Why base your tech startup in Abu Dhabi?

Some 60% of investment funding for startups in the MENA region was given to projects based in the UAE in 2019, according to a report by startup data analysis company Magnitt.

Not only is this dominance of the startup capital pot historically the highest in the region, the UAE’s share of the profits is also growing year-on-year. And there are lots of reasons why the country is such a hotbed of startup and tech success, but in the main, it’s due to the government’s focus on diversifying the economy (i.e., moving away from a dependence on oil and gas) by 2030. And while the private sector is booming in the UAE, the country’s leadership has taken a leaf out of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s book and realised that the private sector can’t survive without strong public sector governance and support.

But that also cuts both ways and is part of the reason the UAE has fostered such a strong culture of entrepreneurship and a startup mentality. The country leads the Middle East in the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ Ranking, as the 16th ranked country in the world for business friendliness, and the World Bank has also cited the UAE as an inspiration in terms of business-minded reforms.

A youthful approach to problem-solving

Another positive for startup culture is that the country is relatively young, having been incorporated as the United Arab Emirates in 1971 – and it’s that youth and the desire to always evolve that’s created such a buzz around new business in the UAE and in particular, the capital city (and largest emirate) of Abu Dhabi.

Walid Daniel Dib, the young tech founder of AI insurance transaction company Addenda, said he found Abu Dhabi ‘down-to earth’. “It’s a place where you’ll find decisions here are not necessarily always made in boardrooms or people in suits — they’re made by real people that understand the needs of a nimble and agile founder. For a startup, the thing that matters most is investment and clients hungry for innovation. And we found both of these things in Abu Dhabi.”

His Excellency Mohammed Ali Al Shorafa, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development, as well as chairman of Hub71’s Board of Directors, an Abu Dhabi-based startup ecosystem where Dib’s company is based, agreed with that assessment: “The Abu Dhabi economy is shifting towards a knowledge-based model in which startups are a key priority,” he says. “To cultivate and develop this shift, the Abu Dhabi government has put in place mechanisms to shape and support its domestic infrastructure.”

The Abu Dhabi government’s Covid-19 response, which is part of its overall economic accelerator programme, Ghadan 21, is aimed at alleviating the cost of both setting up and continuing to run a business in the UAE with solutions on 16 different economic challenges for private-sector companies, mostly focused on tech startups.

Hub71 has a large part to play in that programme, says Shorafa: “Over the course of the past year, Hub71 has nurtured the growth of this ecosystem and strengthened the UAE capital’s position as a global hub for innovation. The Abu Dhabi startup community boasts a diverse collective across different sectors such as FinTech, AI, aerospace, education, healthcare and mobility; which originate from countries all over the world, such as USA, UK, Singapore, Canada, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and many more.”

Hub71 also offers strategic collaboration with important, major players such as Microsoft, the Abu Dhabi Global Market (an international financial centre and free zone), Mubadala Investment Company (a global investment company with a mandate to create sustainable financial returns for Abu Dhabi), SoftBank Vision Fund (a capital fund specialized in growth capital and social impact investments) and leading accelerators like Techstars, Gothams and Plug&Play. In other words: Hub71 and Abu Dhabi are strategic partners for startups who are looking to make the next bold move with their business.

What exactly does Abu Dhabi offer to startups?

In practical terms, it offers an attractive package for foreign investors and startup owners. Recently, Abu Dhabi has loosened the strictures around SMEs, including the introduction of instant business licences – Abu Dhabi Global Market’s Tech Licence, starting at $700 USD, is available online and can be acquired in a matter of days.

In the past year, the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development has issued more than 7,400 operating licences to SMEs, such as online businesses and food trucks, allowing them to operate without the need for physical office space – certainly an attractive proposition in the post-Covid-19 world where virtual working is so vital.

When it comes to essential services like education and healthcare, Abu Dhabi earns top marks. The emirate is home to several international education providers, including renowned institutions like New York University Abu Dhabi, Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, Brighton College Abu Dhabi, and Cranleigh Abu Dhabi. In healthcare, the UAE was rated best in the Middle East and 10th in the world in 2018, according to Bloomberg’s Health Care Efficiency Index.

The UAE has had plenty of success stories, from ride-hailing app Careem, which was acquired by Uber for $3.1bn, to online retailer Souq.com, purchased in 2018 by Amazon for $560m.

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.