Lessons For Africa’s Emerging Economies From Dubai’s Playbook On Business

Published 8 months ago
A session at the Dubai Business Forum; the emirate attracted 511 greenfield projects in H1 2023; image supplied
A session at the Dubai Business Forum; the emirate attracted 511 greenfield projects in H1 2023; image supplied

Dubai’s ambition to become one of the world’s top three cities was further attested at the Dubai Business Forum on November 1 and 2 organized by Dubai Chambers, which operates six offices in Africa. The event saw several African entrepreneurs and policy-makers in attendance and deals signed between the two regions.

It’s the climate for conferences in Dubai.

With the searing summer months giving way to cooler weather in the coastal emirate, November commenced with the Dubai Business Forum (DBF) and will also by the month-end witness the start of the much-anticipated 13-day COP28 global climate conference.


An event powered by Dubai Chambers and held under the theme Shifting Economic Power: Dubai and the Future of Global Trade, the DBF from November 1-2 brought together key stakeholders from the government and private sectors from across the globe to explore strategic economic partnerships. This year’s inaugural edition at the city’s verdant Madinat Jumeirah attracted over 2,000 delegates.

Over two days, the forum highlighted the strategic imperatives to attract foreign companies and investment, advance the digital economy, and leverage innovative technologies to accelerate business and economic growth. The event also featured The Deals Hub, a dedicated space for businesses to forge partnerships and announce new initiatives, investments, and commercial alliances, which saw six agreements and deals signed at the event.

The booming metropolis of Dubai – one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – with a population of more than 3 million, has always been a benchmark in business even for the emerging economies of Africa. The city’s ambition to become one of the world’s top three cities is a consistent mission for those in charge of making it a reality.

Visionary leadership


Mohammad Ali Rashed Lootah, the President and CEO of Dubai Chambers (a non-profit public entity that supports Dubai’s vision as a global player by empowering businesses, providing innovative value-added services and access to influential networks), puts it all down to the visionary leadership of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. In a conversation with CNBC Africa, Lootah said: “We are blessed to have a leadership that has included the private sector and continuously regulates the policy and business environment. The secret is that we are always aiming to improve the way we are doing things.”

The government’s Dubai Economic Agenda (D33) aims to double the size of the emirate’s economy by 2033 through 100 transformational projects; advance its plans for green and sustainable manufacturing; add 400 cities to Dubai’s foreign trade map; and open economic corridors with Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

Currently, Dubai Chambers operates 25 international offices including six in Africa – the latest an office opened in Johannesburg in June.

Through this network, plans are to accelerate D33 targets of increasing Dubai’s FDI to over AED650 billion ($177 billion) over the coming decade.


“The UAE economy grew by 3.7% in real terms in the first half of 2023,” said Helal Saeed Al Marri, Director General of the Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism, in a fireside chat at DBF. “This represents robust growth against the backdrop of global and regional uncertainty and is still a higher figure than any of the other GCC countries. Moreover, the non-oil sector registered a growth rate of 5.9%. The UAE’s economic growth is a testament to our resilience, diversification, and commitment to openness and international cooperation.”  

One of the central aims of Dubai Chambers is to increase FDI into the emirate.

“We’ve made strong progress in recent years, with Dubai achieving an 80% increase in FDI inflows between 2021 and 2022…We were also proud to see Dubai ranked as the top global destination for attracting greenfield FDI projects in the most recent edition of the Financial Times’ ‘fDi Markets’ data, which indicated that the emirate attracted 511 greenfield projects in H1 2023,” added Lootah in a statement.

Issam Kazim, CEO of the Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing, and Brett Armitage, Chief Commercial Officer of Kerzner International that operates the Atlantis hotels in Dubai, spoke about the tourism sector’s role as an important revenue generator. Their session at DBF focused on how Dubai can serve as an example for economies around the world for its sustainable tourism.


Entrepreneurial ecosystems

South Africa-based EZulu Life, a multinational medical technology and nutraceutical company, was in attendance at the DBF, to sign an agreement with UAE-based biopharmaceutical company Bioventure Healthcare, to distribute the latter’s products and provide technical support in the southern and East Africa regions. Bioventure, with a market capital of $250 million-$300 million, is aiming to expand its reach in Africa, investing in life science and biotech solutions to promote innovation in healthcare and cater to the needs of patients in the Middle East and Africa.

The founder and CEO of EZulu Life, Mpumelelo Ndiweni told CNBC Africa in an interview: “We are coming together to set up facilities in Africa and address African challenges.” The company started before the pandemic, and took off when Covid-19 hit, when their immune booster products “flew off the shelves”. By the end of 2021, their products were in over a 100 outlets in southern Africa.

Ndiweni’s advice to entrepreneurs breaking into the Middle East: “Never stop knocking on doors here. We are where we are because of that. We tend to over-plan, but don’t wait. Start on your plan. The moment you see a gap, get in. There is huge potential for African products.”


Advancing the digital economy

“One very interesting area that has continued to flourish is the increased appetite and footprint from global and regional tech startups using Dubai as a base for them. Over the last few years, roughly 90% of tech startups that received funding throughout the MENA region are based in Dubai,” Dubai Chambers’ Lootah said to CNBC Africa. “Dubai is not only witnessing growth in the traditional sectors but also diversity for tech companies as a funding and growth region.”

The forum saw innovators such as Eric Aguilar, Co-founder and CEO of Omnitron Sensors, speaking about the Future of the Internet of Things (IoT), and shedding light on the growing use of innovative sensor systems in bridging the gap between AI and business growth.

Aguilar underlined the importance of effectively introducing innovative technology to the market. “By embracing exponential innovation, you can break through barriers and bring about a huge disruption in the market. We keep hearing that AI is going to change the world, and to some extent that is true. But – as good as AI currently is – we won’t realize the future we imagined without fundamental changes to IoT and hardware.”


The final session in the forum’s main arena featured an interview with Divyank Turakhia, Founder of advertising tech company Media.net, who discussed how Dubai’s resilient business ecosystem has supported his successful journey as a serial entrepreneur. Sharing key learnings on how to capitalize on lucrative opportunities, Turakhia said: “Each business is different – some require more capital, some require less, and will eventually grow. It is extremely important to use capital efficiently. The UAE is unique in the region due to the ability of the leadership to continually pursue their visions. As a result, they achieve their goals in a timely manner, which is not easily accomplished otherwise.”