From Amman to Cairo, several cities have been tipped as the Silicon Valley of the Arab world. But there is a new contender for the crown as the region’s star start-up centre: Sharjah.
Many of the UAE’s most dynamic entrepreneurial ventures have sprung up in Dubai, making it a magnet for the regional offices of established global players like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
But two new initiatives designed to boost Sharjah’s start-up status could result in the Middle East’s elusive Silicon Valley edging northwards.
The university-based Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre, known as Sheraa, plans the first intake of its entrepreneur accelerator programme next month, while the separate shjSeen initiative is to start its incubator scheme, with 50 start-ups, in early 2017.
Both offer incentives such as free business licences and office space. But are they enough to make Sharjah shine bright as a start-up hub?
Najla Al Midfa, general manager of Sheraa – which means “sail” in Arabic – acknowledges that this is something that will take time.
“Entrepreneurship cannot be implemented overnight,” she says. “Sharjah is an emerging entrepreneurship hub.”
Sheraa, located on the American University of Sharjah campus to encourage students to become entrepreneurs after graduating, launched in January under the patronage of Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, chair of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority.
It recently opened a co-working space and is accepting applications for its first accelerator programme until Thursday. It has already received more than 100, many of which are for tech-enabled ventures. Eight of the 10 accelerator places available will be for those with some link to one of the universities in Sharjah. But two are open to people without any university connection.
The three-month scheme’s first accelerator programme, which starts on October 15, will offer the teams a free trade licence for at least a year, a Dh35,000 grant, access to potential customers and the crucial mentorship sessions.
Ms Al Midfa, a UAE national who was born in Sharjah, says the emirate’s 20,000-plus student population is a key advantage for anyone looking to build a start-up business there.
“It’s a talent hub. If you speak to many entrepreneurs and start-ups in the region, one of the key challenges they face is access to talent. And we’ve got that right here,” she says. “The other draw, of course, is that it has a lower cost base than Dubai.”
Sheraa is just one initiative in Sharjah’s wider drive to become an entrepreneurial hub, says Ms Al Midfa.
The Sharjah Tatweer Forum, established in 2005 and which runs leadership programmes, is also part of the wider “ecosystem” contributing to this vision.
Jassem Mohammed Al Beloushi, chairman of the Sharjah Tatweer Forum, said earlier this year that the forum is gearing some of its activities towards the increasing number of Emiratis who want to set up their own business.
“Every young Emirati today likes to have his own company, likes to be an entrepreneur,” he told The National in May. “There are more companies now led by UAE nationals compared to five or 10 years ago.”
Another programme that aims to boost Sharjah’s start-up activity is called shjSeen, an initiative from the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI).
Sara Al Madani, a board member of the SCCI and shjSeen board of trustees, was clear about Sharjah’s bold ambitions in the field.
“We want to make Sharjah the start-up hub in the Middle East,” she says.
Ms Al Madani, an Emirati national who started her own fashion label at 15, says Sharjah’s affordability, facilities, and good geographical positioning make it a prime contender.
ShjSeen’s first two-year incubator programme will begin in January, with applications accepted from both UAE nationals and expats up until December 15, Ms Al Madani says. The 50 successful applicants will have the use of office space, a free trade licence and access to facilities.
Ms Al Madani says while the UAE already provides people with many opportunities when setting up their own business, shjSeen would help to steer them in the right direction.
“In the UAE we have the opportunity, but not the right ecosystem,” she adds. “It’s easy to open a business in the UAE. But it’s like saying you have a fast car, you have a Ferrari, but you don’t know how to drive it.
“So this is the gap we are trying to fill. We are preparing these drivers for these fast cars. So we are just preparing people, teaching them how to use these opportunities in the right way.”
But it’s a long road ahead when it comes to Sharjah’s aim to be an entrepreneurial hub, cautioned Ms Al Midfa.
“You can’t expect to see a billion-dollar company by the end of your first year,” she says. “It has to take its time, it will evolve.”
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