Dubai is speeding up its transition to digital and building an innovative ecosystem. However competition between startups is fierce.
Interview, during the L'Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) broadcast on the BFM Business channel, with Houssam Nasrawin, founder and President of Arab Business Leaders and founder-CEO of consultancy Mideast Capital.
L’Atelier: Houssam, you have dual French and Jordanian nationality, which prompted you to focus on the Gulf States, on Dubai in particular, and to assist companies, especially French ones, setting up in Dubai. So that’s my question, is Dubai a paradise for the new technologies, then?
Houssam Nasrawin: Contrary to what one might think, Dubai was for a long time lagging behind when it came to startups and the new technologies. It’s only recently that the government has become aware of the importance of the new information and communication technologies and the value of startup companies, and has launched a range of initiatives to encourage entrepreuneurship. For example, the Emir of Dubai has set the target of pushing Dubai to become one of the world’s leaders in new technologies by 2021. They are trying to move fast, on a very tight deadline and they want to become the best in whatever they undertake. I have no doubt that they will succeed in the coming years.
Initiatives such as Media City and Internet City are intended to replicate Silicon Valley. Is this move proving effective
Smart City is another initiative launched as part of the overall plan to make Dubai – I’m quoting their words now – the world number one in the new technologies. It’s a city which is not only going to bring together infrastructures but also a high-quality education system. They’re targeting universities to teach them what setting up your own company is all about, what the new technologies are all about, and so on.
There are also the Dubai Knowledge Village and Dubai Silicon Oasis, which are free zones. A ‘free zone’ is very advantageous from a fiscal point of view. You may own 100% of the company capital. You’re provided with ultramodern infrastructure to help your startup take off and succeed in everything to do with the new technologies.
If an entrepreneur wants to launch a company, who can s/he go to for help in financing the project? The government, private funds?
For a long time Dubai also lagged very far behind as regards funding young companies, i.e. venture capital firms. But today we’re seeing an increasing number of venture capital firms that specialise in helping young business people. We should also stress the State’s initiative – driven by the Emir of Abu Dhabi, who is also President of the United Arab Emirates – through the Khalifa ben Zayed fund. He launched a fund in partnership with US companies, including Microsoft, to help young entrepreneurs with funding, and also to train them in entrepreuneurship and the new technologies.
There are many cultural differences between Dubai and France, including when it comes to doing business. What does a French company wishing to set up in an innovative area in Dubai need to know?
There are not such huge differences. It’s mainly about the way people relate to each other. As I often tend to say, when you do business in Dubai, you talk about everything except business. That’s because people are going to invest in you rather than in your product. They need to appreciate what you have to offer. They need to trust you. And that takes time. What I often notice with French people I advise on setting up there is that they haven’t grasped this. You have to take the time to get to know the person you’re dealing with. It’s a personal relationship, basically. So my first piece of advice to French people who are setting up there is to be patient. And they will also need to take into account the fact that competition is fierce. You arrive with a project. You say to yourself: “I’m going to do brilliantly. This is great. My idea’s great.” But what you should be telling yourself is that there are another 10,000 out there with the same idea. So if you want to succeed you need to do something really innovative in comparison, something that will enable you to stand out from the crowd.
Dubai portrays the image of a huge machine, which has put everything in place to attract entrepreneurs and stimulate competition between them. When you’re a young entrepreneur aren’t you more attracted by other cities which focus less on performance and offer opportunities to all?
Oh, Dubai is a jungle. No-one’s going to help you. You won’t have any support. You’ll find yourself in a business environment which is culturally different from anywhere else. So if you go there you really need to have a plan. Don’t go there saying to yourself, “I’m going to do something there. Once I’m there I’ll decide what.” You’ll never make it on that basis. You need to go with a plan, with a strategy, and with determination. Otherwise, don’t go!