Font Size

- Aa +

Tue 16 Aug 2016 10:56 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Five sectors where UAE-based start-ups are hitting it big

Karl Hougaard, head of sales and marketing at Virtuzone, lists five sectors that offer tremendous business opportunities for UAE-based entrepreneurs, adding that ignoring them might lead to missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance

Five sectors where UAE-based start-ups are hitting it big

Business is never easy. But the framework we are working within in the UAE is a unique one, and I would go so far as to say that it makes getting good results easier here than in most of the other thriving economies around the world.

Indeed, government and outside investment continue to accelerate the growth of this infrastructure – an infrastructure that requires new companies like yours to support it. With more than 10,000 new business licenses being issued every year across the country, it is clearly an environment that entrepreneurs around the world are badly wanting to be a part of.

While many business sectors are growing in strength and flourishing throughout the seven emirates, in this article we focus on five that have stood out for some time now and continue to offer tremendous opportunities for start-ups.


Staggering investments have been made into the ongoing development of new retail areas that include malls, restaurants, and theme parks – especially in Dubai. What cannot be ignored in the picture is that it is far from just us, UAE residents, who are driving this growth. In 2015, for example, some 14 million tourists visited, and by 2020 those numbers are expected to hit 20 million. And we all know how tourists like to spend.

Abdulla Fareed Al Gurg, the general manager of the 26-company strong Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, has predicted new attractions in the retail market will mean that visitors will have to allocate more days in their travel itinerary to absorb them all. Certainly good news for sellers.

And it is not just the traditional bricks and mortar shops that are driving start-ups. Online retail has also found its feet. There are also many apps available dedicated to shopping, with Namshi, Souq, and Dubizzle leading the charge here.

Financial services

As the UAE is so heavily populated with businesses, it is little surprise that there is an ongoing demand for all of the many supporting financial services, with ample opportunities for accountants, auditors, and bookkeepers to make their mark in the region.

However, with mobile phone penetration in the region sitting at around 80 percent and rising, a whole other sector within this sector to consider includes the apps and sites designed specifically for smartphones. Innovators who create financial services accessible via mobile devices do so knowing that consumer adoption is fast in this sector.

There are plenty of renowned success stories out of the UAE, including PayFort, an online payment gateway; Beehive, a peer-to-peer lending site; Wally, a personal finance app; and, a financial comparison site.

No doubt wherever you find wealth and a start-up climate like this you’ll find the financial services orbiting as a satellite by necessity.

Interior design

Start-ups that specialise in interior design can find themselves on fertile grounds in the UAE, as it is one of the largest marketplaces for interiors in the Middle East. From lighting to furniture to walls and ceilings to doors, there is now – and will be for many years to come – a great need for suppliers.

The interior design market is a fought-over space, and so you will see many start-ups carving out a niche. To take just one example, we can look at Wild Child Designz, a bespoke children’s furniture designer.

Video games

It is official: the Middle East loves video games. And whether that’s mobile apps or consoles, the market is growing faster than the global average and may triple in size by 2022.

Two particular areas stand out for start-ups in this sector. Firstly, there is a need to Arabise content for popular international games. Secondly, there is a potential to create locally relevant games. The latter is an approach that is spawning a cultural game genre, with Arab characters and cultural narratives making the games more immersive for players in the region.

And the traffic is certainly there. A recent report by ArabNet indicated that the UAE dominates the Arab region when it comes to mobile apps downloaded, with over 50 percent of users downloading in excess of five apps a month here. The big news for video game companies, however, is that those game apps make up 60 percent of these downloads.

There’s also another aspect to all of this, and that has to do with the fact that virtual reality (VR) is now about to truly take off.  We already have some homegrown talent here, with Dubai-based animation and games design company PixelHunters looking to make a big name for itself.

PixelHunters has already developed a VR game in the UAE which they showcased at the end of 2015. In all, 2,500 people got to test out the 360 degree immersion into an artificially constructed game environment via the head-worn device.


In the UAE, the communications sector is demonstrating fast growth by global standards, and this is resulting in major international companies jumping on the region through acquisitions of homegrown firms, such as M&C Saatchi’s purchase of regional communications company Expression.

It would almost be an understatement to say that opportunities for communications companies of all sizes and niches are looking very strong in the UAE. Indeed for companies that know what they are doing and are playing their part in upping the quality of comms in the region, the chance to grow a one- or two-person company into a far larger headcount is there – which would no doubt put you on the radar screens of those major global players like M&C Saatchi looking to leapfrog into the region through an acquisition.

And while traditional advertising media – such as TV, newspapers, magazines, and radio – is still looking strong, a majority shift to digital is the order of the day now for all companies in this space. Don’t dip your toe into the digital pool; rather, jump in fully.

About Karl Hougaard:

As head of sales and marketing at Virtuzone, Karl Hougaard ensures the company maintains its position as one of the fastest growing business setup operators in the region. Hougaard started his career as a senior manager with Primovie, the cinema operations arm of Primedia LTD in South Africa, which saw him relocate to Dubai in 2001 as part of the group’s global expansion plans. He has also represented some of the region’s largest media firms including ITP Publishing Group and