Dubai – the start-up scene in a modern metropolis

Dubai is a city that is not afraid of ambition. Pumping billions into positioning itself as a tourist mecca and business hub, the place is an attention seeking over-achiever of sorts. Sprouting up from the desert almost from scratch over the last 20 years, the entire city has a start-up mentality. Things happen quickly.

Not that long ago, Dubai was a sleepy backwater that was mainly home to fishermen and pearl-divers. Since the 90’s however, when the rulers set out to strategically diversify it’s economy from oil to tourism and business, things have seriously picked up pace. These days, new properties and infrastructure seemingly pop up overnight, and rarely a week goes by without an announcement of some new extravagant project.

In a city that is made up almost entirely of foreign expats, there’s a level of cultural diversity that is hard to match, a factor that results in a distinctly entrepreneurial spirit across every aspect of the city.

A thriving tech ecosystem

As the technology revolution continues apace, an increasing amount of angel investors and venture capital funds have been drawn to Dubai. And many investors here who had historically looked at tangible assets like property to invest in are now backing new technologies and local start-ups. When you consider that the UAE has one of the highest smartphone penetration rates in the world at 78%, and eCommerce spending is continuing to grow at speed, it’s clear that there is certainly plenty of opportunity in this part of the world.

Incubators and accelerators such as In5, Silicon Oasis, i360 & Turn 8 have sprouted up over the last few years, and business friendly ‘free-zones’ and co-working spaces such as Impact Hub, The Cribb, AstroLabs and MAKE Business Hub, to name but a few, give companies the flexibility they need to innovate and grow.

Region-specific opportunities

With some of the traditional global tech monsters having been slow to address the region over the years, this created opportunities for home grown start-ups geared to a more region-specific audience to take advantage. While eCommerce giants like Amazon and eBay don’t technically operate in the country, this paved the way for local companies like online reseller (Souk being the name for a traditional marketplace), and other P2P platforms like Dubizzle to flourish.

With Uber only launching in the country last year, this let competing private car-booking app Careem steal a march and build up a significant customer base in the meantime. Careem, made the trip to Dublin to pitch at the START showcase during last year’s Web Summit and have since gone on to raise a $10 Million round of funding.

While it was originally a challenge to move consumers in the city away from the traditional ‘cash-on-delivery’ model for online purchases, companies like daily deal site Cobone oversaw a shift in consumer sentiment with users finally truly embracing eCommerce since the start of this decade.

A regional hub – connecting the world

Acting as a regional hub, many companies use Dubai as a launch pad to take on other local markets. Dubai International Airport recently took over from London Heathrow as the busiest airport in the world for international passenger traffic, and the state carrier Emirates Airline, has also grown into the world’s biggest international airline since it’s humble roots in the 1980’s.

In November 2013, Dubai was chosen as the host city for the 2020 World Expo and the plans for the Expo Village include a purpose-built 438-hectare site that will house the event, which is estimated to attract 25 million visitors over 6 months, and bring $40 Billion of investment into the economy. A serious coup for the start-up sector and for the city in general even further putting it on the global map in a business and innovation sense.

Influenced from the top

If a company can be said to be a reflection of it’s leadership, then the same must be said for countries too. In this sense, Dubai revels in the patronage of it’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is intent on fostering an innovation and Smart City mentally across every aspect of Dubai, from communication and technology, to transport and logistics.

This year alone, the government has facilitated a $1 Million international drone technology competition, a similar initiative for the AI and robotics industry, as well as announcing a entire museum dedicated to technology and innovation called the ‘Museum of the Future’ to inspire the creators of tomorrow.

Whatever way you look at it, Dubai is a contradiction of sorts. But love it or hate it, it’s a city that runs on an entrepreneurial drive and a spirit of innovation.