With the massive economic downturn brought on by the recent pandemic, many British business owners have their hands full securing new lines of investment and diversifying revenue streams as much as possible. While the obvious solutions include government assistance and cutting expenditure, many have expanded by exploring countries with the most agile responses to the virus, whose economies have been quickest to respond to the economic downturn with contingency plans.
The UAE and its capital, Abu Dhabi, is one of those countries, with its response to the pandemic rated 11th best in the world, according to Deep Knowledge Group, a consortium of technology companies and non-profits. In addition to that, the government’s Covid-19 Stimulus Package has kept companies already operating there afloat. And startup ecosystems such as Hub71 offer tangible benefits such as zero rent, reduced insurance and the waiving of licence fees for qualified startups from the UK.
Dr Shafi Ahmed, co-founder of several startups and an oncological surgeon at the Royal London Hospital, says: “The advantage between, say, Britain and the UAE is that you may get more capital and more support, because there is simply more investment capital there.“If you move your project to Abu Dhabi in particular, it has big chances, because the UAE can go bigger, offer more money or more resources. In the UK, although we have a mature startup ecosystem, it’s more difficult to get that sort of funding.”
While Ahmed’s point is important for startups from the UK looking for further rounds of funding, it’s also important to note how easy it is to do business in the UAE for British companies, with the World Bank ranking it 16th best in the world for its ease of doing business. Another benefit for British companies is that Abu Dhabi Global Market, an international financial centre partnered with Hub71, is the only financial centre outside of the UK to operate under English common law – which creates a “plug and play” simplicity for UK tech startups.
Simon Penney, HM Trade Commissioner for the Middle East said: “UK tech companies are attracted to Abu Dhabi and indeed the whole of the Emirates because of the opportunity they see in this exciting market. The UAE vision aligns very closely with our own Industrial Strategy in areas of clean growth, education, healthcare and mobility. Technology is the enabler and the common thread through all these sectors.
“Opportunities abound for UK startups, and support is available from the Department for International Trade team here in the UAE, as well as through the British Centres for Businesses and the newly revamped UK-UAE Business Council. The UAE is our 5th largest export market outside Europe, and UK exports to the UAE grew by 13.5 per cent in 2019 to £12.1bn, demonstrating the appetite in the market for best-in-class UK innovators.”
One UK startup which has been operating in Abu Dhabi after benefitting from Hub71’s incentive programme is London-founded Teacherly, an interactive platform that focuses on training teachers to work remotely.
Teacherly founder Atif Mahmood says: “We were first invited by the UK Department of Trade and Investment to visit the Ministry of Education in the UAE and I could see the potential. When I heard of Hub71 – I was very excited as we need amazing people to join our journey. As a single founder, Hub71 and the community they’ve developed was something I really wanted to be a part of.”
Now, says Mahmood, tech giant Microsoft has formed a business partnership with his once-small startup, something he admits wouldn’t have been possible back in the UK, where he’d tried to engage the US tech giant for more than a year. The partnership has been a success and opened previously inaccessible doors for the company.
Another UK startup which has thrived after making the Emirati connection is Wales-founded early years education learning app, Kinderly. Founder Geraint Barton says: “We were privileged enough to be one of the only five edtech startups from 1,000 applicants who won a $100,000 grant from the Anjal-Z programme [part of the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority, Anjal-Z is an eight-week programme that benefits early development startups worldwide based in Hub71]. It had already been on our radar for a long time to go to Abu Dhabi as we have clients in North Africa, India and China, so the UAE is a really good base for travel.”
Working with and in the UAE has helped Teacherly return benefits back to the UK. “I think the UAE has a vision to create smart businesses and to embrace more on digital technology,” Barton explains. “The UAE seems to be far ahead of the UK in that respect. There’s a want and desire to use technologies in the early childhood educational space in the UAE as tools to support learning and development and reduce the time spent on bureaucracy.
“Being able to perfect the product with digitally responsive early childhood education providers in the UAE and then incorporate lessons learned really helped when it came time to supporting these providers to go digital back in the UK.”