Dubai start-ups: a look at the emirate’s business climate

After seven years in marketing, Maya Itani had become disillusioned with the corporate world.

In her mind was a fresh start with a business idea she was sure would succeed — a web portal to book classes on pastimes from learning to belly dance to making a Japanese kimono.

But how to make this happen?

Ms Itani, 28, from Lebanon, found her answer at, a business incubator that helps budding entrepreneurs start up their companies.

Building small businesses is key to the future of Dubai, which Forbes magazine this month ranked in the world’s top 10 most influential cities.

The reasons were many: its place as an international aviation centre, the diversity of its population and its rapidly developing infrastructure.

But what placed Dubai ahead of other cities such as Los Angeles, Beijing and Sydney was its good reputation as a place to do business, and its “entrepreneurial ecosystem” — a measure of how friendly the market is towards start-ups.

While excessive red tape can hinder Dubai start-ups, it is increasingly attracting entrepreneurs from all over the world, supported by private and public sectors.

In its most recent report, Dubai SME, the government organisation that supports small and medium enterprises, found that 95 per cent of local businesses fell into this category, employing four out of 10 workers.

The support Ms Itani received from Afkar to set up booking website The Curve has produced results in only a few weeks.

“Already, our business has gone from a start-up that launched a year ago with an idea and very hard with a small team, to having a long-term strategy and approach to the way we’re doing business,” she says.

“Now, we’re setting milestones for years into the future, looking at a much larger scale for the business and having the help of experts in the industry.”

Based in Studio City, Afkar is a business incubator that offers entrepreneurs US$20,000 (Dh73,500) to invest in product development.

In return it takes a share in the profits rather than an equity share in the company, a deal it says allows companies to keep the profits from any future lines they develop. Juan Jose de la Torre, is vice president of digital at Intigral, the company that created Afkar. The money it offers is “real money”, he says.

“There are a lot of incubators, especially in the Middle East, that say ‘We give you money’. But this money is really discount coupons,” Mr de la Torre says.

The Curve began as an idea Ms Itani had with her husband.

“I started to feel like after moving here and being here for years and years, I was focused purely on my own career development rather than my personal development,” she says.

“Maybe if I was living in my own home country I would still maintain the same hobbies that I had, like volleyball or horseback riding.”

The website allows visitors to find and book courses across the UAE, working with third-party companies offering classes ranging from photography to cooking.

“We developed an aggregator, through which you can find a class that suits you based on timing, location and company, and then you can actually book and pay for it online,” Ms Itani says.

“My favourite moment is when you tell someone that you can do something like capoeira, which is a Brazilian martial art, and their eyes light up because it is something that they might not have known existed in the UAE.”

Such stories show that Dubai has proved to be a fast-growing entrepreneurial market, says John Martin St Valery, a founding partner with another incubator, Links Group.

Download Press Clip Here