Syria's exiled entrepreneurs are hanging tough in the UAE

The Life: Syrian entrepreneurs such as the Haykal brothers and Salim Akil are looking to the UAE as a safe haven for their companies while the situation at home deteriorates.

Abdulsalam Haykal, left, and Ammar Haykal branched out from their Damascus base to open a Haykal Media office in twofour54. Sammy Dallal / The National
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Before turmoil engulfed Syria, Abdulsalam Haykal ran a technology company and a publishing house in Damascus.

By 2010, Haykal Media had grown to employ 40 people, including reporters and editors.

But as the country's violence worsened, the number of publications under Haykal Media fell from nine print publications to one in print and one online.

In a most telling sign, its monthly luxury lifestyle magazine Happynings, which had a distribution of about 4,000 to all major hotels in Syria, stopped in February last year.

"Happy things were not happening any more, and distribution fell because of places we could not deliver any more," Mr Haykal says.

Two years after the Arab Spring touched down in his home country, Mr Haykal, 35, has opened an office in Abu Dhabi's twofour54 while still maintaining offices and employing staff in Damascus despite the increasing violence.

He and his younger brother Ammar are among the untold hundreds of Syrian businesspeople whose best hope of finding happy things lies outside their homeland and who are in the process of setting up a business presence in the Emirates.

"It was a natural progression," Mr Haykal says of the move. They had been considering expanding outside Syria since 2009, when they opened an office in Beirut.

Faced with the circumstances in 2011, "expansion changed from a nice thing to have to must-have and must do to sustain ourselves and grow," he says. "It takes a lot of courage and vision and some investment," Mr Haykal says of the relocation.

Outside the UAE, a few agencies are helping Syrian entrepreneurs.

The Amman-based start-up accelerator Oasis500 has signed up Syrian entrepreneurs and is supported by Jordanian investors, and the US and Jordanian governments.

Back in the Emirates, Salim Akil, another Syrian entrepreneur, relocated his business to Dubai in September 2011. The 25-year-old started in Syria in 2010 just before the uprising started. His website is a business- to-business marketplace that helps Arab enterprises to be listed online and attract clients. It had 3,500 users and 400 Syrian clients for US$100 each when the ground situation worsened, and he decided to restart from scratch.

"[We had] to change the business plan and the prices, in addition to improving the products," Mr Akil says of the move.

He now has 13,000 free users, and 100 paid in the Mena region for $300, $600 and $1,000.

Salah Sabouni, a co-owner and business development manager, and Rami Mardini, founder and general manager of Advanced Business Solutions, also moved their business from Damascus to Dubai in 2011. It distributes software and hardware related to cyber security.

Founded in 2007, the young company had looked to Egypt, which soon became engulfed in instability. So Dubai was the natural choice, says Mr Sabouni, 30.

"We opened a small office - 15 square metres - in Dubai Silicon Oasis that allowed us two visas, and after a year opened a bigger office and moved two top-performing employees here from Syria," he says.

The high cost of relocating a company meant they were unable to move everyone to Dubai. Eight of their 27 employees now work in Dubai, while the rest have moved on their own to Egypt, from where they work over the internet.

In Damascus, the Haykals still employ 20 people.

As they started looking outside their country, Turkey and Beirut were among the natural choices.

"But we wanted to be in the bigger world," the senior Haykal brother says.

From Abu Dhabi they run a website called Launched in 2004, it is an online museum that chronicles Syria through photographs taken since the 1800s. A local version, launched last month. They plan to relaunch Happynings in print.

Even if Syria stablised, some entrepreneurs think it would be hard to go back.

"The whole country's infrastructure is ruined, not the same as before," Mr Sabouni says.

Yet they would like to hire some people there as salaries and the cost of operations in Syria are lower than Dubai.

The Haykal brothers want to return to Syria.

"There is no way to give up on Syria," Mr Haykal says. "It's our home, we will go back."