UAE government offers long-term visas to start-ups from around the world

Five-year visas aim to attract and retain technology entrepreneurs

A picture taken on January 11, 2018 shows the skyline of the Dubai Marina. / AFP PHOTO / GIUSEPPE CACACE
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The UAE government will provide long-term visas to the founders and owners of technology start-ups from around the world as it aims to attract top talent to help it become one of the most innovative and dynamic countries of the future.

The five-year visas will be granted to owners or founders of companies, all of their partners and up to three executives. No sponsor is required as the visa will be in the names of the individuals they are provided to.

"It is a global set-up, it is open for anyone, it is inclusive, talent is not confined to one region and that is the whole idea. We have simply started with the 100 Arab start-ups because of this event and because of the amount of talent we have seen in this region and we want to leverage on this talent, but the idea is this is open for the world," Khalfan Belhoul, chief executive of the Dubai Future Foundation, told The National at the World Economic Forum on Sunday.

On Saturday, Mr Belhoul and Abdulla bin Touq, Secretary General of the UAE Cabinet, participated in a discussion about Arab start-ups at the meeting at the Dead Sea, during which it was announced that the UAE government had granted long-term visas to the top 100 companies that had been selected by the Forum.

According to the Forum, 19 of the top 100 are already based in the UAE. Also on the list are Egypt’s mass-transit platform Swvl, Palestinian FinTech company Receet and Moroccan environment app Clean City.

“We sat and realised there are one hundred very interesting start-ups, so much talent in the region. We want to leverage that talent and create the most ambitious ecosystem there is for them in Dubai and this was one attempt to create that ecosystem,” Mr Belhoul said.

The long-term visa scheme for technology start-ups has been planned for some time and it has been structured to build on the momentum from the first 100 companies, Mr Belhoul said.

The scheme also includes affordable licences and providing for families of founders, owners and executives so that they can join them in the UAE.

“Entrepreneurs always need the support of their family members to stay around them, to help them push and drive their innovations. This is a small attempt out of many that we will work on and that will create the most thriving ecosystem just when it comes to entrepreneurship,” Mr Belhoul said.

As part of the UAE’s diversification plans, efforts have been under way to develop newer technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain. The UAE can become “a lab for the world” but for this to happen it also has to be the easiest environment for testing new things, Mr Belhoul said.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has led the creation of a number of initiatives to build a supportive environment for innovation in order to achieve the UAE Vision 2021, which aims to make the country one of the most innovative in the world.

“Innovators have so many challenges whether related to funding, financing, cost of living, cost of setting up and those are barriers that those building an innovation ecosystem are really working on [removing],” Mr Belhoul said.

The Dubai Future Foundation has a mandate to help connect with “entrepreneurs and start-ups, and innovators and great minds that are building the futures of countries”, he said.

“In order to connect with them we really need to create the most habitable ecosystem for them to be able to invent and create.”

Mr Belhoul said since the announcement on Saturday, “we’ve been receiving calls and contacts from different people who have heard the news, already asking how we can really avail of those services”.

Dubai Future Foundation’s Area 2071 will be the vetting platform for the visa scheme.

“The main purpose of this space is to welcome any contributor to building an innovation ecosystem. That’s entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, government entities, corporates and academia. So in this specific case we are talking about innovators and entrepreneurs. They would come to us in Area 2071, whether in physical attendance or digitally accessing the sites of Area 2071, applying and going through the screening process of Area 2071, where we will sign off those visas,” Mr Belhoul said.

“Giving visas can be something that is sometimes sensitive and we have to make sure that we are granting those visas to people who really have a drive to build new ideas.”

However, the expectation is that the vetting process will be fast, taking no longer than one week.

“We expect this to be a very seamless process. Probably a process that will take no longer than a week because the idea is for something like this to become a digital [process] and extremely seamless. A matter of assessing the founder, assessing the set-up and start-up of the company, the invest-ability of the company,” Mr Belhoul said.

Should the start-up be bought, meaning the founders and partners exit, or if it should fail, the visa will still remain valid.

The purpose of the initiative is to attract and retain talent that will help build an innovative ecosystem in the country, Mr Belhoul said.

“The whole idea is for us to create the right ecosystems for start-ups to really enjoy it all the way until they exit and remain [in the UAE], because once you exit that is the most important factor. You will have talent that is available. They have exited the story but the talent hasn’t exited anywhere, the individual is still there and will jump into another journey. You need those individuals to stay, you need them to transfer the knowledge, to really build the ecosystem.”

The start-ups will also be free to seek funding and further support from any of the venture capital or other types of funds in the UAE and wider region.

“The whole point of building an ecosystem is connecting with different platforms. We are a vetting platform to ensure to Dubai and the UAE that those are legitimate, invest-able start-ups that really have a chance to shine. Whether they get invested in by Wamda, Hub 71, Beco Capital or MEVP or STV, for us it is a successful story as long as people really believe in them and take them to the next level," said Mr Belhoul.

Those that wish to can also move up to an investor visa, which is valid for 10 years. Costs for the visas have been finalised but are yet to be disclosed.