With highly developed ICT infrastructure and a raft of government and private sector-backed incubation and development programmes, Bahrain’s start-up scene is built on a strong foundation. This enabling environment is helping many new firms to develop innovative ideas and personal passions into bankable businesses. As a result, the kingdom continues to see high demand for incubator and accelerator space, alongside the growth of projects in areas such as financial technology (fintech) and e-commerce.
In addition to its infrastructure and regulatory openness, Bahrain offers start-ups a number of other key advantages. On the company side, there is zero corporate tax and potential 100% ownership for foreigners. A 2018 report by KPMG found that the average cost of operating an ICT-related enterprise in Bahrain was 16% lower than the regional average. Some items, such as operational costs for cross-border internet connectivity and commercial office rental, were 50% lower than the GCC average, while utility costs were 25% lower.
Tech start-ups also benefit from a range of government-backed initiatives. Tamkeen, a semi-autonomous government agency, offers programmes such as a business development co-finance scheme to fund IT infrastructure costs, and a training and wage support scheme to subsidise salaries for new employees and offer financial support for training. Meanwhile, Taqdeer, an employment reward programme, gives incentives to companies that exceed their targets for recruitment of Bahraini nationals. Other government initiatives include Tamweel and Tamweel+, which offers start-ups access to sharia-compliant finance, and Riyadat Finance, which provides funding and support to start-ups owned by women.
Other funding sources include the $100m Al Waha Fund of Funds, which was launched in 2018 and offers venture capital help to Bahraini start-ups; the Bahrain Development Bank (BDB), which provides seed funding for viable projects; C5 Capital, a fund focusing on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and cloud computing; Tenmou, Bahrain’s first business angel investor company; and 500 Startups, which has invested in more than 2200 companies worldwide as of November 2019. Batelco, Microsoft and Zain also run support programmes for ICT start-ups.
Bahrain is also home to a well-developed incubator and accelerator ecosystem. StartUp Bahrain, a community consisting of startups, investors, accelerators, educational institutions and government organisations, provides support for companies looking to establish themselves in Bahrain, including access to funding and grants, co-working spaces and mentoring. Under its umbrella are incubators such as Rowad, managed by the BDB; Riyadat, which targets female owned start-ups; and the Bahrain Business Incubator Centre (BBIC), which helps with the provision of physical spaces. Bahrain FinTech Bay offers a dedicated ecosystem for startups in this segment, providing commercial space and a range of specialised support, including co-working spaces, workshops and acceleration programmes.
Many graduates from Bahrain’s incubator and accelerator programmes have successfully entered the market. These range from catering apps GetBaqala and Akalati, to salon and spa booking app Fleek. Several Bahraini start-ups are also operating within the wider region, such as job search platform OneGCC.
Sector players are particularly confident in the potential that the regional market holds for Bahraini companies. “Co-opting a regional start-up plan would serve the GCC well,” Nawaf Alkoheji, CEO of Tenmou, told OBG. “We would be able to pool resources and share talent more easily.” However, in a highly competitive region, this may take some time to achieve. Nevertheless, Bahrain continues to present an attractive location for start-ups and ICT investors alike.
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