Five sectors where startups are hitting it big in the UAE

June 25, 2016

It almost seems a bit protected at the moment. The economy of the UAE, that is. Which is not to say business is easy here. Business is never easy. But the framework we are working within at the moment is a unique one, and I’d go so far as to say that it makes getting good results easier here than in most of the other thriving economies around the world.

Indeed, government and outside investment continue to accelerate the growth of this infrastructure – an infrastructure that requires new companies like yours to support it. And with more than 10,000 new business licenses being issued every year across the country, it’s clearly an environment that entrepreneurs around the world are badly wanting to be a part of.

While many business sectors are growing in strength and flourishing throughout the seven emirates, in this article we focus on five that have stood out for some time now and continue to offer tremendous opportunities for startups. It’s best to view these as broad categories and let your imagination and industry experience facilitate an open mind when considering ideas and opportunities within any which one.

Just be clear on one thing: If you have a desire to build your own business and are in the know with respect to any of the below sectors, give serious consideration to taking the leap and realising your ambitions, because, well, you won’t find a better playing field at the present time than this one.

With more than 10,000 new business licenses being issued every year across the UAE, it’s clearly an environment that entrepreneurs around the world are badly wanting to be a part of.

Retail

Staggering investments have been made into the ongoing development of new retail areas that include malls, restaurants, and theme parks – especially in Dubai. And what cannot be ignored in the picture is that it is far from just us UAE residents who are driving this growth. In 2015, for example, some 14 million tourists visited, and by 2020 those numbers are expected to hit 20 million. And we all know how tourists like to spend.

Abdulla Fareed Al Gurg, who is the general manager of the 26-company strong Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group and has a keen eye on those rising tourist numbers, has predicted new attractions in the retail market will mean that visitors will have to allocate more days in their travel itinerary to absorb them all. Certainly good news for sellers.

And it’s not just the traditional bricks and mortar shops that are driving startups. Online retail has also found its feet. E-commerce sites such as ShopGo, for example, which facilitate trade of consumer goods, have been highlighted among the most promising startups within the UAE by Forbes. There are also many apps available dedicated to shopping, with Namshi, Souq, and Dubizzle leading the charge here, having made major strides in recent years to ensure an excellent mobile experience of their platforms.

Financial services

As the UAE is so heavily populated with businesses, it’s little surprise that there is an ongoing demand for all of the many supporting financial services, with ample opportunities for accountants, auditors, and bookkeepers to make their mark in the region.

However, with mobile phone penetration in the region sitting at around 80% and rising, a whole other sector within this sector to consider includes the apps and sites designed specifically for smartphones. Innovators who create financial services accessible via mobile devices do so knowing that consumer adoption is fast in this sector.

There are plenty of renowned success stories out of the UAE, including PayFort, the online payment gateway; Beehive, the UAE’s first peer to peer lending site; Wally, the personal finance app; and Compareit4me.com, the leading financial comparison site in the region.

No doubt wherever you find wealth and a startup climate like this you’ll find the financial services orbiting as a satellite by necessity.

Interior design

With construction projects creating sweeping new landscapes of real estate and luxury hotels in any which way you turn your head in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular, it’s obvious this will have a ripple effect on any industry needed to finesse these grand projects. Which leads us to interior design.

Startups that specialise in interior design can find themselves on fertile grounds in the UAE, as it is one of the largest marketplaces for interiors in the Middle East. From lighting to furniture to walls and ceilings to doors, there is now – and will be for many years to come – a great need for suppliers.

The interior design market is a fought-over space, and so you will see many startups carving out a niche. To take just one example, we can look at Wild Child Designz, which has had tremendous success focusing on bespoke children’s designer furniture.

Video games

It’s official: the Middle East loves video games. And whether that’s mobile apps or consoles, the market is growing faster than the global average and may triple in size by 2022.

Two particular areas stand out for startups in this sector: Firstly, there is the need to arabise content for popular international games; and secondly there is the potential to create locally relevant games. The latter is an approach that is spawning a cultural game genre, with Arab characters and cultural narratives making the games more immersive for players in the region.

And the traffic is certainly there. A recent report by ArabNet indicated that the UAE dominates the Arab region when it comes to mobile apps downloaded, with over 50% of users downloading in excess of five apps a month here. The big news for video game companies, however, is that those game apps make up 60% of these downloads.

Over 50% of mobile device users download in excess of five apps a month in the UAE, with 60% of those being game apps.

There’s also another aspect to all of this which we have written about before, and that has to do with the fact that virtual reality (VR) is now about to truly take off. Devices like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony Playstation VR are offering startups around the world the chance to develop new gaming experiences, and in so doing spearhead what may be the biggest potential technology gearshift since mobile phones.

And we already have some homegrown talent here, with animation and games design company PixelHunters out of Dubai looking to make a big name for itself. PixelHunters has in fact already developed a VR game in the UAE which they showcased at the end of 2015. In all, 2,500 people got to test out the 360 degree immersion into an artificially constructed game environment via the head-worn device.

Three words on gaming and VR in general: Watch this space.

Communications

At the ArabNet Digital Summit held at the end of May this year at the Madinat Jumeirah Conference and Events Centre in Dubai, marketing communications prevailed as a key theme. In the UAE, the sector is demonstrating fast growth by global standards, and this is resulting in major international companies jumping on the region through acquisitions of homegrown firms (M&C Saatchi’s purchase of regional communications company Expression is just one example among many in recent years).

It would almost be an understatement to say that opportunities for communications companies of all sizes and niches are looking very strong in the UAE. Indeed for companies that know what they are doing and are playing their part in upping the quality of comms in the region, the chance to grow a one- or two-person company into a far larger headcount is there – which would no doubt put you on the radar screens of those major global players like M&C Saatchi looking to leapfrog into the region through an acquisition.

And while traditional advertising media – such as TV, newspapers, magazines, and radio – is still looking strong, a majority shift to digital is the order of the day now for all companies in this space. Don’t dip your toe into the digital pool; rather, jump in fully. Get the talent on board to help drive it properly and be part of the evolution of the digital comms revolution that is very much still defining itself.

Your turn

To understand where startups flourish we have to see where they draw their strength. Each of the above sectors is reliant on another sector developing before it: construction supports retail and interior design; mobile devices support gaming and communications; and so on. Look where the river is flowing before you sift for gold. Any business is not a standalone concept; rather, it is entwined with other businesses – buyers and sellers.

I will wrap up on that which I stressed at the beginning: The UAE is offering tremendous business opportunities for entrepreneurs – so much so that the aspiring businessperson ignores it at the risk of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Building a business anywhere takes smarts, drive, persistence, and a bit of luck. But in a world as vibrant as the UAE where so many sectors are mutually supporting one another due to a very favourable economic environment – potentially set for decades of growth – we’d be untruthful if we said we don’t have it quite a bit easier here at present.

Neil Petch Author Image

About the author
Neil Petch; Chairman at Virtugroup
With a history of business successes, Neil Petch is well known in the UAE and beyond as a visionary entrepreneur with a passion for helping others establish and grow their own businesses. Neil founded Virtuzone in 2009 and quickly established it as the region’s leading company formation expert, before launching Virtugroup, a holding company that has a wider mandate of supporting startups from establishment; to successful market entry; and all the way through to exit.