Silicone valley in the desert: Dubai invests for a high tech future

Silicone valley in the desert: Dubai invests for a high tech future

We call this the robot kitchen because it used to be a Chinese restaurant until three years ago,’ says Khalifa Al Qama, director of Dubai Future Labs.

The unassuming applied research and development laboratory, which specialises in robotics, artificial intelligence and automation, could not be further from the emirate’s image of blingy buildings, super-swanky hotels, sunshine holidays and designer shopping.

In the pandemic, researchers here worked on ventilators for Covid-19 that would deliver the precise amount of oxygen necessary, tailored to individual patients.

Tech revolution: The recently opened Museum of the Future in Dubai's financial district

Tech revolution: The recently opened Museum of the Future in Dubai’s financial district

‘Medical tech is a big theme with our ageing populations,’ says Al Qama, whose team is also working on drones and on robot cleaners that could potentially be used for the recently opened Museum of the Future, a complicated curved structure covered in calligraphy.

‘The thesis is, if we can do the most complex building in the world, we can do a straightforward one.’

In a city of incredibly tall structures, he says, ‘cleaning is a huge issue.It is a very important topic to be addressed with tech’.

Dubai is obsessed with technology and innovation. Its economy now is concentrated on leisure, property and retail, but tech is where it sees its future prosperity.

So much so, that the tiny desert state has even joined the space race, not for its own sake, but for the technological spin-offs and to excite a generation of children about science.

Sarah Al Amiri, the 35-year-old Minister of State for Advanced Technology for the United Arab Emirates and one of a cadre of impressive young female Emirati politicians, was the science lead for the successful Mars mission last year.Women made up 80 per cent of the scientific team.

The push into tech has been fuelled by a couple of big deals, including the $3.1billion purchase of Dubai ride-hailing platform Careem by Uber in 2020 and Amazon’s acquisition of e-commerce company Souq for $580million in 2017.

TECH and innovation were showcased on a grand scale at Expo 2020, including at the pavilion set up by flagship airline Emirates, where visitors could experiment with robotic arms on the materials that will go into the planes of the future.

Out of this world: Emirati politician Sarah Al Amiri was the science lead for the successful Mars mission last year

Out of this world: Emirati politician Sarah Al Amiri was the science lead for the successful Mars mission last year

The tyre-screeching chases beloved of cop series on TV may soon be a thing of the past here: Dubai Police at Expo unveiled driverless patrol cars billed as the world’s most high-tech law enforcement vehicles.The cars come equipped with drones that can hunt down suspects.

‘They can recognise faces and patrol in the city without human intervention,’ Colonel Mansoor Al Gargawi, director of administration affairs, told the media.

Expo 2020 was part of a wider push by the United Arab Emirates – a federation of seven states, including Dubai and its oil-rich larger neighbour Abu Dhabi – to diversify its economy and to become a global hub for tech, innovation and sustainability.

Unlike Abu Dhabi, Dubai doesn’t have much oil, having ploughed the proceeds of its relatively modest discoveries into becoming a trading and travel hub and logistics centre.

The economy evolved into property, tourism, hospitality and retail, all kept going by a huge expatriate work force.

The need to broaden the economic base has been hammered home first by the financial crisis, when the property market crumpled, and then by the pandemic.

The plan for Dubai is to become a honey pot for scientists, techies and fintech entrepreneurs from around the world.

One expat says: ‘You have the venture capitalists, you have the support, you have a great lifestyle – why would anyone want to do a start-up anywhere else?’

Many do love it, but the conservative culture seems at odds with the anarchic, woke tendencies of some tech entrepreneurs.

The emirate is liberalising to a degree, including a focus on women’s rights and allowing unmarried couples to live together.

One big attraction is that there is no income tax on individuals.Corporate taxes are coming in for the first time next year, but rates will be low and there will be concessions for small companies and start-ups.

The ‘golden visas’ scheme will allow entrepreneurs and technology investors to live in the country for up to 10 years, unlike the current situation where permits can be rescinded if people lose their job.Dubai may also be the beneficiary of the tech brain drain hitting Russia since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

During the four weeks following the invasion, up to 70,000 workers in the sector left Russia and some will no doubt end up in the UAE.

Investment in tech is taking off.The London Technology Club, a network matching wealthy investors with opportunities, has just opened its first overseas hub in Dubai. 

Robocops: A driverless police patrol unit, equipped with a drone that can hunt down suspects, is unveiled at Dubai's Expo 2020

Robocops: A driverless police patrol unit, equipped with a drone that can hunt down suspects, is unveiled at Dubai’s Expo 2020

Big league investors have also ramped up their activity, including Sequoia, the legendary Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and Softbank of Japan.

The latter last year backed Kitopi, a ‘cloud kitchen’ company that offers facilities for food businesses for deliveries and takeaways.

Kitopi is one of Dubai’s first unicorns, or tech companies valued at more than $1bn. The UAE wants to create ten of them by 2031.

Dominic Perks, co-founder of UK-based international tech investor Hambro Perks, says the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, including Dubai, is ‘attracting a growing wave of technology entrepreneurs,’ some home-grown and some that have migrated.

‘Hambro Perks spotted the opportunity to back such entrepreneurs, taking its insights and learnings from the UK and Europe and applying them to growing companies in MENA.’

His firm has made ten investments in tech companies in the past 12 months in the region.

‘Historically the talent pool for technology companies has been shallow in Dubai.This is changing for several reasons,’ he says.

‘Firstly, success breeds success and we are now seeing some very valuable companies being built out of Dubai.

‘Uber’s acquisition of Careem and Amazon’s acquisition of Souq were both shots in the arm for the emerging technology ecosystem.

‘Secondly, the market opportunity in MENA is attractive enough for global entrepreneurs to relocate.Thirdly, Dubai is a truly international hub which can attract global talent.

‘And finally, the governments of the region are generally committed to diversifying their economies, supporting innovation and promoting entrepreneurship.’

As a young country – the UAE was founded in 1971 – the tech push is not held back by slow-moving institutions or out of date bureaucracy.Regulation is consciously crafted so that it encourages, rather than slows down, innovation.

There is even a Ministry of Possibilities, run by members of the UAE Cabinet, which aims to overhaul the running of public services and to incentivise ‘positive behaviours’ by citizens.

It might have faint overtones of George Orwell to British sensibilities, but not in Dubai.

In the UK, tech hotspots such as Hoxton and Shoreditch tend to have sprung up of their own accord, as did Silicon Valley in the US, where a combination of factors, including access to capital, universities and a community of talented techies, all converged.

So can Dubai summon up this kind of creativity by government mandate?

‘They are not telling us what type of tech to work on, but they are saying we would appreciate it if you scientists and researchers would try and resolve these big issues that societies have,’ says Al Qama.

‘It then leaves room for people to come up with great technology.’

The UK and many other countries also want to be leading tech nations.By definition not all can win. But in the case of Dubai, there will clearly be no want of trying.



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