Why innovative tech startups are thriving across the Middle East

By Miriam Berger / Vox


SOURCE: Vox - Why innovative tech startups are thriving across the Middle East

AMMAN, Jordan — Ala’ Alsallal, 31, has a pitch to make: Invest in the Middle East.

Alsallal is the founder and CEO of Jamalon, an online platform that lets customers buy and ship Arabic and English language books. When I met him at his offices in Amman, Jordan, Alsallal was casually dressed in jeans and a tucked-in button-down shirt, his short beard covering a youthful, earnest face.

Alsallal is a Jordanian-born descendent of Palestinian refugees, and he started his highly successful online bookstore in 2010 out of his family’s home in Amman. Jamalon is estimated at making $2.6 million annually in revenue, employs more than 60 people at its headquarters in Amman, and recently opened an office in Dubai, the financial hub of the Middle East.

The company has been referred to as the Amazon of the Middle East, but that label doesn’t quite do it justice: The platform’s success, after all, is based on meeting a demand that Amazon has overlooked.

Jamalon offers more than 12 million books, including 150,000 in Arabic, and recently added a self-publishing book service based out of Dubai. Amazon, by contrast, offers only a few hundred books in Arabic, and is often difficult and costly to use in the Arab world.

This online bookstore is just one of the many startups redefining the Middle East’s booming tech and entrepreneurial scene. Last year, Arab entrepreneurs raised more than $3 billion in technology investments for the region — the highest ever, according to Bloomberg.

E-commerce sites like souq.com and ride-sharing apps like Careem are turning a profit while changing people’s experiences and expectations. And increasing access to smartphones has also reduced the technology gap between the haves and the have-nots across the Middle East and North Africa.

But the Middle East’s start up boom is not just the result of smart, tech-savvy young entrepreneurs convincing their families and friends to fund them. Part of what distinguishes this startup scene is people’s ability to create “workarounds” to the region’s many institutional, political, and economic problems — pragmatic approaches that also resonate with other parts of the world.

Almost a decade ago, Alsallal founded Jamalon out of his home, with the help of his mother and two sisters. He was frustrated by how hard it was to find and acquire books in Arabic.

“My mission is to create more content in Arabic so people can learn, get connected, and [close] the gap between what we have access to and what the West has access to,” he said during a July meeting in Jamalon’s bustling main office in Amman, which features amenities like pool tables that Silicon Valley types would find familiar.

Jamalon’s target population is increasingly literate and growing. Adult literacy rates in Arab countries rose from 55 percent in 1999 to 75 percent in 2010, while overall rates during this period rose from 89 to 92 percent, according to UNESCO.

But the supply of Arabic language books hasn’t kept pace: Places like Amazon offer comparatively few options, so publishers in the Arab world have continued to rely on roaming book festivals to market many of their products. It’s no surprise, then, that Saudi Arabia, whose highly literate population has money to spend, is one of Jamalon’s top markets, Alsallal said.

Alsallal doesn’t come from money: his parents were school teachers, and he studied in schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency that provides services like education, healthcare and food to about five million Palestinian refugees (the same organization that President Donald Trump just cut all US funding for in August).

But Jamalon’s founder credits his success to the people who helped him along the way. When he was just getting started, Alsallal reached out to an Arab entrepreneur, Fadi Ghandour, for help. Ghandour founded Aramex, an express delivery company serving the Arab world, and is also the chair of the region’s leading investment firm, Wamda Capital.

Ghandour ended up becoming Alsallal’s mentor, and his investments helped Jamalon get off the ground.

Alsallal participated in Oasis 500, an incubator in Jordan, or a company which helps early-stage startups by giving them management and financial advice. He also went on a trip organized by the US State Department to bring young Middle Eastern entrepreneurs to America to learn about the startup culture there.