There’s no direct flight from Dubai to Detroit. So when the three co-founders of Dubai-based Derq, a traffic-safety startup, need to get to the carmaking capital of the U.S., they take a connecting flight on Air France through Paris or on Emirates through Boston. That typically means a four-leg, 32-hour round-trip for at least one of them once a month.
It would be unthinkable for the startup, which uses artificial intelligence to predict and prevent car accidents, not to have a presence in the Motor City. So after securing a $1.5 million round of funding in October, the company opened a satellite office in Detroit. But although two of Derq’s three co-founders were educated in the U.S., they aren’t interested in basing their whole operation there. After all, Dubai’s government is offering perks to startups that are just too good to give up. Co-founder Georges Aoude, who earned a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from MIT in 2011, reels off the reasons: government support, access to roads to test Derq’s technology and “an affordable place to launch and incubate.”
Derq is on the receiving end of a deliberate push by the Dubai government in recent years to turn the emirate into a living laboratory for nascent technology. In 2016, its hereditary leader Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, also Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, set a goal that 25% of all transportation in the UAE be autonomous by 2030. In 2017, Dubai—one of seven emirates that make up the UAE—vowed that within three years it would have the world’s first government powered by blockchain, the technology underlying cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. And at the World Government Summit in Dubai in February, Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s crown prince, launched 26 government-led projects under the 10x initiative, which aims to make its eponymous capital city the world’s most innovative within a decade.
The strategy reflects the emirate’s desire for soft power as it seeks to turn itself into a hub for global innovation. But it’s also a test of whether a benign autocracy like Dubaican usher in the next wave of technology—AI—by decree, and if so, what that means for more open, democratic countries that are also trying to incubate technologies intended to reshape the world.