Expanding to the Middle East — My time in Saudi Arabia

Rachael Annabelle
6 min readFeb 3, 2024

Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh & the rest of the Middle East have been on the up & up with massive migrations happening inbound — is it for you?

In the last 6 months, there has been a massive shift in attention to the middle east.

VCs are flocking to the region to raise money from LPs, and startups are setting up shop to serve the region better.

10 years ago, the Singapore startup ecosystem started to boom. Especially when key government initiatives started to form such as SGInnovate, and several startup incubators and accelerators like Antler and Entrepreneur First took off. Unicorns started popping up, and Singapore eventually rose to become a hub for startups — especially in the crypto and fintech space.

What happened in Singapore 10 years ago is happening in the Middle East today.

Antler launched their Riyadh cohort last September, and will be welcoming a new batch of talented founders in Dubai this coming March. The Hub71 program in Abu Dhabi has also attracted an overwhelming number of applicants who are hoping to springboard into the region. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are also on the up, with massive deployments in capital within the industry in the last year. Companies like Carta have also expanded their footprint in the region too.

While remote work is here to stay, there are massive trends in human capital movements that are just beginning. We’re seeing large numbers of people moving out of China and Vietnam, and increasing inbounds into Dubai, Korea, Japan and the UK with the new talent visas that have been rolled out. Students will continue moving for colleges, and people will continue to move for opportunities and partners.

Saudi Arabia — My time in Riyadh

I spent some time in Riyadh during FII last October, and found it to be a rather unique experience.

In terms of the urban planning — it reminded me of a hybrid between a major city like New York with massive skyscrapers, but also large stretches of dessert and people hanging out in their camper vans, much like burning man. The surroundings can change drastically within a couple of minutes of driving in a car, which is pretty unlike the rest of the cities I have lived in (London, Singapore, Melbourne, New York, Dubai).

There has also been a solid number of people asking me how similar / different Dubai and Saudi is. For the UAE, i have spent most of my time in Dubai, and Riyadh for Saudi.

Both of these countries have been looking to diversify their economies, especially into tech, manufacturing and tourism.

Saudi has made impressive leaps, with Vision 2030, exciting giga projects like NEOM, Diriyah, and recent win of hosting the world expo in 2030.

I was also invited to some events within compounds, which were privately owned by some wealthy families in Riyadh — truly impressive and gorgeous!

For companies who are keen on setting up their operations in the region and entering this market — I would definitely recommend getting a local partner or having an arabic speaking person to help navigate the local operations unless you are very familiar with Saudi Arabia. Feel free to reach out if you need help with setting up your entity, and I’ll be happy to connect you to the right folks.

Should I move to the Middle East?

This is a question that many people have asked me lately. Some have chosen to split their time between Europe/US and MENA, while others have completely shifted their home base to Dubai.

It can be tricky, especially if you have kids who are already in the middle of their education system, and pets who might not appreciate the drastically different weather.

The one thing I’ve learnt after spending some time in the region, is that their culture values personal relationships and in-person time more than the norm. In the US, remote work has become more and more widespread, with some companies choosing to return to office but still offering some form of hybrid working style.

My time in the Middle East has shown me that they will truly appreciate your effort of being boots on the ground, and putting a face to the name. So if you’re looking to serve the region — my bet is that it would be wise to have someone based out of the region. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are popular picks for UAE, and Riyadh for Saudi Arabia.

In terms of drawing parallels, some have told me that Abu Dhabi is more similar to Singapore, and Dubai is a combination of Singapore, Vegas and Miami. I haven’t spent enough time in Abu Dhabi to form an opinion myself, but here’s a screenshot of a friend’s story which I found to be hilarious but somewhat accurate.

Separately, I wrote another piece with insights on what the startup ecosystem in Dubai is like after my first few weeks there.

How does Gullie help me move?

The average international move costs ~$100k.

And some say that it’s the most stressful event of their entire life; more so than divorce or having kids, so they say.

And you think about getting support for moving today, most of the options would essentially be to hire a consultant that offers a white glove service (which can cost you a ton of money), or do a self-directed move. It’s an age old industry that’s overly reliant on human services.

With AI, we have found ways to personalize moves at scale, improving the overall experience while reducing human errors during the process.

Our software is an applied AI solution for relocation.

Gullie can create a moving experience that is customized to your background, budget and timeline. This means that you’re now able to get personalized advisory, manage and execute your move from one unified place — from visa, housing, banking, shipping furniture, insurance and lifestyle.

We take care of the heavy lifting, sorting out legal documents, finding homes, and answering those middle-of-the-night “how do I…?” questions, so you can focus on what they were meant to do.

It’s about giving everyone a white glove moving experience at a fraction of the cost.

If you’re an company moving your employees or a business scaling to a new market and would like some help, reach out!

Yulin & I exploring Dubai!

Our entire team has spent time on the ground in the middle east last year — and we’re here to make it easier for the big shifts in 2024.

I’ll be back in the Middle East this March onwards, feel free to reach out if you have questions — am available on Linkedin & Twitter.

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Rachael Annabelle

knottedbrains.com | googler. founder @gullie.io. photographer. creative consultant. pasta fanatic & occasional nerd.