Middle East’s next unicorn very likely to come out of UAE


Uri Levine speaking at the eMerge Americas conference in Miami on June 13, 2017.

David A. Grogan | CNBC

The next billion dollar business in the Middle East will emerge from the United Arab Emirates, according to one of the region’s most prominent entrepreneurs. 

“It’s very likely,” Uri Levine, the Israeli entrepreneur best known for co-founding traffic and navigation app Waze, told CNBC in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. 

Waze was bought by Google in June 2013 for more than $1.1 billion. Israeli press estimated that Levine owned 3% of the company, netting him $38 million from the sale. Levine now spends his time as a start-up mentor and investor. 

“Logistics and transportation and tourism are very significant here,” Levine said. “I think that you look at the city of Dubai, and you realize that there are a lot of things in mobility that can be built according to what we have built here,” he added.

The bullish call on the Emirates tech ecosystems comes as the UAE and Israel deepen ties following September’s signing of the Abraham Accords, an agreement that normalized diplomatic relations between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and eventually Sudan. The agreement has sparked a rush for new business, agreements to develop market access and deals to advance knowledge sharing between the two financial and technology hubs. 

“If Israel is a start-up nation, we are a scale-up nation,” Omar al Olama, the UAE Minister for Artificial Intelligence, told CNBC on Monday. “There are things that will start up in the UAE that will leverage off Israeli technology, Israeli companies and Israeli individuals to really become global in nature,” he said. “If they become unicorns or billion dollar agreements, that’s what we want.”

It’s thought the closer collaboration could help regional start-ups tackle challenges such as revenue generation, fundraising and overcoming regulatory hurdles.

“I am bullish about the potential for cross-border idea generation, investment, and teams working together,” Angus Blair, Professor, Business School at the American University in Cairo told CNBC on Wednesday. “There are many relatively recent changes in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the infrastructure to help start-ups, helped by the already large financial services sector in the UAE,” Blair added. 

The UAE is home to around 2,300 start-ups, while Israel claims over 6,000. 

The Emirates ranked first in the region by number of deals (with 26% of all deals), as well as by the amount of capital invested, according to MENA startup data platform MAGNiTT.

“The UAE earlier this year decided to offer visas to the founders of start-ups. This move, combined with the ease of doing business and quality of life factors in the UAE, is a potentially very strong magnet to attract further talent from across the region into Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” Blair told CNBC. 

Middle East shows promise with second unicorn

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