The café owner: Aida Mansour and her mother, Fayza Taha Image Credit: Supplied

The UAE is a hotspot for entrepreneurs where budding businessmen and -women can take advantage of free zones, minimum or no taxes and reasonable start-up costs.

While Dubai may be seen as the city of business, Abu Dhabi has made great strides on the enterprise front as it seeks to diversify away from the hydrocarbon sector.

Last month’s UAE Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum in Abu Dhabi saw more than 200 stakeholders examine the need for a healthy innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in the UAE. During the forum, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology announced plans to launch the Centre for Innovation Systems and Entrepreneurship, an initiative to further develop and spread entrepreneurial spirit among youth.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, spoke of how innovation is vital to the economy and underscored how the country offers assistance, advice, support and training to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation.

Information released by Masdar Institute, co-organiser of the forum, indicates that the UAE’s business-friendly atmosphere is quite conducive to young entrepreneurs. The UAE is ranked fifth among countries globally and first in the Arab world for stability and resilience, according to a global risk report issued by the World Economic Forum in January.

More recent was a seminar this month organised by Tamakkan, a social initiative aimed at nurturing entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation that urged entrepreneurs in Abu Dhabi to break away from traditional business habits.

In March, Insead Abu Dhabi’s entrepreneurship day brought together faculty members from universities across the UAE as well as foundations such as the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, the Akoun Workshop, aidha (from Singapore) and My Finance Coach Foundation (from Germany and Indonesia), to discuss how collaboration across the educational sector helps to develop entrepreneurship.

This new land of opportunities also offers regular workshops, presentations and networking opportunities through organisations such as Tamakkan, twofour54, Shelter and SeedStartup besides more glamorous options such as the local reality television show The Entrepreneur, presented by du, and the annual competition The Big Start by Al Tamimi Investments.

For an example of how much money is being poured into the sector, consider the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development’s 2012 disbursement of Dh53.3 million for 149 projects across various segments.

We spotlight some Abu Dhabi-based entrepreneurs that are making waves with their ideas.

 The café owner

Aida Mansour is Palestinian–Lebanese but calls the UAE home. Her project, Café Arabia, is a literature, art and culture community café with a mission to bridge cultures over good, family-style home cooking.

“Café Arabia started from my personal need to see something different from international hotels and franchised cafés,” says Aida. “I felt there was a tendency to always copy-and-paste. People are either afraid to try something entirely new, or are not bothered and take the easy way [out].”

Her vision was based on certain characteristics of Abu Dhabi, such as tolerance. “From the home [town] of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, whom we refer to as the Father of the Nation, I hope to pass his message of peace and tolerance to all cities and capitals of the world,” says Aida.

“I felt I wanted to make a difference, especially having witnessed the world drifting apart in recent years and cultural misconceptions are becoming the root of all evil. I wanted a stage to launch a message of peace from this part of the world to the rest of the globe.”

Aida hopes every guest that visits the café will serve as a messenger for better cultural understanding and that the café will be a place they can call home. By providing that home away from home, she aims to bring people together through art and cultural interaction.

“I started with an initial investment of almost Dh2.5 million and used several personal items to furnish the café. The business broke even by the beginning of our second year,” she says.

Aida describes the year-and-a-half journey as challenging and tough. “The biggest challenge is being a woman on my own — as an independent establishment — and not as a part of a chain or a group of companies. The workload and logistics can take their toll on you.”

— Gareth Kurt Warren/Features Writer

 The music man

PopArabia is a music publishing and rights consultancy, representing global music catalogues such as Universal Music Publishing and production specialists such as Jingle Punks, a New York-based music licensing and production company.

Described by Hussain “Spek” Yoosuf, Founder and Managing Director, as a one-stop shop for all things music related, the company was started last year as an investment by twofour54 and is based in the twofour54 complex in Abu Dhabi.

“Twofour54’s vision of developing a best-in-class ecosystem in media and entertainment aligned perfectly with what we felt was missing in the music space that PopArabia, as one of its portfolio companies, could fill,” says Yoosuf.

PopArabia set out to connect the dots between music creators and music users by providing a platform where companies can find music they need without worrying about licensing and copyright issues. “We’d like to see an industry that supports local songwriters and artists develop, and the protection of copyright as a music publisher is the first step towards that,” says Yoosuf.

The company took several months to open its doors after its inception and currently operates in a market with almost no competition at all. “There aren’t really any [companies] in the Gulf who do quite what we do, both as a music publisher and a music services company.”

Yoosuf currently runs and operates PopArabia with the help of two or three others for day-to-day support.

“The UAE has seen phenomenal growth in recent years, and as industries evolve, so shall the awareness around music rights. We see ourselves on the front line, playing a positive role and creating value around music,” says Yoosuf.

In terms of profit, he says, “We were cash-flow positive from the start; we broke even in our first year. Pop-Arabia is a profitable business despite being quite young.”

— G.K.W.

 The film people

Trucial States is a film production company that also specialises in the fields of music and TV production, animation, events management and online marketing.

Dr Faisal Al Nowais and Dr Sameer Al Obaidli, two Emirati psychiatrists, started the company with Dr Al Nowais’ brother Ahmad.

“The entire process was surprisingly not as lengthy as usual, mainly due to the very generous incentives that were provided to us by twofour54,” says Dr Al Nowais. “The [process] was straightforward and [took] less than six months.”

Despite the short time frame, the company did face its fair share of challenges in terms of financing, since it was still an untested entity. Dr Al Nowais feels these difficulties will disappear once the company proves itself and diversifies into other fields.

In terms of demand for a film production company in the UAE, he says: “I definitely think so. It has always mystified me that there is no real film production in the region, especially since the talent exists.”

He feels the UAE has a very interesting culture that is still misunderstood internationally. “For example, I love American film and television, but if I had a dirham for every Dubai-Shaikh-white-slavery joke, I would be able to finance the next Star Wars film independently. Why is that misconception still valid?

“At book fairs, comic book conventions and film festivals, I always look for locally produced art and literature, of which there is a lot that is pretty good. The talent can stand next to any international effort, but all these artists continue to be unknown and unrepresented,” he says.

“We will always take pride that this has remained our main goal in starting this company — to give this talent a voice.”

— G.K.W.

 The 3D printers

Younis Elias Salman Al Sulaimi, Cofounder and General Manager, Abaad Embodied Design, a 3D solutions company in Abu Dhabi, has been interested in 3D design and new technologies from a very young age.

After graduating from Abu Dhabi Men’s college with a Bachelor in Engineering Management in 2009, Al Sulaimi joined the Emirates Advanced Research Technology Holding as a draftsman engineer, was promoted to design engineer and then to project manager.

“In 2009, I met my business partner, Juma Salem Mubarak Al Gafli, at college. We shared our ideas and came up with Abaad. We then started studying the market and the technologies for three years. In April last year, we finally got approval from the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and after a lot of work, we entered the market a month ago.

“The company started with around Dh1.6 million. Since we are relatively new, we have not broken even yet,” says Al Sulaimi.

Abaad provides services to the industrial, engineering, medical, defence, educational and many other sectors. The company has four key service areas: 3D scanning, 3D modelling, 3D printing and composites work.

Al Sulaimi explains that the challenges with this sort of technology are marketing their services to others and explaining how it is beneficial to them. However, that is changing as orders for 3D-printed parts and 3D scanning are increasing steadily.

“It’s just the beginning,” says Al Sulaimi. “So far we are doing well with all the services. Nearly all the technical people we meet are aware of this technology, but only a few from other sectors are. We started our marketing plan recently and we are hoping to reach all companies and individuals that we consider potential customers.”

Concerning competition, Al Sulaimi explains that there are two other companies currently operating in the same sector, but they focus on entertainment, unlike Abaad.

“We don’t know of any competition, but we are quite ready for it as we are expanding and increasing our market share. Our vision for the future is to become the leaders in providing state-of-the-art 3D solutions and services to every productive organisation and help them achieve economical and quality results in a faster time frame.”

— G.K.W.