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Interview with Majed Al Suwaidi

Majed Al Suwaidi, managing director of TECOM Investments two largest free zone parks – Dubai Internet City (DIC) and Dubai Outsource Zone (DOZ) – has witnessed a lot in the past 15 years.
Between 1999’s decision by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to create Dubai Internet City, and the 2014 launch of its new vision to become a capital of innovation, things have moved upwards very, very quickly.
“When we talk about Dubai Internet City, we cannot talk about it alone and separate it from the whole picture of Dubai,” says Al Suwaidi.
“Dubai is the main aspect and the reason why DIC is in existence in the first place.


“The transformation that has happened over the last 15 years is in the maturity of the kind of people who took part in DIC at that initial phase and the people who are here today. That shows you that the city has turned into a magnet for talent.”
After building a strong reputation in the corporate sector, Al Suwaidi joined DIC in 2006 as the director of business development and consequently delivered the business park’s successful strategy of business partner acquisition and retention.
He assumed his latest role in 2013 to further the success of both DIC and DOZ.
Built inside the TECOM Free Trade Zone as a knowledge-oriented business model, DIC has been going from strength to strength during this period. Having started with only 100 registered companies in 2000, it is now home to over 1,400 companies from across the ICT value chain from new start-ups to Fortune 500 companies.
With HH Sheikh Mohammed’s recently-announced new vision for DIC and Dubai Media City (DMC), the bar has been set even higher. Nine specialised business districts within DIC and DMC are to boost the number of companies to 10,000 and grow the number employees to 100,000.
Using technology to build a knowledge economy has made the emirate move forward faster than any other city in recorded history, claims Al Suwaidi.
“That kind of maturity, which has been built over the years, only comes when cities have been through 50 or 60 years of development,” he says.
“So these achievements that have happened in less time tell you a lot about how much work and effort have been put into the promotion of Dubai as the location for technology.”
One of the results of this process is that people have started referring to Dubai as a regional hub for entrepreneurs, but Al Suwaidi says there’s more to growing an entrepreneurial ecosystem than replicating a model that has worked elsewhere.
He says: “It’s interesting. We got into the start-up community a few years ago. We first tried to understand it so that we could create systems that would work within it.

“Because I think what makes us different today is that we’re not trying to bring a model that is available in the US or other places and enforce it on people here.
“Although most people are expats who came from the US and Europe and other places, the system that we are trying to put today is the system that is adaptable to the region, adaptable to the local norms, and to the local talent that is available here.
“I think that the system is ready. People are ready to go out and explore further and that’s a very good sign of the creation of a start-up community.
“You have many different nationalities living in the UAE, and that means 20 to 30 different ways of thinking. So if we think how these things work together in a single mould, it will hopefully create the next big uptake in technology here.”

According to the recent Arab Knowledge Economy Report, carried out jointly by Madar Research & Development and Orient Planet, the possibilities within the regional ICT sector are opening up - the number of internet users in the Arab world is expected to reach 197 million by 2017, a penetration of over 51 percent from 32 percent in 2012.
Al Suwaidi says: “That gives good, fertile ground for these developers to create more interesting apps, services, and similar. Today what makes an entrepreneur is that he finds a niche, he finds a problem and he actually solves it.
“And the interesting thing is that we are talking about the whole Middle East. When we fix a problem in the UAE most probably it will be adapted to other places of the region.”
A representative of these entrepreneurs, present at the DIC stand during GITEX 2014, was Bahaa Ahmed, co-founder of Crowd Analyzer, a TURN8-incubated start-up that helps brands to better understand consumer sentiment in the Arabic-speaking market segments by allowing them to analyse conversations and trends on social media.
The innovation in Crowd Analyzer comes from its ability to understand Arabic text automatically in terms of relevancy, dialect and sentiment. Their niche is even more specific since the platform differentiates among Arabic dialects and also detects the feelings behind text whether they are positive, negative or neutral.
Discussing the challenges innovative entrepreneurs like Ahmed face today, Al Suwaidi says: “I think that fragmentation is the main challenge. I think that every part of the ecosystem is available but it’s fragmented. So we have investors, entrepreneurs, mentors but everyone is located in one part of this universe called Dubai.
“That’s why we have created in5 and that’s why we are not calling it an incubator or accelerator because [in that case] we would give this kind of job to an incubator or accelerator.
“We are more of a hub that will serve all - an incubator, an entrepreneur, a government agency, and similar. So putting them all together in one single hub should solve the problem of this fragmentation.
“And that will happen when we have more people registering with us. It also gives us an idea who is the audience that we want to get in touch with in the future.”
Established in May 2013, in5 is an innovation hub hosted by DIC to assists entrepreneurs with establishing their business within the TECOM Free Trade Zone, giving them access to a pool of mentors and investors, and offering various educational trainings.

Al Suwaidi explains: “We believe that the main reason to have a hub today is to remove these barriers to entry in this specific industry.
“Today if you go to a hub or an incubator, you will meet like-minded people who have actually broken this barrier and gone to the next level, started a company, raised funds, and similar.
“Putting these kinds of success stories in front of a person gives him/her confidence that he/she could be the next person to break through these barriers.
“Our initial idea is to lower barriers to entry, and make it easier for people to enter this business. To make them feel that they won’t lose their head if they start a business.”

Hosting over 50 start-ups a year since inception, in5 doesn’t fund start-ups but offers them up to 70 percent discount on registration, licensing, and visa fees, as well as affordable offices for up to three months.
An important aspect for creating an environment where innovation can flourish is to make all relevant market players, primarily investors and banks, feel safe to invest in the start-up community. Al Suwaidi agrees adding that “confidence is being built on both sides of the equation”.
He continues: “I think there are enough investors available. The only thing is that it’s a process. You need to actually go through the process.
“When we talk about money, it has to take time. Some of our entrepreneurs expect that the minute they say ‘I’ve got an idea,’ people will throw cash out.”
Similarly, he opines on whether banks are ready to follow the pace set by the government by saying: “We cannot change things unless banks are ready to adapt to it.
“This is one thing we need to make clear. We are here to facilitate more than actually change.
“And we tend to bring up subjects to the right people so that they can make decisions based on the actual data that we have.
“Banks, I would agree, there are certain aspects that we, as an entrepreneurial society, would like that they lower their requirements, and support these things [entrepreneurship] by taking additional risks.
“But I understand where they are coming from. Entrepreneurship is a very risky business.
“However, if everything goes well, it will have very good return for society, banks and investors. The good things in it outweigh the risky part of the equation.”

Within the country’s proactive pursuit of prosperity, Al Suwaidi points out that building institutions and creating and implementing policies has been instrumental so far. He says: “As people who are trying to shape this industry, we are trying to bring up different suggestions to policy makers.
“So there are very different parts of the equation since you have a very difficult part and that’s policy making which should suit the investor at one point and the entrepreneur at the other point.
“The government is supporting these initiatives in all aspects. One of the things that we should praise the government for is that such things are being implemented very quickly.
“Policy making in some other places would take so long. But in the last two or three years, we actually went a long way.”

Details of HH Sheikh Mohammed’s 2014 vision for DIC, including the investment of AED4.5 billion ($1.22 billion) which will, among other things, be used for the launch of new business incubators and the establishment of a dedicated start-up fund to stimulate innovation, reveal that the government expects more from entrepreneurs and their home-grown solutions to make the system run smoothly or solve new problems.
Elaborating further on future growth areas, Al Suwaidi adds: “I would like to say that everything is growing very well and that we need everything.
“I refer back to the government because it is the ultimate power which sets the whole trend of the whole UAE. So when we, as the government, say [that] we want smart learning, better education, better health, and similar, that gives you an indicator where everyone else is going.
“So there is room for people to create apps in these areas that are smart, interesting, and that could solve an issue or a problem.
“Today if you go to the government’s pavilion here, you’ll find that all government agencies are going smart. And that is very interesting. When you see government agencies going in that direction that tells you that opportunities are coming up very fast.
“And that is a very good indicator that we need more entrepreneurs to come up with products that are interesting. You wouldn’t settle with an app that doesn’t tell you anything other than time, right?”
Having experienced the life of an entrepreneur by starting an advertising agency, Prodesign Advertising, more than a decade ago, Al Suwaidi is aware that instilling and nurturing a mind-set of innovation in people needs to go hand in hand with encouraging them not to give up.
He says: “We are proud of everyone who is actually making an effort, regardless of their idea. The effort is important because starting a business is not an easy task. I tried it myself.”
Alluding to an analogy he credits to one of GITEX’s attendees, Al Suwaidi concludes: “Starting a business is like launching a rocket into space. To lift the rocket off the ground, just a few centimetres, it requires a whole load of energy.
“But as the rocket goes up you need less energy to fly it, and when it reaches the orbit you don’t need energy at all. I like that analogy.”

By Tamara Pupic
Thursday, 4 December 2014 2:18 PM
Arabian Business