Over the last decade or so, the UAE has been home to many innovative entrepreneurs, born and bred Emiratis and foreign expatriates alike. Intelligent innovators, a thriving business community, and a world-renowned entrepreneurial ecosystem, make the emirates a highly-desirable destination to set up a business.
In this blog post, CEO of Creative, Lorenzo Jooris, picks 10 innovative startups from the last 10 years – global game changers who cannot be ignored – and shares their inspirational stories.
When Dubizzle’s American founders JC Butler and Sim Whatley first came to Dubai, they had nothing except a stubborn determination to launch a classifieds website in the style of Craigslist. A first-of-its-kind for the region, Dubizzle quickly became the go-to listings site, covering everything from new homes to used furniture.
The pair stepped down as Chief Executives in 2013. Haider Ali Khan became CEO in 2020 as the company’s UAE operations merged with EMPG to create a new $1 billion Dubai-based legal entity. Not bad for a company built from a bedsit.
This Dubai-based mass transit provider started life in Egypt as an app for tackling traffic in Cairo. Co-founded on a minimal budget by three school friends – Mostafa Kandil, Mahmoud Nouh, and Ahmed Sabbahon – the technology quickly evolved into a platform for booking bus trips.
With investment from Dubai’s super-app, Careem, and subsequent funding rounds, Swvl quickly expanded, providing transportation products and services in 20 countries and 135 cities worldwide. Headquartered in Dubai, in 2021 the company agreed to a merger with Queen’s Gambit Growth Capital, making it the first $1 billion company from the Middle East to be listed on Nasdaq.
Home services startup Rizek was founded in 2019 by Abdallah Abu-Sheikh. A one-stop shop for services across a range of sectors, from beauty to home maintenance, it was the first regional platform to provide PCR testing and vaccines for home use.
In 2021, the company raised $10 million from family offices in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with further investment from Peak Investments and Abu Dhabi’s holding company ADQ. Beginning life on a piece of paper, Rizek is now the UAE’s first local super app for on-demand services.
4. Property Finder
Spotting a gap in the market for real estate advertising in the MENA region, Switzerland-born Michael Lahyani launched Property Finder in 2007. Covering both print and digital formats, both Michael and the company have picked up numerous awards over the years, including Middle East CEO of the year in 2016.
Today, the company employs over 300 people and offers nine products as part of its digital platform. It’s headquartered in the UAE with offices in Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Bahrain and KSA. It’s considered the leading digital real estate platform in the UAE and the Middle East. The site currently attracts around 16 million views per month and takes 89% of the UAE’s organic Internet traffic. It’s been recently valued at around $500 million.
You’ll remember Souq as the largest e-commerce retailer in the UAE and wider Middle East. When it was acquired by Amazon in 2017, Souq dominated the Arab online retail market with almost 8.5 million products and 45 million visits per month. That’s quite a feat for a platform that began as a consumer-to-consumer auction site.
Ronaldo Mouchawar and Souq’s other co-founders grew the company by adding a greater variety of products and received $275 million of funding in 2016. At the time of Amazon’s acquisition, it was valued at $1 billion.
Dubai-based Kitopi is a cloud kitchen platform that provides scalable solutions for the food and beverage market. The company was started by four entrepreneurs – Mohamad Ballout, Saman Darkan, Bader Ataya, and Andres Arenas – who shared the mission of revolutionising the way people access food.
Located across major cities in the Middle East, in 2021 the startup raised $415 million in funding – one of the largest ever in the MENA region. In 2022, it attracted a further $300 million, taking its valuation beyond $1 billion, and in the process acquiring unicorn status.
The Bayut website hosts real estate listings for residential and commercial properties across the UAE. Started in 2008 by two brothers, Zeeshan and Imran Ali Khan, Bayut is now part of the UAE’s very own home-grown unicorn – Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG). The current CEO, the founders’ elder brother Haider, has overseen a huge drive in investment and helped guide it to become one of the best-funded tech startups in the MENA region.
From its grassroots as a Dubai-based ride-sharing app in 2012 to its $3.1 billion takeover by Uber in 2020, Careem is a startup with only one trajectory – up. Founders Mudassir Sheikha and Magnus Olsson shared a vision to create something big, and they did. Their app has become a platform for everyday life and has expanded to become a one-stop shop for customers in Dubai, offering everything from grocery delivery to home cleaning.
Fintech startup Ziina was founded in January 2020. The Dubai-based peer-to-peer payment app has since raised $9.4 million in funding. A first-of-its-kind for the region, Ziina enables users to share payments, sending and receiving money quickly and securely. Beginning with the consumer market, Ziina is expanding into business services that support legacy businesses with the transition into accepting payments online.
10. Vista Global
Entrepreneur Thomas Flohr started private aviation company Vistajet in 2004 – with just two planes. Fast-forward to 2022, and his Vista group has 350 jets travelling to every corner of the planet. In his previous life in asset finance, Thomas saw the inconsistencies and wastage in private aviation and decided to do something about it. Today, his Dubai-based Vista Global Holding puts all his brands under one banner, including a host of aviation acquisitions. At the start of 2022, Vista was successfully priced at $1 billion.
The World’s Best Country For Entrepreneurs
In the UAE, unicorns really do exist.
There’s no question that the country has all the right ingredients for helping new businesses thrive. In recent years, government-led strategies – such as the National Agenda For Entrepreneurship And SMEs – advantageous taxes, and robust regulatory frameworks have made it an attractive place to start a business.
Put those benefits against the wider backdrop of wealthy investors and a stable economy, and you have the ideal infrastructure for new businesses to flourish. That’s why so many foreign investors and entrepreneurs have their eye on the UAE. In fact, the Global Entrepreneurship Report 2022 ranked the UAE as the best country in the world for entrepreneurs. So what are you waiting for?
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