Dubai Aims To Be City of Gold Standard in Tech
Posted by Marc Ambasna-Jones
The ‘City of Gold’ it may be but can Dubai’s desire to be a smart city in time for its hosting of the World Expo in 2020 underpin a new economy built on technology innovation? Amid the shisha bars, multitude of restaurants and shiny new hotels, there is a sense of renewed optimism here but that’s only natural. Dubai has been reinventing itself for years in an attempt to move away from an economy reliant on its oil, to an economy built on business and innovation. Being awarded the World Expo for 2020 was a much needed affirmation that amid all the visionary rhetoric, Dubai can actually deliver results.
What is interesting is that a lot of companies see the Expo as a catalyst for growth and innovation, particularly in the tech sector. In truth, it’s a massive challenge. The UAE as a whole ranks low in terms of innovation and investment. According to a World Bank report it comes in at 39, below Costa Rica and Romania. As world tech cities go, it doesn’t fare any better. Dubai didn’t feature in a World Economic Forum report this month and it doesn’t feature in various lists of the World’s top areas for tech startups.
This is not surprising given the city’s recent focus on construction and tourism but Expo 2020 will enable Government and businesses to be more bullish as Dubai implements plans to be a smart city. Western tech giants are already edging their ways in. Aruba Networks has recently struck a deal to supply the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) with secure mobile access for visitors and corporate tenants. Also, Oracle soaked up an extra 200 staff in readiness for what it sees as a major shift by local businesses and government departments towards cloud computing. It’s just one indicator of how some of the larger IT infrastructure providers now view Dubai — and one potential amber alert for an impending IT skills shortage.
According to Vimal Sethi, vice president of Infusion in the Middle East, it’s as if Dubai has been building for this moment. Sethi says that Dubai’s Vision 2021 “clearly sets the direction of how the UAE wants to transform its economy into a model where growth is driven by knowledge and innovation.” He cites the AED 2 billion Khalifa Fund, Dubai SME, which has partnered with several key private organisations like Microsoft and UDE telecoms carrier Du to support small business and startups. Meanwhile, the in5 Innovation Hub cultivates the development of an ICT and digital media startup ecosystem in Dubai, from early stage to commercial launch.
“One need not look further than the facets of everyday life for Dubai residents for signs of how technologically-geared this society is,” Sethi adds. “A driverless Dubai Metro, whose passengers can surf the internet on trains connected to the web with WiMax technology; a highway toll system that uses RFID to charge drivers by scanning tags in each vehicle while in motion; an eGate card that allows travellers at airports to skip the long queues and pass through passport control in a matter of seconds with the mere scan of the card and their thumbprint.”
It’s leading-edge stuff, perhaps the advantage of a city with a blank canvas, no legacy infrastructure to circumnavigate and deep, oil-rich wealth to help pay for it all. But it’s not as simple as that. H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, seems to be on a mission to transform the region. His mGovernment initiative (allowing government services to be accessed via mobile devices), announced in May 2013, and his SmartCityplans are just two recent examples of how he is trying to do this. But the influx of foreign investment and workers is having a profound effect on the city. The mix of Arab culture and Western expectation can make it difficult for outsiders to get to grips with the intricacies of doing business the Dubai way.
“There are innate rules of etiquette and knowing them will save you time on paperwork, visa applications, government approvals or bank documentation, or simply by being introduced to the right person,” comments Russell Lawley-Gibbs, founder and CEO of TV in a Card, a video brochure business created in Dubai.
“Business in Dubai is rather like being in a Gentlemen’s Club in St James [an area where the British upper classes gather in private clubs]; meetings appear informal, and business is conducted – and concluded – in its own time. Often this means the last five or ten minutes of an hour-long conversation. But make no mistake, that hour-long preamble is what has determined the outcome.”
The culture and the challenges of ownership – the UAE has its own set of rules on how foreigners can do business in the region – add a new dimension to anyone interested in the seemingly inevitable upswing in Dubai’s tech economy. The list of funded businesses is growing and some of them are promising, such as Careem, a chauffeur-driven car booking service that recently secured $1.7m in investment from a Saudi fund.
“The UAE economy is growing at about 12% and technology is underpinning a lot of what is happening,” says Edward Haigh, director at Source for Consulting, a research firm studying the management consulting market. “Technology, media and telecoms is growing at around 17% [and this is] often one of the first sectors to mature in emerging markets, so you can see how convergence of tech, telecoms and media is increasingly critical to its future.”
From the now-iconic Burj Al Arab hotel in the form of a sailing boat stranded on an island, to the hotel lobbies and meeting rooms of Media City and the clean-tech Masdar City cluster, it’s difficult not to get sucked into the idea that Dubai has all the tools to compete on a world scale. Even if it has a long way to go to catch the hotbeds of global tech innovation in California and Israel, it has promise and money… lots of it.
Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.