While many people think of Silicon Valley as the heart of entrepreneurship, this impression may soon change. The Middle East boasts a market this is both larger and faster growing than the American one. As an increasing number of startups from this region begin to enter the global arena, a handful of cities have emerged as excellent locations for entrepreneurs due to a combination of factors, including availability of funding, support from incubators, and other economic advantages.
Considered by most as the gateway between the East and the West, Istanbul has become one of the most effective locations for establishing a presence in the Middle East. Yemek Sepeti, for example, emerged as a sort of Grub Hub for a Turkish audience. The company’s overwhelming success allowed it to expand quickly into Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as European countries. Istanbul is also perfectly positioned for expansion into Central Asian countries and Russia, making it an extremely strategic location for a new company.
Today, Yemek Sepeti partners with more than 10,000 restaurants and processes more than 90,000 orders on behalf of 3.2 million users each day. Several other success stories have emerged from Istanbul, including Trendyol, HemenKiralik (also known s Flat4Day), and GittiGidiyor, which is modeled on eBay. In 2011, eBay actually acquired GittiGidiyor for the impressive sum of $218 million. Earlybird Venture Capital invested in both Yemek Sepeti and GittiGidiyor. This venture capital firm points to Turkey as an excellent place for entrepreneurs due to the strong presence of excellent STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) schools that create a highly qualified and talented workforce. Moreover, many Turkish students who study abroad at top-tier institutions are eager to return home to launch their careers.
Due to government investments in education and infrastructure, Amman, Jordan, has emerged as a major site of entrepreneurship in the central Middle East region. Recognizing a lack of natural resources in the nation, the Jordanian government decided to invest instead in human capital. With recently reformed regulations, Amman remains one of the easiest (and the cheapest) cities in which entrepreneurs can register a new business, and it has the best Internet connectivity of any Middle Eastern country. Further, the country enjoys a skilled and willing workforce. More than half of university graduates in Jordan are women, yet only about one in five is currently employed.
One of the biggest success stories in Amman is Zaytouneh, which means “olive” in Arabic. Founded by Fida Taher, the company produces online videos that teach people around the world how to cook a variety of dishes, including Middle Eastern specialties. Unlike many cooking tutorials currently on the market, Zaytouneh keeps the show as simple as possible by removing small talk and focusing the camera solely on the ingredients and the hands of the chef.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
One of the wealthiest cities in the Middle East, Dubai recently invested $1.5 billion to create Internet City, an area dedicated to innovation that will position the city as a primary choice for entrepreneurs. Business owners have unbeatable access to funding from private investment in Dubai, which is well positioned to encourage expansion throughout the rest of the Middle Eastern region.
Some business owners may be leery of Dubai after its perceived collapse during the global financial crisis, but the city quickly recovered and continues to offer a number of advantages for entrepreneurs. Benefits include low taxes, friendly policies for expatriates, and reliable infrastructure. The city’s government also encourages innovation with unique opportunities like the Drones for Good competition, which recently gave away more than $1 million to startups focusing on the drone industry. The government has also worked hard to drive advances in the three-dimensional printing industry through the U.A.E. 3-D Printing Innovation Alliance, which teams entrepreneurs with local universities and existing companies.
Since the 2011 revolution, Cairo has quickly grown as a destination for entrepreneurs for a number of reasons. First, Cairo is positioned for business growth throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. The city also has excellent educational systems and a thriving entrepreneurial community that is willing and ready to support newcomers. Reinvention is still taking place and the strong presence of entrepreneurs in this process holds promises of policies that encourage business risks, especially in certain key industries. Also, entrepreneurs are pushing for changes to legal frameworks and greater protections of their intellectual property.
Opportunities for support are expanding quickly. In recent years, Cairo held its first entrepreneurial summit and saw the formation of its first angel investor group. In addition, the first startup accelerator program opened its doors. These resources will likely only continue to expand in coming years.