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The UAE aims to nurture 20 unicorns by 2031. Here’s how it’s planning to do it

The country plans to offer funding in several formats, including equity, direct lending, and loan guarantees.

The UAE aims to nurture 20 unicorns by 2031. Here’s how it’s planning to do it
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Startups worldwide turned their attention to the 10th Annual Investment Meeting (AIM) held in Dubai earlier this year. AIM has a target in mind – to spotlight startups, address aspiring entrepreneurs’ challenges, and help investors nurture early-stage venture capital. 

Nearly every business in the world has been affected by the pandemic, but startups perhaps were the worst hit. However, the startup ecosystem in the UAE, a country that cemented itself as a hub for venture capital funding, has weathered the storm relatively well. Now, the government is focusing on developing local businesses and nurturing 20 unicorns by 2031. 

THE MILLION DOLLAR FUND

Ahmed al-Falasi, the Minister of State for Entrepreneurship and SMEs, announced implementing a $272 million (Dh1 billion) private equity fund to support UAE-based startups and SMEs operating in the region. 

“The ministry is still considering whether the new fund for startups and SMEs will be for early or late-stage businesses. We will only intervene when there is a need to support the businesses,” he said.

Dubai-based financier and entrepreneur Shailesh Dash said the UAE has built the correct infrastructure needed to support startups in the region. When asked to comment on the target for unicorns in the area, he stated that a solid foundation has already been established to help startups develop into multi-billion business ventures.  

“With the current ecosystem being built up in UAE and surrounding countries, it’s a perfectly achievable target subject to none of the extraneous events happening. With various new laws attracting newer skill sets to the economy, such as coders, freelancers, and financiers into the ecosystem, it would all help build unicorns in the coming years,” Dash said.

THE ENTREPRENEURIAL NATION

The Entrepreneurial Nation initiative was launched to help offer support through a series of public-private partnerships that make it easier for entrepreneurs to set up in the UAE. The newly formed initiative encompasses three stages: The Skill-Up Academy, the Startup Track, and the Scale-Up Program. The result is working with fast-growing, revenue-earning companies older than three years to expand and eventually become unicorns. 

Entrepreneurial Nation has partnerships with global companies like  Google and Meta and regional companies like Etihad.

At the launch, Falasi said the UAE aims to solidify its position as the go-to destination for international investment in the Middle East. 

“Foreigners feel much more confident starting their business in a country with 90% expats as opposed to other countries,” said Falasi.

FUNDING IN UAE ON A ROLL

According to the World Investment Report 2022, the UAE ranked first in the Arab world and 19th globally in FDI inflows and attracted $20.7 billion in FDI last year. The country has undertaken several economic, legal, and social reforms to attract skilled workers and incentivize companies to set up or expand their operations.

The UAE has announced visa and business reforms to attract more expats to live and work in the region. To boost startups and entrepreneurship, it plans to offer funding in several formats, including equity, direct lending, and loan guarantees.

The Projects of the 50 initiative launched in the UAE plans to attract over $150 billion in FDI in the next ten years.

Looking at the latest Dubai Chamber statistics, the UAE is a frontrunner, with 251 startups raising 60% of MENA venture capital funding at $5.4 billion. 

“Venture capital plays an important role in increasing the competitiveness of our startups, particularly in innovative and technology-based areas,” says Hamad Buamim, president and CEO of Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Investments in the region are happening across several sectors, particularly food and healthcare. Alpha Dhabi Holding will also place over $108 million in Chimera Capital and Alpha Wave’s venture fund. 

Omooma, a startup focused on pregnancy, maternity, and motherhood, secured $2.5 million in funding from Abu Dhabi-based E20 Investment fund. The fund will be used to expand its operations, workforce, and ecommerce growth. 

“Based on the development of our needs, we’ll keep hiring people. We will be quite aggressive in terms of development because we have the funding to do it, and we’ll hire accordingly,” says Charles Dalle, co-founder of Omooma. “We will expand operations in other regions later, probably in India.”

Even Supy, a UAE-based technology startup that simplifies transactions between restaurants and suppliers, recently raised $8 million in venture capital funding as the company aims to boost its technology capabilities. 

The fintech platform YAP, launched in 2021 in partnership with RAKBank, raised $41 million to expand into new markets and enhance its technology offerings. “The interest we have received from investors shows a strong demand for fintech products,” says Marwan Hachem, co-founder and group chief executive of YAP. 

ATTRACTING GLOBAL TALENT

With a continued effort to attract the best global talent, Dubai has steadily strengthened its fintech sector.

The recent launch of the $100 million Venture Capital Fund by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council, is aimed at adding more incentives for budding entrepreneurs to invest in the region. The Venture Capital Fund would generate around 8,000 new jobs, mainly in the fintech sector.

“We have established Dubai as the city of entrepreneurs and risk-tolerant investors. We have a flexible legislative system, robust financing tools, and an effective regulatory environment. More importantly, we have dynamic public and private sectors,” said Sheikh Hamdan, articulating Dubai’s determination to become a leader in the fintech industry.

“Though startups and SMEs are considered the backbone of the economy when it comes to funding, they are left to the government and banks. I think a venture fund is a good idea and will support startups to establish and attract more investors and entrepreneurs around the world,” says Jitendra Gianchandani, chairman and managing partner of Jitendra Consulting Group.

Dubai-based fintech startup Pemo has raised $12 million in seed funding, while Tabby raised $54 million in a recent funding round. 

Mashreq acquired a stake in banking-as-a-service provider NymCard to support fintech in the UAE. The bank invested in NymCard through its venture fund to support the growth of fintech businesses in the region.

Earlier in July, under the first phase of the NextGenFDI initiative, Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of State for Foreign Trade, said the country aims to attract 300 digital companies within six months to a year and will focus on companies led by data scientists, computer programmers, and digital asset entrepreneurs.

Incentives for digital companies include a faster business set-up process, better access to finance, easier visa procedures, and attractive commercial and residential leasing terms. 

Already home to several multinational companies, the UAE is ticking all the right boxes to position itself as the global hub for startups.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bilal is a freelance writer currently living in Dubai, specialising in tech and fashion, with an interest in enterprise tech and fast-moving trends both locally in Dubai and globally. More

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