How does the tech scene in the UAE compare to the UK?

It has been nearly a year since I moved from London to Dubai to head up Profusion’s new office in the UAE. Swapping the hipsters of Shoreditch for the heat, sand and glamour of Dubai was always going to be an interesting experience. I expected a number of cultural differences that I would need to adjust to quickly. Particularly, I was very aware that, like most parts of the world, few women work in tech in the UAE and even fewer work in a data science focused business. However, I’ve been surprised how easy it has been to adapt and how welcoming the tech scene in the UAE is. Nevertheless, there are differences that tech entrepreneurs in the UK should be aware of before they move to the Middle East.

The first thing to keep in mind is that opening an office or starting a business in the UAE is slightly more complicated than the UK. Foreign firms have to navigate a network of regulations. Ideally, if you don’t have legal or consultancy resources in house, employ a local expert to make sure you don’t fall foul of any legal requirements.

Broadly, UAE law requires a business to show the Ministry of Commerce that you have a substantial sum of money to invest – this figure varies between states. Checking you have enough money should be your first port of call before you start spending on anything else. To register a business you will need a local business partner unless you set up in a ‘Free Zone’. The advantage of a Free Zone is that you can maintain full control of your business, however, due to demand, office spaces in these areas are more expensive.

Although there’s plenty of office space in shiny new builds, offices generally come entirely unfurnished. Therefore, instantly moving into a new space is often not an option. You will need to set aside several weeks to get everything in order.

There are a number of cultural differences entrepreneurs need to keep in mind. Like most countries in the Middle East, laws in the UAE are rooted in Islam. These laws cover the consumption of alcohol, working hours permitted and the observance of religious festivals and holidays. For women, it’s important to be aware of regulations that cover dress codes and movement. Expats are given consideration in relation to how strictly these laws are enforced, however, ignorance is no defence. Studying the rules that will impact you and your business is essential.

Visa requirements, cultural differences and legal hurdles aside, the UAE is incredibly business friendly and accessible to foreigners. There’s a large and growing British expat community. Consequently, there are plenty of support networks and meet ups to help new arrivals settle in.

Turning to the tech industry, there is a healthy mix of challenges and opportunities. Naturally, the tech scenes in Dubai and other cities in the UAE are not as developed as cities like London or Berlin. The industry is smaller both in terms of the number of new companies and the size of the investor community. However, this is not an impediment to innovation.

The UAE like China and India is investing heavily in new tech concepts like smart cities. As a result, there is a huge appetite and interesting in businesses working within areas like Big Data, data science, the Internet of Things and wearables. Established businesses are also willing to invest and engage start ups to undertake innovative campaigns. Many organisations are owned by the state, however, this does not affect their appetite to employ or experiment with cutting edge technology.

By pretty much any economic metric the UAE is booming. This makes it an incredibly attractive place for tech entrepreneurs to do business. However, to hit the ground running, due diligence is vital. Whether you are expanding your business to the UAE or starting a new company from scratch, failure to do enough research into the cultural and legal landscape can end up being a costly mistake. Entrepreneurs that do the necessary legwork in the UAE will find it an exciting and vibrant place bursting with business opportunities.