How Dubai wants to be the center for games and esports | Marwan Al Zarouni interview

Dubai Al Zarouni

Marwan Al Zarouni, strategic advisor for Dubai Economy and Tourism and CEO of the Dubai Blockchain Center.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/Dean Takahashi

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A quick quiz. What place in the world has a 10-year plan for esports? If you answered the United Arab Emirates and Dubai in particular, you would be right.

Such visions aren’t new to this place. Dubai started as a fishing village in the 18th century. It got its first airport in 1960 and it started dredging its port in 1963. Dubai publicist Tony Lewis remembers coming over to visit when the first golf course was just a dream back in the 1980s. The sheikh at the time decided a grass golf course in the sands would attract business tourists.

With the approval of the royal family, the course was built in 1988, and it was the beginning of a vision to turn Dubai into a tourist destination. Now it has a giant luxury shopping mall, the tallest building in the world — and a fledgling game and esports industry.

I attended the second annual Games for Change Summit on Abu Yas Island in Abu Dhabi in December, where esports players competed for big prizes and Ferrari race cars drove around the hotel as game wonks pondered the future of the industry. I stopped in Dubai on my way to the Games for Change event recently and spoke with Marwan Al Zarouni, strategic advisor for Dubai Economy and Tourism and CEO of the Dubai Blockchain Center.

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We talked about the long-term vision that it takes to create a game industry in a place that has little history for it. It is a vision that persists despite the war in Gaza and the tragic events of October 7 in Israel. Dubai has its issues, of course, but it is far better off than other places like Gaza, due in no small part to the decisions of its leaders, wrote Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times Columnist.

There is a hope for peace and progress attached to this vision, but we will only see if that can come true over time. I was impressed with the effort going into gaming and esports in Dubai. And I would certainly agree that gaming brings cooperation, peace and prosperity to the world.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Al Zarouni. The refreshing thing about the conversation was that a government official understood a lot about games and the tech platforms that they run on. He ultimately believes that modern regulations can be good for gaming and esports.

Dubai's economy is diverse and strong.
Dubai’s economy is diverse and strong.

GamesBeat: Please tell us what you do.

Marwan Al Zarouni: I’m a strategic advisor for Dubai Economy and Tourism, and also CEO of Dubai Blockchain Center.

GamesBeat: What interests brought you to that position?

Al Zarouni: For Dubai Economy and Tourism, it’s around D33, which is the Dubai economic agenda for 2033. It involves many different initiatives. My role is around technology, technology adoption, the knowledge-based economy, making sure that talent not only comes to the UAE but stays in the UAE as well. Opening new corridors with countries and areas we haven’t done business with before, to attract talent and create a melting pot for talent in the UAE which is international.

GamesBeat: My focus is on gaming, esports, and technology in general. I wonder how much the gaming industry has been on the radar, and how recently.

Al Zarouni: We’ve also announced an initiative around esports for the next 10 years. Previous to that, we also announced the Dubai metaverse strategy. We realized that the first go to market for the metaverse will be gaming, especially web3 gaming. We’ll see a lot of adoption and an easy go to market with this industry. As well as esports, being fully digital, will create a new kind of economic model. Not only play-to-earn, but also competitive, based on statistics that can be captured on chain and game assets that can exchange between games.

Other value could be created around reputation, track records, social media influence. Players will have a persona in a game that can build a following on social media. They can become streamers, make money from streaming, while also making money from competition, physical appearances at events, merchandise, a lot of other avenues. That includes digital merchandise like NFTs and other digital-native collectibles and valuables associated with games.

Klaus Kajetski stands in the headquarters of Yalla Esports.
Klaus Kajetski stands in the headquarters of Yalla Esports.

GamesBeat: The careers that are being created now in games never existed before. 10 years ago you couldn’t make a living doing this. It’s one thing I like about games.

Al Zarouni: Not only careers, but ecosystems. We have a plethora of infrastructure related to gaming. For example, game streaming is a big thing right now. A streamer could be one of the jobs created. But also a social media kind of platform for gaming, like Discord or other voice-based platforms. A lot of channels are web3-specific. There are a lot of communities outside of Discord, outside of Slack, outside normal chats like Telegram and WhatsApp. There are communities that are not only growing and thriving but creating value through things like DAOs or collecting certain tokens.

Many other things are up and coming that will disrupt the game industry as we know it and disrupt the social fiber around it as well. We’re in the infancy of this kind of technology. But in Dubai we see a lot of new topics being raised, because the talent is here now. This will play a huge role not only for Dubai, but worldwide, when it comes to the next wave of gamers. They’re digital natives, number one. They understand the value of in-game assets, understand the value of the network, and understand the value of the middleware around games as well. You can exchange value. You can exchange social hierarchy. You can create influence within the gaming sphere.

Now, more than ever, we see DAOs playing a huge role. We see a lot of new gamers applying for roles within DAOs that are related to gaming. The first NFT-related tokens, ApeCoin for example–it began with an NFT and created a community, which is a complete reverse of how communities are usually built. Usually you create a project and the project finds fans. Then the fans become the community. Web3 started with communities that created projects and then moved along the value chain. This kind of thing has been turned on its head now.

The Dubai Mall is one of the largest shopping malls in the world.

We’re seeing new models around things like tokenomics. We’re seeing a lot of emerging ideas within the space. It’s very exciting for me personally. I love this kind of innovation, where we can see people applying for accounts in a certain DAO, a certain ecosystem, who will then build a game. Community first, then ideas, and then creating something that people want to interact with, want to play with. They want to not only be entertained, but to showcase their value.

Let’s say you create a character in a certain game. You love that character so much that you want to create your own offshoot with that character. You have buy-in because of your influence and creativity. Other people want to play this sub-game, a separate group. You create a DAO around it and get people to buy in with their coins for a certain idea or offshoot. It’s very exciting, very dynamic. This is the future of gaming.

AI will play a huge role in this. A lot of people are realizing now that it’s easy to create characters with AI, create narrative, create assets. You can create a lot of stuff very quickly. There’s not much friction anymore. This will speed up the process in a big way.

GamesBeat: Your level of literacy here is something that I wouldn’t encounter in the United States.

Al Zarouni: In the UAE we have a lot of young people. A lot of us are gamers. A lot of us are fully immersed in this world, the digital world. The UAE has one of the highest penetrations of internet anywhere in the world. Access to technology, access to talent, rubbing shoulders with like-minded people from all over the world–Dubai is very central. It attracts people from all over the world to come here and focus on building things, focusing on living life and having hope rather than focusing on their differences.

GamesBeat: You care about this space, even if you don’t need it in a way that other countries might. You have your own very strong economy already. The interest in gaming and esports, does it have some other strategic aims behind it?

The DMCC is a sprawling international business district.
The DMCC is a sprawling international business district in Dubai.

Al Zarouni: The long game is already there. We have a 10-year plan for esports. But we also want to build a strong foundation. One of the initiatives, for example, in the metaverse strategy is creating an advisory council. Also creating a kind of standards foundation where we agree on standards for the metaverse. Right now, it’s very siloed, I would say. There isn’t a standard. There are a lot of attempts worldwide. But what we want to do is consolidate those attempts into good building blocks for the metaverse.

This is one of the things that’s making the metaverse stagnate a bit, the lack of standards. The internet, in the beginning, had IEEE and the Internet Society and a lot of other international bodies that came in to create standards like TCP/IP and others. All these things spread adoption of the internet. We agreed on standards. Same thing needs to happen with the metaverse. We believe in that in Dubai and the UAE. We want to play an active role in that. A good foundation, good standards, a good advisory board within the organization to create a guidebook for the government departments to understand the value of the metaverse, and a good go to market strategy.

As I said, the first go to market for us is gaming, but it’s not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to start using the metaverse and AR and VR in other industries. One of our criteria is in manufacturing. We want to speed up manufacturing using gamification, using VR, using training, using these kinds of tools, and also be greener. One of the initiatives is sustainable manufacturing. VR and AR training, robotics, all these kinds of things will contribute to that dramatically.

GamesBeat: How do you stay with things in this world where the short term seems so much more the focus? When I think of the things that I’ve written about as hot trends, first it was VR, then it was esports, then it was blockchain, then it was metaverse. Now we’re on AI and we’ve left everything else behind. There’s a short period of time when those companies get all the funding in the U.S., and then everyone decides it’s passe. You seem to have this years-long view of things.

Al Zarouni: We do both, actually. We have a short game, a medium game, and a long game. Last year we had something called the Metaverse Assembly. We gathered a lot of the top leaders in the world and started working on projects. Some of them are very easy, but then you have things like robotics and training using the metaverse. The impact there is much bigger.

The global GDP for manufacturing is 16% of the whole world’s GDP. It’s much more impactful. But we’ll take years to get there. Even if metaverse was the hot topic last year, in two or three years–we have projects in Dubai that have already gone to market in a white-collar context. Using AR for simulating city traffic, for example, in situations like New Year’s Eve. But the ones where we’re physically creating things, like robotics, will take much longer. Software is much easier to go to market with. Gaming is easy. But when you have physical manufacturing and logistics around parts, agreements and economic alignments with like-minded people and regions, it’s much more long-term.

We have to start earlier. We can’t come in three or five years from now and say, “Now we’re going to start doing robotics for sustainable manufacturing.” We have to start today. Having these kinds of parallels is extremely important, getting value from immediate, easy opportunities as well as long-term ones.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest building in the world.
The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest building in the world.

GamesBeat: Do you feel like your gamers are different from, say, those in the U.S. or other parts of the west? In the west they’re very skeptical, very cynical. They want everything to be authentic. If it’s slightly different from what they expect, they hate it. The metaverse was one thing where everyone said, “There’s too much money going into this. It’s all a bunch of scams.” They dismissed the entire sector. It’s the same with blockchain. It’s almost like they’re anti-innovation. They want things to stay the same.

Al Zarouni: The sentiment is completely different here. I agree with you. Right now, for example, take this narrative. A gaming company or esports company, or even a normal sports company that wants to add an esports layer or fantasy football or any other kind of narrative that has something to do with crypto or NFTs in addition to their normal physical sport, will be shut down. No investment. Investors don’t want to talk about crypto or NFTs. They’ll only focus on the actual game.

In Dubai and the UAE, in this region generally, when you come and pitch, say, an esports tournament, a martial arts event, something that’s up and coming as a sport, the first question you’ll get from any investor here is, “Do you have a gamification aspect?” How can the fans get involved? Is there an app? Is there a token? Are there NFTs? Are there player cards where you can see statistics? This used to be the narrative in a lot of the U.S. sports, ironically. But now they’re stepping away from crypto and these kinds of opportunities. They’re not monetizing their data in any way.

Over here it’s virgin territory. Players come here with an expectation of being able to make money from their actual contracts, but why not also create NFTs? Why not create a social reward system for their fans? Why not have events and signings and things like that? They’re very pro-technology, very digital-first around different aspects of life, including events, gaming, social influence, and other things as well.

GamesBeat: In the West we’ve also seen a lot of layoffs in the game industry in the past year. People were estimating 10,500 or so. One particular data collector thinks that’s about five times the amount of layoffs in a normal year for the game industry. It feels like it’s been a harder year, and maybe harder than it should have been, given that so many good games came out. How do you see the industry this year? Was it a different kind of year for you? It seems like markets here are growing at very different rates.

Al Zarouni: Not only that, but deployable capital from the region is at an all time high when it comes to gaming. One of the biggest differences post-COVID in the region is that now the region is becoming one of the hottest, if not the hottest region for deployable capital around anything to do with digital transformation. Whether it’s gaming or entertainment or streaming, anything that touches new technology, there’s a lot of appetite for it here, and actual cash being deployed.

You see massive art projects amid the skyscrapers in Dubai.

Companies in the Web3 space and the esports space are knocking on our doors every day here. We see a lot of collaboration between them. Not only when it comes to investment, but many other projects. They love the sentiment here. They’re going back and forth between here and the U.S., to Texas and Silicon Valley and other focus areas for games. We also see a lot of inflow from southeast Asia, from China, from Japan. A lot of the narratives and stories told within gaming come from Japan. Japanese developers, we’ve seen a lot of them at our events here, including the esports festival we had last year. We also had the Middle East Film and Comic Con, where a lot of Japanese projects came to Dubai. They did workshops for the local gamers.

What differentiates us from a lot of the western conferences is we focus on merging the two audiences. We focus on knowledge exchange between the internationals coming here and the local community. Not only as gamers, but also as game developers. We started doing game development degrees recently as well. One of our targets in D33 is to target niche universities doing these kinds of up and coming degrees like game development, streaming, AI, and world development for things like the metaverse. Doing that will create a knowledge base, a talent base, deployable capital, all of these kinds of things that will come into play to create a good dynamic ecosystem for esports and gaming.

GamesBeat: Do you worry about the general stability of the region?

Al Zarouni: In the UAE we’re a very tolerant nation. We have very strict rules around bullying, very strict rules around pushing your narrative on other people. Everybody coexists here. We have people from different conflicting areas living together, even in the same companies sometimes. Everybody gets along. Everybody is respectful. Nobody discusses politics because they have better things to do. They have hope for themselves, for their families.

Dubai is a melting pot of people who want to do things. They want to achieve on a personal basis, on a family basis, on a career basis, things that they couldn’t achieve in their home countries. We have a supportive ecosystem of other like-minded people to realize their projects. When you create hope and create common goals for people, it’s extremely powerful. This is what we do in Dubai. We build on hope. We build on things we agree on. We stay away from things that we don’t agree on.

GamesBeat: How do you feel about where gaming events are here? How good are they?

Al Zarouni: They’re very good. We’re starting to create a yearly calendar for everything from web3 to gaming. We have some hot zones during the year. From September to the end of the year, we call it Cryptober. Starting from mid-January to the end of April we have large events and workshops and side events. We have Satoshi Roundtable, which is a huge event for web3 founders. We have Token 2049 with a lot of side events coming to Dubai. We have Proof of Talk, which was in Paris last year, but this year it’s coming to Dubai. We have AI and Blockchain happening in February. We have the World of Web3 summit. We have the esports festival.

We have a lot of events in this period, and much more coming. You’ll see a lot of tournaments around the year. The only time we have a break is during the summer, from June to August. In those periods we’re working on our own startups, going to other regions to spend the summer there working. We’re working on agreements right now. But this will be an amazing setup for anybody who moves to Dubai. You can spend the active parts of the year here, and then summer somewhere else, or vice versa. Some people want to spend the summer in Dubai to get away from their regions. They can do that as well. Ramadan is especially busy for us. We do a workshop every single day, except for the last day of Ramadan. That’s 29 different workshops in the late afternoons.

Skyscrapers are all over Dubai.

What differentiates Dubai from a lot of other regions, it’s very similar to Singapore. I don’t know if you’ve been to Token 2049 in Singapore this past year. We’re having a lot of side events, between 200 and 400 side events throughout the whole week in different dispersed areas of Dubai. We did the same last year during Future Blockchain Summit. This is becoming the norm in Dubai – a lot of side events to go along with the main events. A lot of people who come here don’t necessarily go to the conferences, the main events. They go to the side events.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting. In the U.S., just yesterday they announced the end of the E3 trade show. It’s not going to happen anymore. I think it was a case of how all the side events became more successful than the E3 show itself. It’s interesting to learn from that. It does make me think that California doesn’t have to be the center of the world anymore.

Al Zarouni: A lot of people don’t realize that gaming culture lives around tournaments and competition. You can’t just have one yearly event. You have to have a full calendar throughout the year to keep gamers engaged, to keep competition going, to get people in the habit of going to events. It’s hard for gamers to leave home. We’ve done this before. We used to do one or two major events each year. Gamers weren’t coming. When I asked people why they didn’t come, they said, “Look, if it was a weekly thing where there was competition, where there were meetups happening, we’d be much more inclined to come to the big event at the end of the year, because we’d build up relationships.” But if they’re just spending time online and then there’s one real-world event at the end of the year, they’re not really incentivized to come.

GamesBeat: You can play Call of Duty every day of the year now. It used to be something you focused on for a while after the new game came out, but now it’s all year round.

Al Zarouni: These kinds of physical meetups are important. There are a lot of regions here and in the GCC nations that are building arcades. If you look around the UAE, you can find these gaming coffee shops. A lot of people sit there playing games, just like in Korea and other places. Every day people spend part of their time at home, and then they go to these gaming cafes.

Or we have something called Majlis, which is like a family gathering, usually the men in the family. There’s not a perfect word for it in English. But now we have esports Majlis in their homes. People come on a daily basis to spend about an hour, an hour and a half together. A lot of people used to play World of Warcraft. Now that WoW takes a lot of time and commitment, they play a lot more action games, very quick games where you can finish a session in 15 or 20 minutes. It’s a very cultural thing. You’ll have a space maybe double the size of this room, and 20 or 30 people will get together with their desktops for gaming. They’ll play against each other or go online together. Even at universities we have gaming computer labs, where people will go and play LAN games together.

GamesBeat: I read a book a long time ago called Regional Advantage. It was about the competition in the United States between Boston and Silicon Valley, which Silicon Valley eventually won. Boston had a very vertical focus, with companies that built everything themselves. Silicon Valley had companies like Intel, with a much more horizontal structure. It made sense at the time that horizontal and open would win in the computer industry. That was the reason Silicon Valley became so big. I wonder, if you look at your regional advantage, what is it that you think can help you more than others that are close by?

Al Zarouni: I don’t know if there’s a particular advantage in gaming, because nobody knows the magic formula in gaming. But what’s been successful for Dubai is a very quick feedback loop. For example, in crypto assets, we have a made for purpose virtual asset regulatory authority. That stems from us being frustrated with the status quo around regulating crypto. Everyone’s trying to peg crypto to existing financial systems. They don’t have a point of reference for crypto. We started from the ground up. What would be a good way to regulate this new type of asset? Not built on traditional assets but creating made for purpose regulation.

Dubai has a rich landscape.
Dubai has a rich landscape.

GamesBeat: Do you think modern regulations can be an advantage?

Al Zarouni: Yes, even for gaming. One of the pain points in a lot of esports tournaments is that we had agents working with players who were underage. The agents would take a huge cut in the negotiations, that kind of thing. One way we found to remedy these kinds of things and create a more level playing field is creating guilds that are fully on chain. The guild is completely transparent. You have the players, the managers, and the team management higher up. Depending on the performance of the players, they get picked for certain tournaments and things like that, and that’s how they get paid. They’re incentivized. Each player can play multiple games and join multiple teams.

We found that not only was this transparent, but also much more fair and much more instantly responsive when it came to paying players. You don’t need a guardian in that case to see if the agent is cheating the player or not. It’s completely on chain and completely transparent. Similarly, a lot of things to do with wallets and ownership. There’s no holdup period for the tokens that players get as tournament winnings. It’s almost instantly in their wallet. They own it and can spend from it.

GamesBeat: Looking at some other countries, it feels like Canada, and Montreal in particular, has benefited enormously from giving out incentives to companies, things like tax breaks. Do you look at that and see something that’s not for you?

Al Zarouni: No, we’ve actually worked with a number of Canadian companies, startups and events. We know that Canada throws some of the best events, and not only when it comes to gaming. A lot of thought leaders within the web3 space are there, like Alex Tapscott, who just published his book Web3. They’ve been instrumental in our strategizing about the Web3 space and the blockchain space, starting all the way back in 2016. We were one of the first in the world to announce a blockchain strategy, and his book Blockchain Revolution was a blueprint for that. Now we’re following the same with Web3. We realize where the value is. We’re using that book as a reference point to make the most out of this.

The advantage is not only having a starting point, but having a good feedback loop, being very agile and moving very quickly. You need a good ear to listen to the industry and what everyone needs, formulating not only regulations, but also an ecosystem that will support them and help them thrive.

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