Dubai Unpacked: For Founders & Investors

“The City of Gold”: Misconceptions, Startup Ecosystems & Postcards from Dubai

Rachael Annabelle
7 min readAug 19, 2023

Often dubbed “Singapore on steroids”, or “Manhattan of the UAE”, Dubai’s been gaining some phenomenal traction lately. Not just from the crypto and web3 crowd, but from tech executives from the bay, GPs trying to raise their next fund, and tech founders scaling globally.

I spent some time in Dubai earlier this year and got to speak with a variety of people — from the Dubai Economic & Tourism Board, incubators, venture capitalists, founders, expats, and local emirates as well. With more and more people gaining curiosity about the MENA region, I decided to consolidate some of my top insights, and clarify some common misconceptions that I often get asked.

Common Misconceptions: On luxury, culture & careers

  • “Everyone is Rich”:

No. While social media has often portrayed Dubai as a city oozing with luxury, not everyone living there is exceedingly wealthy. There are various socioeconomic classes, ranging from the ultra-rich, to the young expat talent, and labour workers too (many of them migrate from India, Pakistan and more).

  • Everyone Works in Oil & Gas”:

Absolutely not! Dubai’s economy has diversified significantly over the years, with sectors like tourism, real estate, finance, and technology playing major roles. In the last few years, the government has also put in a significant amount of effort to support the tech and startup industry.

  • “Closed Culture and Language Barriers”:

90% of Dubai are expats, and 10% are local Emirates. Dubai reminded me of a cross between Singapore (on steroids), and Miami / LA. Most of the people I interacted with were expats who moved from San Francisco, UK, and Eastern Europe.

How does Dubai’s Economy Work?

For business owners and startup founders who want to enter the MENA region and incorporate your company in Dubai, you can break Dubai (or the UAE in general) into 2 main categories of land: Free Zones, and the Mainland.

Establishing free trade zones was one of the initiatives the government took to diversify the economy and attract more foreign investors to Dubai and the UAE in general.

Companies incorporated in the mainland can be established anywhere and trade directly with the local market.

Companies who incorporate in one of the free zones can only trade within designated zones and outside the UAE, however offer incredible benefits such as tax exemption, visa support, zero currency restrictions, and capital and profit repatriations. In most cases, foreigners / expats would pick this option.

Every free-zone has it’s own focus, but here are some of the most popular ones:

  1. DIFC (Dubai International Financial Centre)
  2. DMCC (Dubai Multi Commodities Centre)
  3. Dubai Design District
  4. Dubai Internet City
  5. Meydan
  6. Emirates Towers District
Museum of the Future in Dubai

Dubai’s Startup Ecosystem

Coming from cities like Singapore, New York and London, I’ve learnt a couple interesting things about the Dubai’s startup ecosystem.

“There’s a lot of money in Dubai, raise funds there!”

I’d say this is more true for GPs raising from LPs for their funds, rather than founders raising from VCs.

There are far more LPs there who have been writing cheques, which is why many of you might have seen things like “all the funds are raising from LPs in the Middle East” on twitter.

For founders, the risk appetite in the US is still much higher, and the funds in MENA often look at companies that are market focused — meaning you have a specific plan on launching and scaling locally.

  • Late Stage Startups = Series A?

Most of the startups in Dubai are early stage — this means pre-seed to seed. Series A is pretty much the “latest stage” you’d see. Beyond that, they’d usually scale by raising from investors in the US, and focus on global growth. This is with the exception of startups that are market-focused, examples would be like the super app Careem, which is very similar to Grab and Gojek in SEA, and WeChat in China.

This is unlike the “late-stage startups” in the US — which are often considered anything beyond a Series B company.

  • Doubling the digital economy: Beyond Crypto & Web3 — Manufacturing, Energy, Agritech & more

Many think that the bulk of startups in Dubai come from the crypto and web3 space. While there are a good number of these, I’ve also seen a ton of interesting startups in other spaces such as manufacturing, logistics, cybersecurity and healthcare, in an effort to increase the sustainability and double the contribution of the digital economy to the UAE’s GDP to 19.4 per cent within 10 years.

  • The Golden Visa

This is comparable to the E-2 or O-1 visa in the US, the Global Talent Tier 1 Visa in the UK, and the Tech Pass in Singapore.

You might have heard of the 100,000 golden visas they are issuing to top talent. Designed for innovators, this visa enables individuals wanting to relocate to Dubai to be a part of their startup ecosystem. You can qualify for this by having a startup (with some requirements), or invest in property there. Either are fairly simple (compared to many other countries), made possible by the government’s efforts to attract and retain better talent.

  • A launchpad for Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Saudi & more.

If you are in Dubai, other cities like Sharjah and Abu Dhabi are just an hour away by car (you can book one on Careem!). You’d be able to visit other tech hubs such as Hub71 and SRTIP.

Other Insights

  • +1 Million Talents to move into Dubai by 2033

As per their ambitious $8.7 trillion 10 year plan, the D33, the city aims to cement the city’s status as a global tech hub and accelerate growth, and welcome a million more high-skilled talents into the region, 80% of which would come from outside the gulf region. There are a ton of startup programs springing up, such as Antler with a goal of investing in 100 startups in the next 4 years, and DIFC with 800+ startups.

  • Great education system

As an expat in cities like Singapore, you have limited options of sending your kids to colleges like NUS, NTU and SMU. For lower education, many expats are limited to sending their kids to international schools, which can easily cost $20–30k a year. Limited schools also makes it way more competitive to get accepted into these schools.

On the other hand, Dubai offers way more options as expats who have children they would like to send their kids to, and you’re not limited to just the pricey international schools. Tons of schools have opened up satellite campuses in Dubai as well, such as Harvard, NYU, Hult and more.

  • “Affordable Luxury”

With a ton of lower-cost labour moving in from countries like India and Pakistan, the cost of services have also been driven down. This means more people can afford luxuries such as having a helper, personal chef, or get your monthly nails and lash extensions done without breaking your bank.

I was talking to a friend who used to live in Singapore but moved to Dubai lately, and he has compared his lifestyle of living in one of the luxury apartments at the Dubai Marina, to that of living in Sentosa Cove in Singapore for a fraction of the price.

Moving to Dubai? We’re here to help.

If you’ve decided to uproot and move to Dubai — be it with your employer, or as a founder moving over for a program, we are here to help. Our platform was designed to help you breeze through the process of visas, company setup, figuring out your housing and banking solutions, and shipping or storing your furniture too!

Learn more on our website, or drop me an email at if you need help. I’ll also be in Dubai later this October, so let me know if you’d like to grab coffee! 🙂

Postcards from Dubai

If you’ve made it this far — here are some photos of my time in Dubai. A really beautiful city, and honestly a ton of cool spots to visit! Even if you’re not moving here, it’d be great to visit with friends for fun (except during summer).



Rachael Annabelle | googler. founder photographer. creative consultant. pasta fanatic & occasional nerd.