Just got back from Dubai having hosted the #DigiDinner at the Reem Al Bawadi restaurant on Thursday 12th November 2015.  Had a great week in Dubai meeting local entrepreneurs, professionals and a couple of trade associations with a brief visit to the Dubai Motor Show thrown in for good measure – 13 hours sleep in 5 days.

DigiDinner Group Pic

The inaugural Dubai DigiDinner bunch

A couple of us flew out via Royal Brunei Airlines from Heathrow terminal 4 which is best accessed via Heathrow Express to Terminal 2 then taking the transfer to Terminal 4.  Royal Brunei runs the Boeing Dreamliner 787 out of Heathrow which is very comfortable and offers nice multi-media stations to every passenger.  The trip takes around 6 or 7 hours depending on how busy Heathrow is.  Our return journey circled a few times so the trip took 7.5 hours.

We chose Dubai as the venue for the inaugural #DigiDinner as most of my UAE contacts are located there however Abu Dhabi is only 1 hour away by car – Dubai has a population of approximately 2.106 Million (2013) and Abu Dhabi 1.5 Million, both are member states of the United Arab Emirates of UAE (Abu Dhabi serves as the capital) – the other member states include Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain.  The total population of the UAE is around 9 Million.  Dubai has an enormous ex-pat population – I heard in conversation that 80% of the population of Dubai is ex-pat made up of UK, US and ex-pats from other states.  English is spoken by almost everyone.  It is an excellent spring board for an company looking to enter the Middle East and is becoming a popular jump point for companies looking to go further afield in to Africa.

In Abu Dhabi the money mostly flows in from Oil, in Dubai the money flows in from a variety of sectors including Tourism, Technology, Property and Finance.  The money to build Dubai (the Dubai we know is less than 20 years old) appears to have come from Russia with investors supporting Dubai financially with its dream to be the top holiday destination in the world in return for low to zero income tax.

Even through it was November, Dubai is still enjoying temperatures up to 30 degrees Celsius although all of the buildings are air-conditioned which brings the temperature down to around 18 degrees which is perfect – to meetings we dressed smart casual – to our meeting with UKTI they were suited up but all of our other meetings were smart casual so I would recommend this as the default dress code.  In the Summer the temperature can exceed anything remotely like “comfortable” and going outside becomes a hazard.

UKTI appears to have outsourced many of its operations to an organisation called British Centres for Business – we met with them and discussed what they could do to help us as digital entrepreneurs expand in to Dubai and they gave us technical details that primarily covered help with licenses and trade permits.  UK companies can work for Dubai based customers, billing them from the UK and this seems to be the most common method however with larger firms a Trade License may be required and we were warned that this is a process that can be complex and expensive.  Further information is available from the UKTI website and from the British Centres for Business.

We enjoyed wi-fi in the hotel and in most cafes and restaurants however Dubai does restrict/control internet access and certain websites are blocked by law – if your work website is as a result blocked then using a VPN app on either your phone or laptop will overcome this – these apps can be downloaded for free from Google Play or from the App Store – in addition they help protect your data when using internet cafes although in UAE itself there is very little risk from data theft – the culture is deeply honest and trusting.

Calls from UK mobiles on T-mobile are charged at £1.50 per minute and data is charged separately – this can be very costly, to avoid this I will unlock my spare phone and purchase a SIM in Dubai which includes a local calling plan and data for a fraction of the cost.  To call the UK I used my BT Smarttalk app on my phone when I had wi-fi which reduces the cost of calls significantly and was pretty good quality so long as I had good wifi signal.

In Dubai most retailers accept US Dollars, Great British Pound and UAE dirham – dirham is quite easy to calculate back to pounds – simply divide by 5 – for US dollars, divide by 4.

In terms of technology, Dubai appears to have a very modern infrastructure such as wi-fi, super fast broadband as well as modern apps such as Uber however in terms of general technology I would say that Dubai is behind the UK and in some cases quite significantly – digital marketing is very early stage with SEO most common via bloggers and PPC campaigns very common amongst brands – social media leans more towards rich media than text so apps like Instagram are very popular.  Everyone uses WhatsApp and I mean everyone!

Dubai is still very much in the educational phase of certain technologies – technologies and strategies I have seen being developed and adopted across the US and UK in cities such as San Francisco, New York and London have yet to reach Dubai – I did not hear much about #IoT, drones or connected homes for example – I am sure it exists but in London it is gaining huge momentum with companies like Hive and Nest making products available on the high street for at least a few years now.  I did not see this in Dubai but because of the large ex-pat community the educational phase should be relatively short with subsequent adoption levels quite high due to the high disposable income people enjoy – there is currently no income tax in Dubai.  I would therefore say that #IoT adoption will be very fast once it is available as it does seem to me that people in Dubai want the latest in technology.

Whilst Dubai as well as all other UAE states is Islamic they do not have an enormous volume of commercial laws as we do in the UK and US – for example laws coming in to force in the UK to force organisations using drones for commercial purposes to obtain a license do not appear to be on the table in Dubai.  Dubai is very open to trade, it is opposed to legislation that might reduce trade.  In 2008 it practically went bust as a result of the global financial meltdown, unable to pay enormous debts but struggled through and is now back on top.

Enjoying drinks at the Hilton SkyLounge

Digital Entrepreneurs Enjoying fruit cocktails at the Hilton SkyLounge

As you might expect in an Islamic state there is no alcohol served in restaurants unless you are in a hotel where alcohol is permitted, but expensive – a bottle of house wine could be around £80.  Even in hotels however it would be etiquette to drink soft drinks if you were with a local business person – typically they will not drink alcohol.  I can highly recommend the fruit cocktails at the Hilton Skylounge – quite out of this world!

In conclusion, Dubai is very interesting, in the early days it may have appeared to some to be a flash in the pan, to most at the very least a spoilt child with too many toys from an absent father so not to everyones taste but following the recession it hardened and fixed fast to the stuff that matters and as a result has become a genuine spring board for anyone wanting to hit the Middle East and is working as hard as any city I know to create an honest, hard working but fun reputation – I had a wonderful time and thoroughly enjoyed all my meetings and of course the #DigiDinner on Thursday evening and as a result I will be hosting a #DigiDinner again in Dubai in January 2016.

Dubai Police Car at Dubai Motor Show

Now then, what you up to son?

The fast cars don’t seem to make much sense to me anymore, yes they are cool to look at but in my opinion Dubai has moved on and this is more for show than a statement of wealth in the area – even the Dubai Police – you know the ones that drive around in Bentleys are funded by the tourism board and can’t actually chase anyone (although I am sure they do, just for fun).

If you consider yourself a Digital Entrepreneur and would like to attend the next Dubai #DigiDinner then please use the following form to get in touch so that I can keep you posted on the date and venue alternatively follow me on Twitter: digentre or find me on Facebook.