar Al Malik was appointed Managing Director of Dubai Internet City and Dubai Outsource City in March 2016 after 11 years at TECOM Group, the parent company of the two business parks.

He joined Dubai Outsource Zone -as it was then known- in 2005, as Partner Relations Manager. In 2009, he was promoted to Director of Operations. His efforts helped the business park maintain 100% occupancy through the recession. This led to his appointment in 2013 as Director of Business Development for TECOM’s ICT Cluster, a position he held for three years.

Ammar’s focus is on enabling innovation, fostering a diverse ecosystem conducive to ideation and exchange of knowledge and best practice. His efforts in building a network of innovation centers in Dubai Internet City spearhead the transformation of the region’s digital ecosystem.

He believes in the power of the next generation of homegrown enterprises as a central driver of innovation, and oversees in5 Tech, the enabling platform for innovation in the region, which has created within Dubai a well-rounded ecosystem for students, entrepreneurs, and startups to be incubated and nurtured to their next phase of growth.

Ammar began his career as Strategic Planning Officer at the Dubai eGovernment Department after earning a bachelor’s degree in e-commerce from Al Ain University. He later obtained an MBA from Kwansei Gakuin University in Kobe, Japan.