BIMC – My Emirates Company

Generation Start-up: How Dubai’s Belong is helping to spice up social lives

Finding like-minded people and making friends can be difficult, even daunting, especially for those trying to settle in a new city.

Michael Askew and Matthew Gaziano, founders of Dubai-based online social platformBelong,say they have first-hand experience of how big a struggle it is to connect with the right people and build a social life.

The two entrepreneurs lived in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh for about seven years, where they worked for a private company until 2016. They later moved to Dubai, expecting it would be easier to socialise and make friends in the tourism and commercial hub of the Middle East.

Their experience was very different.

“When we moved to Dubai we were excited because the place is amazing. We expected to have a packed, endless social calendar but then when we got here we realised we’d got to make friends first,” says Mr Gaziano, who is also chief operating officer of Belong.

“How do you get out and find like-minded people and do all these fantastic things? How do you approach people? It’s not [easy] to go over and speak to someone in public or wherever, and start talking about yourself and trying to introduce yourself.”

Like many, the duo found it difficult to build a social life in a new place.

“So we thought, can we change it? Can we solve this problem for people in general?”

They set out to design an app which was “online meets offline”, where people break the ice online and then meet up in person, “so it’s not awkward and not daunting”, Mr Gaziano says.

“The idea was to make Dubai the easiest place to make friends.”

The city-focused social networking app was launched in 2019 with just two users: Mr Askew and Mr Gaziano. Four years later, the user base has grown to more than 350,000 with a presence in Dubai, New York and San Francisco.

Belong caters to the social needs of people with varied tastes, including those interested in fitness, knowledge, food, travel, arts, sports, wellness and technology. The platform also allows users to connect so they can attend events together.

“They can select their interests … and can start posting and discussing common interests,” Mr Gaziano says.

Start-ups in the UAE have raised $371 million in the first nine months of 2023, according to a separate report by Magnitt.

A total of 109 investors put their money into UAE-based start-ups in that period, down 41 per cent on an annual basis.

“The UAE is a fantastic place to launch your business,” says Mr Gaziano.

“It’s such a melting pot of cultures and nationalities and you can really put your start-up to the test here.”

Once a new venture is tweaked and flourishing the potential for scaling it in the local market as well as to India, the US, Europe and other Middle East countries is limitless, he adds.

The UAE aims to become home to 20 start-ups valued at more than $1 billion by 2031, in its push to become a regional centre for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Last year, the country launched the Entrepreneurial Nation initiative to offer support through public-private partnerships that will help entrepreneurs set up operations in the Emirates, expand their businesses, export products and tap into online sales.

The UAE’s digital economy is expected to hit $140 billion mark by 2031, rising from about $38 billion currently, a report by the Dubai Chamber of Digital Economy said in February.