How the UAE became a regional hub for start-ups and innovation

Different accelerators, funding programmes and incubators have risen up across the country

Abu Dhabi Global Market is among the entities driving innovation across the country. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
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The UAE may be famous for its rich oil reserves but what some may not know is that SMEs make up a large percentage of its gross domestic product

According to the UAE Banks Federation, SMEs make up over 60 per cent of the country’s GDP and employ 42 per cent of its workforce.

In Dubai, start-ups make up 50 per cent of the companies registered in the city and employ half of its workforce, as revealed in a study conducted by Dubai SME - the agency of the Department of Economic Development (DED) in Dubai.

The country has retained its first position in innovation in the Arab world last year, and was placed 38th in last year’s Global Innovation Index (GII). The ranking is a result of increasing local competition and efficient government online services. The UAE is working on improving its position to be placed among the top 10 innovations leaders in the world by 2021.

Last year saw the introduction of long-term visas granted to certain investors, entrepreneurs, inventors and outstanding students. Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) introduced its tech-start-up licences with a competitive annual fee of $700, and the option to employ four people under that scheme, as well as access to its Entrepreneurship Support Programme.

Different accelerators, funding programmes and incubators have risen up across the country. Sheraa Entrepreneurship Centre in Sharjah provides mentorship, workshops, seed programmes and grants, putting the emirate firmly on the map for creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Dubai provides businesses with different setup options. AstroLabs in Dubai offers entrepreneurs a fast track option to set-up a business, obtain up to five residency visas for team members, as well as a co-working space. Dubai’s Re-urban Studio, founded by Emiratis Fatima Al Mazrouei and Masha’el Al Ali, is a membership based co-working space located in Dubai’s Design District and is also the first design incubator in Dubai that offers students, professionals and entrepreneurs design-specific programmes, networking opportunities and workshops.

Initiatives and events such as Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival, SME World Summit, Global Entrepreneurship Forum and the STEP Conference provide potential entrepreneurs with the opportunity to showcase their businesses, speak to investors and raise funds.

This year, we saw the reduction in government business set-up and licensing services fees across Abu Dhabi in an effort to enhance ease of doing business in the city and attract more entrepreneurs. Abu Dhabi exempted newly licensed businesses from local services fees for two years, and cancelled the fees for 75 basic services provided by Abu Dhabi Municipality.

This month the UAE celebrates its annual Innovation Month through different events and programmes across the country aimed to instil and nurture a culture of innovation amongst community members.

All the above efforts have helped to place the UAE 11th this year in the World Bank’s ease of doing business list. The UAE isn’t the place to be for start-up entrepreneurs only but has also become the regional hub of choice for multinational corporations, luxury brands, and financial services providers.

We have witnessed the rise of successful UAE based businesses over the years who have not only made a name for themselves on the local scene, but who have attracted international media attention and investors.

American-Iraqi beauty entrepreneur Huda Kattan started with a simple beauty blog from her Dubai home. In a few years, the blog grew to an international beauty company stocked in across the world, which Forbes valued at $1 billion last year., the UAE e-commerce platform founded in 2005, was acquired by American giant Amazon in 2017. The platform’s success continues to serve as an inspiration for regional entrepreneurs.

Emirati fashion designer Fatema Fardan created a huge buzz on the regional fashion front when she became the first Emirati designer to debut her collection at the prestigious New York Fashion Week in 2015.

The UAE’s success story on the entrepreneurship and innovation front is the result of the hard work and effective collaboration among government officials, the public and private sector.

The UAE and the region are continuing to develop. Part of the UAE’s Vision 2021 is to increase the level of entrepreneurship and encourage more Emiratis to join the private sector.

The timing is right and there’s no time like the present to get on board the entrepreneurship wagon.

Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati journalist and entrepreneur, who manages her marketing and communications company in Abu Dhabi.