Running a startup is exhilarating. While there are a seemingly endless number of challenges to overcome. It is also your chance to change the world. For an increasing number of successful startups, they are foregoing London, New York, or Silicon Valley for the business-friendly UAE. In fact, some have dubbed it the Silicon Valley of the Middle East.
There is good reason for this moniker. We all know the UAE is a business-friendly environment. But it has also become a hub for research and education, as well as financial services. This includes a number of international venture capital groups which have set up offices in the country, local family offices, and sovereign investment funds.
However, not all emirates are created equal. Dubai, and to a lesser extent, Abu Dhabi tend to get all of the exposure. But other emirates, such as Ras Al Khaimah, offer competitive advantages for founders and investors alike.
One of the biggest advantages is the opportunity for founders to have 100% foreign ownership in their venture. Anyone who has ever been an expatriate founder will attest to the importance of this as foreign shareholding limits often force founders into taking on the wrong local partner.
Many of the policies in Ras Al Khaimah are due to the hard work and vision of its leader – Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al Qasimi. During his time as the emirate’s shake, he has continued to implement pro-western policies. The result has been an acceleration of foreign direct investment. In addition, the emirate has received international recognition as a leading city for human capital, lifestyle, and connectivity.
It is this connectivity that has made the UAE as a whole the location for an increasing number of successful startups. With excellent road links to affluent market on the Arabian Peninsula, the country is also within sixhours flight time to nearly half of the world’s population. As such, the wave of startups in the country are continuing the time-honored tradition of Arab traders of lore.
The startup scene in the UAE has become so hot that Forbes recently ran a list of the most promising startups in the country. Now there is little doubt that a big part of the draw is Dubai. But the smaller emirates, such as Ras Al Khaimah, have many of the same advantages, at a fraction of the cost. If you are a startup, then this is a big plus.
Even if you are well-funded there is never enough money. So choosing the right location is a vital element in your success as it helps you to keep your costs under control while making sure that you can maintain operational effectiveness.
This does not mean that starting up in the UAE is easy. The competition is fierce and investors are just as savvy here as they are in London or Silicon Valley. In the end, the key to success is getting the right team together, building a great product, and connecting with your customer base.
Another reason successful startups come to the UAE is the number of events and support options catering to the community. This include incubators, accelerators, and global startup communities which regularly hold meetups and other events in the country. This is truly a place where the world comes to share ideas.
One of these is the Innovation Hub program run by Google. The goal is to help prepare teachers and students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). This will help to increase competitiveness which will ultimately attract more investors. It’s a virtuous cycle which is vital for the development of a vibrant startup scene.
So why are successful startups coming to the UAE? There are a variety of reasons. Access to customers and investors. The country has also become a hub for world-class educational institutions looking to set up a presence in the region. There is also a cost question. Emirates like Ras Al Khaimah offer a significant cost advantage over Silicon Valley and even Dubai. Then there are the investment incentives. These include full ownership and tax breaks. In the end, these combine to make the UAE a destination of choice for founders from around the world.