The Middle East You Should Know: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and More

"The feeling of going to work to solve problems is in my DNA - the things we are trying to solve now are not the same things we were tackling two or three years ago. That part of being an entrepreneur should never go away."

Photo cred: "the_dead_pixel"/Flickr

Photo cred: "the_dead_pixel"/Flickr

Ronaldo Mouchawar, quoted above, is a Syrian entrepreneur and one of the most well-known startup founders in the Middle East. In 2005, he launched Souq.com, which has quickly grown to be the largest online shopping sites in the region. Known as the “Amazon of the Middle East,” Souq.com is one of only two unicorns (with a valuation of over $1 billion) in the region, along with Careem, a ride-hailing app similar to Uber.

The Middle East has become known for a number of different things, but the region’s innovation and entrepreneurship have been largely overlooked. While Mouchawar is one of the most visible examples of successful entrepreneurship in the Middle East, he is definitely not alone. Entrepreneurial ecosystems are blossoming in every corner of the region, from the UAE to Lebanon and beyond. With its infamous youth bulge – around 65% of the population in the Middle East is under 30 – entrepreneurship could be an exciting path towards necessary job and opportunity creation in the region.  

In November, I attended Harvard Arab Weekend, a three-day conference following the newest trends and most influential people in the Arab World. The topic of the last day’s discussions? Entrepreneurship. From successful VC models (Wamda Capital, BECO Capital), to social enterprises (Nafham, RISE Egypt) to impressive new entrepreneurs, like Mohannad Arbaji of Chalk Talk, the day was a deep dive into the bustling startup scenes that are coming to life throughout the region. After having spent some time studying the Middle East’s entrepreneurial landscape, I was still surprised by the diverse initiatives I learned about.    

Take Amman, for example. Oasis500 is one of the largest tech incubators in the Middle East, providing aspiring entrepreneurs with bootcamps, mentorships, and accelerator programs to help them get their ideas of the ground. The Oasis500 platform has been so successful that it is expanding to other parts of the world, including India. In Cairo, an entrepreneurial hub has developed around the American University of Cairo’s old center-city campus, the Greek Campus, and now holds a yearly entrepreneurship summit called RiseUp. In Lebanon, the government has made entrepreneurship more attractive by issuing Circular 331, a stimulus package that has provided interest-free loans to banks to invest in startups.

Photo cred: Startup MENA/ Flickr

Photo cred: Startup MENA/ Flickr

What about in areas that are not quite so stable? Gaza Sky Geeks, a tech incubator based in Gaza, has over the past 6 years developed a strong entrepreneurial scene in arguably one of the hardest places in the world to start a business. With a number of their startups receiving seed investment from regional investors, its model proves that talented entrepreneurs, freelancers, and coders can thrive even in difficult economic and security contexts. Cactus, also in Palestine, serves women entrepreneurs who want to develop businesses in their regions. Their for-profit model allows them to sustainability serve their community, and empower women to become economically self-sufficient.

Finally, our team has been talking to a number of entrepreneurs based in Iraq, both in the Kurdistan Region and in Baghdad. We’ve been impressed by a number of individuals who have taken the lead in developing an active startup scene. One entrepreneur we spoke with, Marwan Jabbar, highlights these trends. Marwan is a prolific writer and self-described "entrepreneurial evangelist" who brought TechStars and Startup Weekend to Iraq. Recently he started working full time on his own startup – a grocery delivery service in Baghdad that has gained a lot of traction. By being active both with his own startup but also as a leader of the startup community in Baghdad, he has created the space for others to follow in his footsteps.

The moral of the story? With people like Marwan in the region, it’s easy to feel like the fun is just getting started.

Written by Alice Bosley. Please contact fikrahub@gmail.com with any questions or comments.