Dubai: the world's smartest city by 2021?

This city-state, famous for its shimmering towers, endless shopping malls and outlandish architectural projects, is built on oil money. Dubai is unique. Created to reflect the aspirations of the super-rich, its prosperity is evident in the scale of the ambitious developments that define its appeal, including the dramatic Burj Khalifa and Palm Island archipelagos.

But as fossil fuels continue to fall out of favour and oil prices falter, Dubai has lost some of its economic brio, sparking a slowdown in its previously unstoppable building boom and casting doubt over the emirate’s future direction.

Building a world-class tech economy by decree

Dubai’s rulers believe they have stumbled on a solution, reimagining the region as a vibrant startup economy that will help to sustain Dubai in a post-oil era. It’s a bold venture. California’s Silicon Valley is doubtless the inspiration for the move, but can Dubai’s monarchs hope to replicate the organic ground-up growth of the tech ecosystem in San Francisco by imposing a top-down infrastructure?

Enter Dubai Future Accelerators (DFA), a government-led hub for entrepreneurs that is designed to incubate state innovation. The dozen or so government organisations – including big-hitters like Emirates Airlines – have the opportunity to pick startups with the potential to deliver additional commercial advantages. In return, the startups get access to the tools they need to grow, including free office space, accommodation and government-sponsored training.

Hyperloop One is an early success story but it’s not an outlier; around three-quarters of the 65 startups that have completed the program have signed up to future DFA collaboration. It’s a model that differs from most US programs, but early indicators show positive signs of growth, with a 45 percent increase in equity-funded private startups and startup investment passing $1 billion in the UAE for 2016.

Creating a startup-friendly climate

The government has also set up a ‘free zone’ – the Dubai Multi Commodities Center (DMCC) - in which foreign-owned companies can operate without the added burden of taxes and fees. Google-partner AstroLabs is a tech hub for entrepreneurs located in the Jumeirah Lakes Towers, offering some of the most sought-after workspace in the world and hosting 100 companies representing dozens of countries – many of whom wouldn’t have the funds to prosper outside the DMCC.

Dubai’s regulatory regime also has to be carefully negotiated by startups. Because the country’s attitude to debt is less liberal than it is in the US, companies offering venture capital (VC) are few and far between. Which means that home-grown unicorns are thin on the ground, although Uber-inspired transportation startup Careem has an estimated value of $1 billion, having benefited from funding from German automotive giant Daimler, among others.

The Dubai approach to business is less formal and more relationship-led. Organisations such as AstroLabs and DFA, as well as global startup network 1776 are not only providing workspaces and training opportunities but also the opportunity to make valuable business connections that will enable them to unlock the resources that can fund growth.  

Lofty ambition with high stakes to match

Dubai’s startup culture is still its infancy – especially compared to Silicon Valley – and with a much shallower pool of available investment capital. But, thanks to the government’s efforts, there is an emerging creative sector in a city that’s nurturing talent and moving in the right direction. Dubai is also beginning to attract the angel investors and VCs that are essential to sustaining startup momentum.

The city also has some ambitious goals, such as having the first blockchain-powered administration in the world and becoming the world’s smartest city by 2021, not to mention the creation of a Martian colony within the next century.

How achievable these projects are remains to be seen; meanwhile, improvements to Dubai's infrastructure continue apace. Scheduled for completion in 2021, Dubai Design District (D3) will form the epicentre of Dubai's creative community and act as a hub for artists, architects and designers, while technology, robotics and AI have already found a home at a new digital innovation centre in Dubai Internet City.

Dubai’s leisure and shopping facilities will leave you breathless

Dubai offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy downtime. Situated next door to the Burj Khalifa is Burj Khalifa is the famous Dubai Mall. Created on a grand scale, the mall is home to more than 1,200 shops as well as 150 restaurants, an ice rink, aquarium and underwater zoo.

If you want a flavour of old Dubai, it’s worth taking a trip along the Creek – the saltwater estuary that was an essential part of the city’s former economic strengths: fishing and pearl diving. The Dubai Museum is worth a visit, as are the winding souks where you can find gold, spices and textiles. A ride across the water on a traditional abra is a must.

Even a day at the beach turns into a five-star experience in Dubai. Kite Beach is the perfect location for watersports skills, but if you want to stay in terra firma, you could cycle, skate or enjoy a game of volleyball. Alfresco cafes and restaurants line the beachfront and offer an outstanding view of the glorious Burj Al Arab.