It feels like home. Why Indian startups are flocking to the UAE


When you fly into Dubai, at times the plane flies low, giving you a bird’s eye view of the UAE’s stunning urban layout. The sand dunes give way to glass and steel skyscrapers, green residential clusters, artificial islands, and waterfronts. The unmistakable Burj Khalifa and the oval-shaped architectural marvel called the Museum of the Future, epitomise the UAE’s open and progressive disposition.

The desert country has rapidly transformed into the proverbial land of opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs. For the past many years, the UAE has been on a charm offensive to court Indian businesses, with tangible results. According to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, Indian nationals were the largest group to register new companies in 1H 2023 in the Emirate of Dubai. Other Emirates and free zones have made a concerted effort to attract entrepreneurs from India.

Abu Dhabi’s focus has been on providing financial and other incentives. Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO), the government entity helping to diversify Abu Dhabi’s economy has set up a $545 million Innovation Programme. Through this, it has funded Indian startups such as FreshtoHome. For the online fresh fish and meat store, 15% of the $150 million in annual revenues comes from the Middle East. This year, eyewear retailer Lenskart, with a significant presence in the UAE, received funding of $500 million from Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA).

Indian ‘scaleups’ seeking new investments and market expansion are increasingly choosing the UAE for their regional headquarters. Modern infrastructure and office facilities, and access to private venture capitalists and institutional investors provide a conducive environment to scale and raise capital. Startups such as ANSR and Talent500 that received funding from ADIO are targeting global businesses from their regional HQ and technology hub in Abu Dhabi. The UAE serves as a launching pad for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. With more than 200 nationalities, the UAE is a melting pot of diverse cultures. It is a good place to begin understanding the diverse cultures and market dynamics of the MENA region.

Beyond attracting investments, businesses hope to enhance their corporate image, and gain access to European and MENA markets. This paves the way for new partnerships in countries from these regions. Often, local partners from MENA look for a quid-pro quo arrangement, for access to the lucrative UAE market. Presence in the UAE makes for smoother cross-border financial transactions.

Continuous policy reforms have resulted in some notable developments such as a simple taxation regime, a 10-year golden visa, and the opportunity for foreign companies to have 100% ownership, even outside designated free zones. These have created a more flexible business setting. As of 2021, the UAE ranked 16th in the Ease of Doing Business index of the World Bank. One ought to visit a Tasheel service center to understand why the UAE ranks so high in terms of government efficiency. Government service centers called Customer Happiness Centers have a modern set up with friendly and efficient staff. At Amer government service centers, the counters are equipped with a customer facing monitor that allows you to view and validate details being entered by the staff. Simplified regulation frees up Startups’ limited resources to focus on the core business.

Regulatory reforms have appealed to newer startups, outside of the traditional trading sector. Startups in healthcare, food and beverages industries are tapping into the UAE’s lucrative consumer market, which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. According to the World Bank, GDP per capita of the country has grown from US$37,629 in 2020 to US$ 53,758 in 2022.

A hairdresser working in an upscale salon in India, while sharing his dream of setting up his own salon in Dubai, observed that the UAE felt like India. An abundance of flights and proximity makes cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah feel like traveling to another Indian city. This allows business owners to have a presence in both countries.

The UAE’s Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology (MoIAT) is keen on increasing the in-country value (ICV) of new industries through investments, job creation and up-skilling, local procurement of goods and services, and a diversified sector. Talent from Indian startups will fuel a virtuous cycle of innovation and business growth.

The Arabic calligraphy engraved on the Museum of the Future is a poem by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, “We might not live for hundreds of years, but the products of our creativity can leave a legacy long after we are gone”. The hollow space in the middle of the gleaming structure signifies the unwritten future of humanity. Perhaps Indian startups have an opportunity to help write this future. – Shalini Verma is an entrepreneur and writer.


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