The startup scene in the Middle East has been booming and growing exponentially in the past few years and shows no signs of slowing down. The region’s young tech entrepreneurs are not only embracing technology but are developing creative solutions and turning those into exciting business models that resonate with the demands of the tech-savvy generation.
With smartphone usage increasing in the region and only expected to rise, home grown apps are making way to some of the largest platforms that are transforming and simplifying people’s lives. E-commerce, ride-sharing apps, and online services are fast becoming some of the biggest breakthroughs coming from the Middle East, fueling high employment despite the tough economic environment and taking a wide interest from international investors looking to expand in the region.
One of the first success stories to come out from the Middle East is Maktoob, the first and largest Arabic email service provider founded in Amman, Jordan in 2000 by self-starter and now serial entrepreneur Samih Toukan. Upon completing his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Europe, Toukan began his entrepreneurial journey. He became heavily interested and invested in creating a platform for Arabs, most notably Arab speakers, that would serve as an email provider and deliver the latest Arabic content in sports, business and news. According to TechCrunch, Maktoob grew “from 6 million unique visitors in June 2008 to 21.8 million a year later… Its page views have grown to 1.1 billion over the same time frame.” And in 2009, Yahoo! joined forces and acquired Maktoob for $85 million according to sources, as a chance to expand into the region. During the time, not many global companies had invested in the Arab world, so Maktoob certainly set the trend for many more success stories to come.
Founded in in Dubai in 2005 by Syrian entrepreneur and chief executive Ronaldo Mouchawar, Souq.com is the largest online e-commerce site in the Arab world. After a successful 12-year run, Amazon.com Inc. fully acquired Souq.com in 2017 for $580 million in cash. During the company’s early days, Souq.com was merely an auction site, but Mouchawar’s long term vision was to connect Arabs to products and things they need. He ended up not only disrupting traditional markets but filled a gap that many around him had overseen – and that was making products accessible to everyone in the region. Upon its successful acquisition, Souq.com had already served 50 million consumers in the region with over 8.4 million products to choose from across 31 categories. Amazon’s acquisition is paving the company’s way into a growing, untapped and hugely potential market.
Another success story coming from Amman, Jordan is MarkaVIP, the flash sales online shopping website for the latest fashion trends and luxury goods. Launched in 2010 by Ahmed Alkhatib and Amer Abulaila, the e-commerce site rose to success and fame in less than two years and was able to attract two million registered subscribers at the same time. And so, it is no surprise that its domino effect also attracted Jollychic, one of the largest Chinese online stores that is also a top ranking in the Middle East. And so, in 2017 Jollychic acquired MarkaVIP for an undisclosed sum; and prior to that, Jollychic had already raised $1.5 million in a Series B funding and obtained a value of $1 billion in a Series C round from global venture Sequoia Capital, officially claiming a ‘unicorn’ title.
Founded in 2005, Dubizzle is Dubai’s leading classified website, that serves as a free online platform enabling users to buy and sell whatever they need within their city – from apartments, to electronics, clothes, appliances, and much more. Upon moving to Dubai and trying to find a job, a place to live, and second-hand home items, JC Butler found that there was an evident gap in the market he needed to fill and in return make people’s lives much easier in finding what they need. What started off a small site is now of the leading platforms in the Arab world. Dubizzle immediately garnered attention and was first acquired by South Africa’s Naspers in 2011 – the company acquired 25% of market share and in 2013 acquired 53.6% of the company through its subsidiary OLX. Finally, in 2019, Naspers fully acquired Dubizzle for a total of $190 million.
One of the most recent success stories that is now known to be the Middle East’s first unicorn startup is Careem, the region’s 7-year old ride hailing service. The company’s highly achieved success in the region has make it Uber’s biggest competitor yet. Seeing that safety is one of the most fundamental in the region, Careem provided a hotline option within the app so that drivers can call in real time if they need any help. Attempting to expand deeper within the competitive region, Uber fully acquired Careem for $3.1 billion. This joint force will enable both companies to help and improve people’s lives whether they are riders or drivers.
The Middle East is certainly filled with bright minds that see an opportunity for growth and potential possibilities in the long term. They are able to introduce new ideas, apps, and businesses for the convenience of the region. By overcoming challenges and filling an existing gap in each market, they have created some breakthrough ideas for the people and region that use them.