The word entrepreneur has become ubiquitous in talk about the future of Arab business. Some have even claimed a quiet economic revolution is at our feet, running in parallel to the political uprisings across the region. But who is making money in the young Arab tech industry? Who has access to the ‘eco-system’ and what potential is there to bridge the digital divide, empower communities and help meet the demand of some 100 million jobs that the region desperately needs? From Riyadh to Amman, I set out to find some answers in the following magazine piece, published in the May issue of Aramco World.
|Aramex founder andFadi Ghandour has emerged as a key investor in the region’s growing technology sector, having helped launch several major startups and venture-capital funds. He serves as chairman of leading regional tech news site wamda.com, and he is now partnering with the United Nations to fund 200 “microbusinesses” in his native Jordan.
|Known for sealing the biggest Middle East tech deal to date, Samih Toukan cofounded the first major Arabic-language Internet provider, Maktoob.com, which sold in 2009 for some $175 million. More recently, his investment firm has acquired Souq.com, the region’s largest online retailer.
|Ahmed Alfi returned to Cairo in 2006 and in 2011 launched one of the region’s best-known incubator spaces, Flat6Labs. He is now remodeling part of the former campus of the American University of Cairo to become Egypt’s largest technology park. “Everyone knows my main goal is collaboration,” he says.
|Flat6LabsRamez Mohamed has overseen the company’s incubation of 36 startups with loans from $10,000 to $15,000, in exchange for which Flat6Labs received 10-15 percent ownership.
|Swimmer and engineer Hind Hobeika, 26, invented high-tech swim goggles, called Instabeat (below, right), that allow swimmers to track their heart rates throughout each workout.
|30-year-old Yale graduate Omar Christidis is the founder and director of five-year-old, Beirut-based ArabNet, which has brought together hundreds ofprofessionals, venture-capital investors and young entrepreneurs in conferences and events across the region.
|For Ahmed Zahran, the future of economic growth is “off the grid” in the swaths of the Middle East not served by national electricity networks. In 2011 he cofounded KarmSolar, which is building one of the world’s largest solar-powered water pumps and aims to bring renewable energy to desert farming and tourism across the Sinai Peninsula.
|Early tenant in Beirut’s newly established Digital District, Nicolas Rouhana is director of Berytech, which has a $6 million fund to invest in startups.
|Saudi national Joumana Al Jabri cofounded Beirut-based Visualizing Impact, which produces data and graphic-based storytelling to map out Middle East social and political challenges not covered in depth by news media. “There’s a lot of talent in the region and it’s not being utilized in areas that need it most,” she says. “Our ambition is to create a precedent that can both address pressing issues and engage highly creative people in data-science technology and design.”
|Habib Battah (email@example.com and @habib_b) is a Beirut-based investigative journalist, filmmaker and author of the blog www.beirutreport.com. He is also a regular contributor to Al Jazeera, World and The Daily Star newspaper. He is a two-time recipient of the Samir Kassir Press Freedom Award.