The Middle East has long been thought of as an oil region, but the United Arab Emirates plans to change that with a strong focus on growing the country’s technology and startup scene.
For the first half of 2022, the Middle East region brought in $1.73 billion in investments across 354 deals, up from $1.2 billion in the first half of 2021 – a 64% year-on-year increase. The UAE will account for 46 percent of the total investment capital received in the Middle East and Africa by 2021, according to the country’s Ministry of Economy.
In 2016, the UAE began to focus on its goal of becoming a technology and startup hub by establishing the Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park to house companies in various industries such as water management, renewable energy, transportation, manufacturing and agriculture.
TechCrunch highlights some of the tech activity coming out of the UAE, including the country’s $800 million investment in space, which it says is now home to the “world’s largest vertical farm.” and a global investment in domestic proptech startup Huspi.
In the year In 2017, the UAE Ministry of Artificial Intelligence created a position, which was filled by HE Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, who previously worked in the banking and telecommunications sectors.
He Al Olama recently spoke to me about the growing Emirati startup and venture capital ecosystem and the country’s approaches to attracting US VC investment. What follows are highlights from our talk, slightly edited for clarity and length.
TechCrunch: Is the presence of venture capital in the UAE new?
Hey Al Olama. If you look at the geography, you will see that the UAE attracts more than 50% of the region’s capital investments. That’s interesting, but when you look at the crowd, it becomes very interesting because you’re talking about high-quality talent and also an ecosystem to create thriving startups and startups. A startup is not just about to start, but actually goes through several stages.
I see that in terms of investment capital and investment, it was over a billion dollars last year. Do you see an increase this year or the same as last year?
The investments in the first half of this year exceeded our expectations. Of the investments made in the first six months, 1.73 billion dollars were invested in the Middle East, of which 37.2 percent were invested in the United Arab Emirates. So it is really useful. If we look at the comparison from 2022 to 2021, January was 2.5 times as February, and March 1.5 times, April 1.5 times, May 1.4 times and June 1.2 times. It is for the whole region. What you can see from this is the interest of international investors in the area. And, the theory that the UAE is still getting the largest share compared to other countries in the region with larger populations or larger market sizes shows that the snowball started rolling a few years ago when we started. I had it and it’s getting really big. I think we are just getting started.
How did you attract tech companies to the Emirates?
Tax exemptions are certainly an incentive, but the UAE today is a financial center for our region and one of the leading financial centers globally. There is plenty of capital here ready to be deployed. A major advantage is that many investors feel more comfortable investing in a company located in the UAE due to the transparency of the court system. Government laws are favorable to the private sector. It is an environment where people thrive because they are not marginalized or disadvantaged because of their particular race or gender or nationality. It is known to be a place where anyone from anywhere in the world can really succeed. In addition, the infrastructure is very advanced in terms of road quality and smartphone penetration – we have the highest smartphone penetration in the world.
The government has been rolling out many different incentives over the years, including startup-friendly policies. What should someone know if they are going to the Emirates?
We looked at all the sectors that support the startup landscape and tried to create incentives for people to choose something in the UAE as opposed to anywhere else. Getting a visa is very, very difficult in most countries. If you’re talented and work in the digital economy, which we’re particularly focused on, you can get permanent residency or long-term residency right off the bat. Another thing, you can start the company in one day. Third, there are many different programs, for example, incubators and accelerators, and government contracts are very interesting.
TC: How did the UAE AI mandate come about, and what were your plans for launch?
What are we really trying to solve? What is the potential for the UAE, whether positive or negative, and how can we ensure we deploy AI across the country in ways that improve the quality of life? Quality of life is really the main driver for AI. It is not an economic benefit as is the case in many countries. Second, it is difficult to prove that our policies or laws will actually benefit us when it comes to the negative consequences of deploying AI, both domestically and internationally. If AI goes wrong elsewhere, how do we make sure we’re less likely to get carried away by it? Our initial motto was to build a responsible artificial intelligence nation for the present as well as for the future.
Given the region’s reputation for human rights abuses, do you expect the UAE to have challenges attracting American talent and investment?
The Middle East has a reputation as a ‘strong neighborhood’ for a variety of reasons, from conflict to governance failures. We see the Emirates as unique, with people of over 195 nationalities working, studying and playing together in an atmosphere of peace, tranquility and security, a very tolerant, multicultural society.
Why is supporting startups and venture capital an important push for the region?
A few reasons: First, if you look at our history, the UAE has always been a nation of traders and has always wanted to support business and open up opportunities. The second thing is that our desire to move away from oil and invest in renewables and other parts of our economy, the digital economy, to make sure we’re competitive and competitive has been heard and voiced. For developed and developing countries from around the world. Finally, we are not a big country; Therefore, we cannot compete with countries with cheap labor costs in certain sectors. However, if you look at the digital economy and sectors due to the advancement of technology, even though they are very expensive – you can create products and achieve amazing results. That is our aim.