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Is Investing in UAE Startups Profitable?

This article discusses the risks and opportunities of investing in UAE startups as a business angel or early-stage investor.


We are covering how to invest in UAE startups in a separate article.


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become a hub for startups in the Middle East, with an increasing number of entrepreneurs choosing to launch their businesses in the country.


The UAE government has implemented various initiatives to support startups, including the creation of free zones, the establishment of funding programs, and the introduction of regulatory reforms. But is investing in UAE startups profitable? In this article, we will explore the potential of investing in UAE startups.



DIFC in Dubai is a hub for many tech startups, including ones operating in the finance industry.



Opportunities for Investment


The UAE is a young country with a growing population of over 10 million people, most of whom are expatriates. The government's efforts to diversify the economy away from oil have led to the growth of various sectors, including technology, healthcare, and renewable energy. The UAE also boasts a thriving tourism industry, which has attracted many businesses catering to the needs of tourists.


The UAE is home to a vibrant startup ecosystem, with over 24,000 startups currently operating in the country. Of course, most of these are small organizations not actively looking for investment. Others may be looking for investment, but have unvetted business models. Identifying good startups to invest in takes time and a lot of due diligence.


The government has made significant investments in infrastructure and initiatives to support startups, such as Dubai Internet City, Dubai Silicon Oasis, and Abu Dhabi Global Market. The country has also seen a rise in venture capital firms and angel investors, providing startups with access to funding and support.



General Investment Returns


Just like anywhere in the world, startups are a highly risky investment class.


The success rate of startups that receive venture capital funding varies widely and is difficult to quantify.


According to various studies and reports, it is estimated that approximately 20-30% of venture-backed startups fail completely, while 50% or more may return capital or generate modest returns.


However, a small percentage of startups (roughly 10%) generate significant returns and drive the majority of overall returns for venture capital funds and equity investors. The best-performing companies reach valuations of more than $1billion and are commonly referred to as "unicorns".


It's important to note that the success of a startup is affected by various factors such as the quality of the founding team, the strength of the business idea, the competitive landscape, market conditions, and the execution of the business plan, among other things.


As a result, those looking to invest in startups should invest in a portfolio of startups, rather than a big amount in a single company, recognizing that some will fail, with only a few providing good returns.



Advantages and Disadvantages of UAE Startups


UAE startups are different from their counterparts in the US and Europe.


First of all, it is important to remember that the UAE is a relatively small country of just 10 million people, limiting its home market size. While neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman have similar economies and cultures, they, too have relatively small populations and market sizes.


Many other countries within the UAE's geographic vicinity such as Iran, Pakistan, and North-East Africa have weak economies and thus are not attractive markets for expansion for UAE startups.


Companies in the UAE also have more restricted access to financing overall than companies in the United States or the United Kingdom.


While these factors are big disadvantages, there are also important upsides to the UAE's position as a regional hub.


Turmoil and economic problems in many of the Middle East's countries have led to a migration of the region's best brains to the UAE and particularly Dubai.


Western sanctions on Russia and Belarus similarly led many entrepreneurs from those countries to relocate to the UAE.


With those people come not only brain-power but financial wealth, both of which are being invested in remarkable UAE-based companies that compete globally.


The UAE's lax business regulations, open trade policy, many flight routes to every major global city, and generous visa and residence programs similarly help in attracting the best minds to the country.


A startup based in the UAE, for example, can hire experts and employees from any country, without restrictions. There are no limitations or quotas on work visas for foreigners for companies with fewer than 50 employees.


As a result of these business-friendly regulations, the UAE has seen a number of highly successful startups as we discuss in the next section.



Examples of Successful UAE Startups


A successful startup is, from the perspective of the investor, a company that provides a high return on the original amount invested.


Startups usually do not pay dividends as they are cash-poor. Instead, investors earn their investment back during an exit event.


Exit events allow the original investors to sell their shares to other investors, usually at a high premium. An exit event can involve a larger competitor acquiring the startup, an Initial Public Offering (IPO) on a stock exchange, or a liquidation of the company including the sale of the company assets such as patents and technologies.


These are some of the UAE's most successful startups:


Careem


Careem is a Dubai-based ride-hailing app that was founded in 2012 by Mudassir Sheikha and Magnus Olsson. The company initially started operations in Dubai and expanded rapidly to other cities in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.


Careem received significant investment from several prominent venture capital firms, including Rakuten, Daimler, and Saudi Telecom Company, among others. The company raised over $700 million in funding before its eventual sale to Uber in 2019.


In March 2019, Uber announced that it was acquiring Careem for $3.1 billion. As a result of the acquisition by Uber, original investors earned a large return.



Souq.com


Souq.com is an e-commerce platform founded in 2005 by Ronaldo Mouchawar and Samih Toukan in Dubai. The company started as an auction site, but quickly expanded to include a wide range of products and services, including electronics, fashion, home and kitchen, and more.

Souq.com quickly became a dominant player in the Middle East's e-commerce industry and attracted significant investment from prominent venture capital firms. The company raised over $400 million in funding before it was eventually acquired by Amazon in 2017.

Amazon's acquisition of Souq.com was a strategic move to expand its footprint in the Middle East, which was an untapped market for the e-commerce giant. The acquisition was valued at over $580 million, marked Amazon's entry into the Middle East market, and earned early investors a big return.


Other Startups

Other successful UAE-based startups include:

  1. Property Finder - A real estate marketplace that is based in Dubai and has expanded to other countries in the region.

  2. Fetchr - A logistics and delivery startup that uses GPS-enabled smartphones to provide door-to-door delivery services.

  3. Bayzat - A technology company that provides a range of employee benefits and insurance products to businesses and individuals.

  4. The Luxury Closet - An online marketplace for buying and selling luxury fashion items.

  5. Sarwa - A digital wealth management platform that offers automated investing and financial planning services.

  6. Vezeeta - A healthcare startup that provides an online booking platform for doctors and clinics in the Middle East and North Africa region.

  7. Anghami - A music streaming service that has been dubbed the "Spotify of the Middle East."

  8. Dubizzle - An online classifieds website that allows users to buy and sell second-hand goods, property, and job opportunities.



Conclusion


Just like anywhere in the world, investing in startups is highly risky. However, with the right approach, investing in startups can earn you a high return and diversify your overall investment portfolio.


The UAE's thriving startup ecosystem and government initiatives provide ample opportunities for investment, but investors should conduct thorough due diligence and consider the potential for success and failure. With careful research and analysis, investors can identify promising startups and achieve attractive returns on their investments.


We here at The Dubai Navigator attend many of the UAE's startup events and can assist you in finding promising UAE startup investing opportunities. Check out our UAE equity investment services here.



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