Everything about Dubai is shiny and new--from its sky-high spires to its gleaming office parks. But what's more impressive than the emirate's architecture is its metamorphosis into a business mecca.
The government has emerged as a large supporter of they city's technology ecosystem--introducing business-friendly policies and a favorable corporate tax system. As a result, business in the city of 2.2 million residents is booming. Dubai-based entrepreneurs launched 16,198 businesses in 2014, up 18 percent from the year prior, according to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce.
Perhaps oddly, conflicts in the Middle East have delivered an unexpected boost to Dubai's economy, as recent college graduates from Egypt and Syria have relocated there, the Financial Times reported. The city also serves as a beacon for other expatriates--which, in part, explains why 95 percent of the city's private-sector workers aren't originally from the United Arab Emirates.
Since the best business hubs of tomorrow will surely differ from today's, Dubai's attributes helped it easily make Inc.'s list of "Global Cities of the Future."
If you are considering setting your sights on the City of Gold, consider these four points.
1. Foreigners get a bit of a break.
Dubai was the first emirate to establish the economic free zone model, designed to incentivize foreign businesses to set up shop there. Free zones allow non-native entrepreneurs to retain 100 percent of company ownership. This is a big deal because registering a company outside of a free zone requires the involvement of a local business partner who holds a 51 percent stake in the company. Startups located in a free zone also benefit from a 50-year exemption from corporate and income taxes.
There are 22 of these clusters throughout the city, which are focused on a variety of industries, including information and communications technology, media, and health care. Two of the most startup-friendly communities include Dubai Silicon Oasis and Dubai Internet City--where tech giants like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Microsoft have a presence. These hubs offer amenities like affordable office space, mentorship programs, retail stores, and hotels.
2. If you can make it here ...
Dubai is emerging as the go-to hub for the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since many of those who can't obtain a visa to Europe or the United States often relocate here instead. As a result, the city attracts some of the best talent in the region. But why choose Dubai exactly?
Entrepreneur Abdullah Alshalabi said he had the sense that if he could make it in the competitive and relatively large Dubai market, he'd be able to take his business anywhere. In a post on Wamda, Alshalabi, the CEO of fishing-boat charter site Fishfishme, said he didn't have that opportunity in the smaller Kuwaiti market where he started his business. In 2013, Alshalabi picked up his company and didn't look back.
"Each day we get to meet interesting people who open our eyes to new opportunities and we continue to get new exposure from media and are already working with new partners to grow the business," he wrote.
3. It's going to cost you.
In reality, though, the high cost of living means that moving to Dubai is hardly a piece of cake. Dubai is the third-most-expensive city in the Middle East for expatriates, according to Mercer's 2014 cost of living rankings. Of 211 global cities, Mercer ranked Dubai the 67th most expensive for non-natives. That number represents a 23-spot jump from the previous year due largely to increases in accommodation costs and demand.
Additionally, founders are required to hold visas, which cost $2,000. Renewal every two to three years can cost $5,000, Sameer Sortur, founder of market intelligence company SquareCircle Tech, told AngelHack. In addition, the high cost of living and free-zone fees make starting up in Dubai $10,000 to $15,000 more expensive than in the United States or Australia, he added.
4. Local support isn't hard to find.
Fortunately, the city is resource rich in more ways than one. As startups need all the support they can get, being surrounded by the city's well-educated work force can only help you. Plus, new accelerators and co-working spaces have allowed some foreign entrepreneurs to survive.
One such startup facilitator is In5, based in Dubai Internet City. The program helps startups keep their costs low by offering affordable office space--about $272 per month--as well as discounts on registration and visa fees, according to Alshalabi. In5 also offers set-up support, networking opportunities, and access to angel investors and venture capitalists. The big drawback is that the program accepts just 10 startups every three months. Startups can also apply to a handful of local accelerators like i360, Turn 8, and SeedStartup.