As mayors around the world debate about why their city is the new tech hub, there is one city that rose from the ashes (or sand), to stand with the giants.
In the 90’s, nobody had even heard about Dubai — It was known as a ‘fishing village’, it was nothing but desert. Fast forward 30 years later, became one of the most innovative cities in the world.
I brought my startup to Dubai over a year ago, by way of the more popular NYC and SF Bay startup scene. Everything seemed appealing to operate my business from here: Set up a company and visa within days, large trade ports, one of the busiest airports in the world, lots of capital floating around, tax-free business and salaries, talent and trade opportunities to scale globally from the East and West.
Dubai’s modern “smart city” is designed with a vision for the future. Here’s a glimpse inside the futuristic tech hub 👇👇👇
Tech Startup Scene
There are co-working spaces and incubators in every corner of Dubai, some focusing on specific industries like fintech or space, for more of a collaborative environment.
In 2019, over 560 startups in the region were funded ($704M in funding), and had record exits, including Careem which was acquired by Uber for $3.1B. More than 27 companies had exited.
2020 was looking to double startup investments and exceed $1B for the first time. Despite Covid, the Emirates opened up borders with Israel and Qatar to increase investments and market opportunities across the region.
Smart Dubai is Dubai’s government office in charge of the cities smart transformation. One of their initiatives is the Dubai Blockchain Strategy, which expects Dubai to be the first city fully powered on blockchain technologies. One of the use cases is for all visa applications, bill payments, and license renewals to be transacted digitally using blockchain. UAE and Saudi Arabia launched a joint initiative for a common digital currency.
Some more recognized blockchain companies include Block Gemini, and recently Ripple (since it just moved its HQ to Dubai).
Personally, most of the people I’ve met in Dubai this past year, run blockchain and crypto companies saying a lot about upcoming regulation changes. There’s a weekly crypto meetup near Downtown Dubai, and an annual Blockchain Summit.
Dubai stepped its game up by appointing a Minister of Artificial Intelligence, who plans to unveil a series of AI solutions in government divisions to provide a better experience for all residents (the vision of the happiest place to live).
I attended a conference last year where I met AI/ML engineers from the Dubai Police Department. It felt like a scene from the classic movie Robocop. They’re working with IBM’s Watson and Google to create robot cops, who will be able to spot people from far away, greet them, answer questions, and created the worlds first smart police stations that have no cops. Though, Dubai is one of the safest cities in the world so I don’t think we will see robot cops doing car chases and arrests anytime soon.
Other projects that are already underway include holding companies using AI to help their retail operations. Metro stations using AI to reduce wait times, and hospitals using AI to enhance patient and caregiver experiences. All of these are part of multi-phase plans and have already completed first trials.
How can we talk about the future of competing major cities without bringing up Space Exploration. Dubai launched the MBR Space Centre years ago offering satellite imagery services, amongst other things.
Now Dubai has its eyes set on Mars. The first Arab interplanetary mission to Mars is set to reach the red planet on Feb 9th, 2021 (will update this after that), competing with space superpowers US and China.
Once oil was discovered in Dubai, the population grew by over 300% and infrastructure was built with a vision of the cities goals hundreds of years into the future. Of course with everything Dubai does, it has to be grand, innovative, and sustainable.
Dubai hosts the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa, designed to trick the wind at a high altitude, and the biggest fountain in the world stretching over 14,000 sq ft. in the sea). Dubai works with the worlds best engineers in the world to create architecture that will withstand the tests of time including climate change.
Man-Made Islands: Palm Island
Can man-made islands potentially solve the issues of rising sea levels? With cities threatened to be under water as sea levels rise, this monumental engineering project could be the solution. This project was taken on by the developer Nakheel and took over 5.5 million cubic meters of rock and 94 million cubic meters of sand to develop. Private GPS satellites helped ensure the unique palm tree shape.
Apart from ambitious engineering, it offers some of the best villas, nightlife, beaches, and hotels, which host many of the big tech conferences. When you enter the island, you go into an underground tunnel. To show scale, it takes a while to drive from one side of the island to the other (about 40 minutes on my last trip).
Life in Dubai
Apart from living tax free in Dubai and its geographical advantage, there are many benefits of Dubai becoming the next big tech hub. While the world builds museums dedicated to the past, a city whose own history doesn’t span that far back, is obsessed with the future.
The Museum of the Future is dedicated to AI, VR, Blockchain, and other ambitious visions for the UAE. The lead consultant of the project said that with the calligraphy and unique shape, the structure is one of the most complex construction projects ever undertaken.
The tech scene in Dubai (talent, startups, and capital), is arguably growing faster than anywhere else. To show scale, an entire mall of offices in my building just opened and are already fully booked out.
Geographically the most brilliant minds from around the world will make their way to Dubai to take on the most ambitious projects: Expo 2020 (which has been pushed one year due to Covid19), is a several years long global expo to showcase projects on sustainability, mobility, culture, arts, and the future. Over 190 countries are participating.
Can Dubai become the next global tech hub? From desert to becoming one of the “smartest” cities in 30 years, it will undoubtedly will be a launchpad for innovation in the coming years.