Some 100,000 people attend Gitex every year in what is the region’s biggest technology exhibition. Bringing together government, enterprise and startups from all around the world, it is an indication of the state of the tech sector in the region and where it is heading.
While most of the pavilions showcased 5G and its many use cases, it was Saudi Arabia that made its presence felt. Exhibitors from the Kingdom dominated the space and conversations across the event. The government sector displayed a robust appearance, showcasing the technologies they have put into place to digitise their processes and highlighted many of the young tech companies that have emerged over the past few years, taking up one side of the entire concourse at the Dubai World Trade Centre.
The Gitex Future Stars section, a part dedicated to startups also saw heavy Saudi presence. Pavilions like Badir, InspireU and Taqnia showcased some of the kingdom’s top startups including Quantum, Glucojet and Dormag. Benefitting from the Vision 2030 economic plan, entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia have been given the investment, regulatory environment and support of the government to innovate and launch their own startups. For many of the founders, their challenges were not in finding investment; it was in finding mentors and acquiring the right talent.
“The easiest thing to do in Saudi now is to start and register a company, but the main challenge is finding smart money,” says Abdulaziz Alhamdan, co-founder of Saudi-based Carwah, a car rental app.
There were more startups at Gitex Future Stars this year, especially from South Korea, Japan and Italy. Many of the governments in the region have been trying to attract startups from around the world to set up in the Middle East in a bid to build innovation ecosystems and create job opportunities for local citizens to inspire knowledge transfer.
While some of the most innovative startups were evident in this section of the exhibition from robotic arms to virtual reality games, the overwhelming number of those based in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) were startups in the e-commerce sector with plenty of car rental and grocery delivery apps.
In the region, most of the innovation was seen at the telecoms and government pavilions. With their unmatched budgets, it is these entities that can afford to be most innovative, in most cases bringing in and buying foreign technology to showcase the future. Etisalat, who spends a few million dollars on its stand every year, had identified and presented several startups from around the world to demonstrate its vision of how humans will shop, move and communicate. The telco presented a robot bread machine from the US, a robot shop assistant from Sweden and a flying motorbike, attracting a deluge of people with smartphones in hand, filming and photographing the future of shopping and mobility.
Yet, the ones who made the strongest impression were the UAE’s young women at Gitex Future Stars. Among the most innovative ideas were the graduate projects on show, all of which were hoping to attract investment and attention from corporate or government entities. From Zayed Stream, an economically and environmentally friendly oil recovery solution to Alpha, a hardware company providing enhancement solutions to autonomous vehicles, the projects developed by electronics engineers from universities across the country were innovative and presented solutions for local problems. The issue however, is the lack of direction and support given to them post graduation. Culturally, there is still the desire to secure a government job after graduation than to navigate the world of startups with little to no work experience.
While many had access to workshops and entrepreneurship courses, they had no funding and little understanding of how to run a business.
“A lot of girls nowadays know their own rights and what they want to do. There are more opportunities than 10-15 years ago, and girls want to do something for the older generations. There are a lot of challenges, not everyone is cooperative, we need more support,” says Hamda Almenhali, nutritionist at Nawa, a startup that derives nutrients from date seeds.
With the dozens of accelerators and incubators set up in the region, they would do well to look at such research projects and identify opportunities at that stage, than continue to focus on what are considered easy wins.