Dubai Silicon Oasis seeks to woo big technology suitors

The free zone plans to use a "six by six" strategy to attract big companies as well as start-ups.

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The Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO) free zone has embarked on a long-term strategy to attract large technology companies, start-up businesses and venture capital funds to set up a technology research cluster in the emirate.

The new plan is part of a “six by six” strategy modelled on other integrated technology zones including those in Singapore and Shanghai, said Ray Milhem, the chief technology officer of the DSO.

The plan aims to link the development of six technology sectors – such as mobile applications, semiconductors, data centres and internet companies – with major businesses, universities and government departments in the region.

“The bottom line is to attract companies here, create jobs, to transfer technology and help the Dubai and regional economy,” Mr Milhem said.

“Having all these factors … builds a ‘centre of excellence’. This could take three years, five years, or 10 years. But what we’re doing right now is putting the building blocks on the ground.”

Mr Milhem, a research executive with experience at AT&T, Nokia and Motorola, was hired by Mohammed al Zarouni, the chief executive of DSO, nine months ago to raise awareness of the free zone among technology companies after previous attempts failed to lure large corporations.

Since then, Mr Milhem has been discussing the DSO’s plans with Google, Nokia, Advanced Micro Devices, Motorola and Cisco, as well as several high-level venture capital companies based in California’s Silicon Valley.

He said that some of the talks were in advanced stages, with the first major announcement to be revealed “in weeks”.

The DSO is not alone in trying to build a knowledge-based economy around technology. TechnoPark, the science and technology free zone owned by Economic Zones World, a unit of Dubai World, is in talks with 50 leading companies to set up a research and development centre.

But Mr Milhem is looking to create a wider ecosystem by including start-up technology companies as a major plank of the DSO’s plans. But doing so is a challenge given the large capital costs in setting up a business in Dubai that deters entrepreneurs from launching their own companies.

Acknowledging the problem, Mr Milhem said the DSO would create a new “entrepreneurship business licence” in the next three months that would lower new business set-up costs to a manageable level, as well as providing mentor and network support.

“Although we cannot do anything on visas because that’s on a government level, what we can do is lower obstacles for regional entrepreneurs who are serious and sincere in opening start-ups here,” he said.

Another pillar of DSO’s strategy is the Dubai Circuit Design facility that designs microchips for major electronic companies.

With its 25 engineers, the centre has doubled the size of its customer roster to eight over the past year and is producing “healthy” revenues, Mr Milhem said. He declined to name the customers, citing non-disclosure agreements.

Mr Milhem also said he was in talks with the Abu Dhabi Government-owned Advanced Technology Investment Company to design microchips that would be produced by its Globalfoundries business.