The Middle East’s startup scene: a new world full of promise

Brid-Aine Parnell

Wednesday 6 July 2016

With a huge potential common market of millions in the Arabic world, and a host of wealthy local investors, both niche and global opportunities abound for ME entrepreneurs.

The Middle East’s digital rise from the desert dust is well documented. Now an established player, the same technological trends and growth that are happening the world over, including the exponential explosion in digital entrepreneurialism, are increasingly evident.

Two years ago, seasoned angel investor Christopher Schroeder published his book Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East, which argues that the advent of startups in the region could be a quiet revolution that does more to change things than the Arab Spring.

Much the same as in almost all other regions of the planet, there is a generation in the Middle East that has never known a world without information technology. This same generation has been inspired by the exponential growth in startups to launch their own companies, initially in response to local gaps in the market but also with the potential to go international.

The region is rife with entrepreneurship initiatives, sponsored by governments, the private sector and NGOs, from the Dubai Enterprise Center to Creative Jordan to the Qatar Business Incubation Centre. These initiatives, along with a huge rise in the use of mobile technology and social networks, have fostered the kind of collaborative and creative attitude needed to get startups off the ground.

First there are the local answers to global companies, like Iran’s answer to eBay and Amazon. Eight years ago, twin brothers Hamid and Said Mohammadi launched Iran’s leading startup, the ecommerce site Digikala. These days, the company rakes in around $150m a year and is growing at an astronomical 200 per cent annually. Unsurprisingly, it’s currently planning to expand into Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

And then there are the firms that perhaps could only spring up in the Middle East. Project X won the startup incubator 1776’s Challenge Cup in Jordan with its mobile application for 3D print prosthetics, an inspired response to the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Syria.

Egypt’s Solarist was developed two years ago by its founder Dina Mosallem, while she was still an undergraduate engineering student, and incubated by local accelerator programme Flat6Labs. The company hopes to help solve the region’s water problem with a cheap, portable desalination machine that uses solar power to purify salt water.

It’s clear that the region has the entrepreneurs. It also has is a huge potential common market of 200 million people, a lack of Arabic web and app content and access to wealthy local investors; from individuals to government-backed investment bodies like sovereign wealth funds. With such a wealth of resources, the Middle East could prove to be a hotbed for local innovation and entrepreneurship, while still leaving plenty of opportunity – both for global firms to come in and startups to branch out on the international stage.