by Jessica Holland
The Palestinian business titan, Abdul Malek Al Jaber, says 100 million jobs need to be created in the Arab world over the coming years – and that is just to keep unemployment at its current rate, “which is high”
This applies to oil-rich countries and nations with limited resources alike, he says, and he has a plan to help make sure that it happens.
With his company, Mena Apps, and a new, expanded initiative called Arabreneur, he is providing technology start-ups across the Middle East and North Africa with the training, connections, office space and funding to become major players in fields such as e-commerce, cloud computing and new media.
While Arabreneur’s centre is currently in Amman, with offices in Dubai, it is about to set up a third in Ramallah, and a special Palestinian programme will include co-working spaces, mentoring and a seed fund that Dr Al Jaber hopes to reach US$2.5 million (Dh9.18m). Eight to 10 Palestinian start-ups are expected to graduate annually, creating about 50 to 100 new jobs each year, and become part of the wider Arabreneur programme. By the time that is completed, they should be ready to cut deals with venture capitalists looking to invest millions.
“After what happened in Egypt and Yemen and Tunisia, with all this unemployed, frustrated youth, then what do you do?” Dr Al Jaber asks. “You have no option but to come up with an idea to open the horizon for the young generation, so that the youth of the Arab world can be useful, creative, elevated and build their own future.”
It is an ambitious idea, but Dr Al Jaber has an impressive track record when it comes to implementing big plans. As head of the biggest telecom operators in Jordan and Palestine, he was given an award for business excellence by the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, in 2001.
He has founded the Arab region’s first microfinance bank and is chairman of half a dozen organisations, including a payment-processing company and a football club. He has a PhD in engineering and a similar qualification in business and has studied in Jordan, Paris, Chicago and Montreal.
He is also proof that business acumen and a social conscience can co-exist. While still in Canada, he was persuaded to return to Palestine in 1991 by the revered Palestinian politician Faisal Husseini, who was heading peace talks in Madrid and re-organising the infrastructure of Gaza and the West Bank.
“Husseini had the idea of attracting young Palestinian talent from around the world,” Dr Al Jaber says, “and telling them we need brains to participate in the rebuilding of Palestine, making it a modern, civilised nation. I was one of them.”
Dr Al Jaber moved to Jerusalem and worked “basically for free”, participating in the peace negotiations as a technical and economic adviser, and helping to develop Palestine’s telecommunications, property and banking industries. When he later became chief executive of the telecom company Paltel, its profits increased almost sevenfold during the following two years.
Paltel had programmes for corporate responsibility and sustainability, with an affiliated foundation that funded further education and digital inclusion in Palestine, but Mena Apps, which Dr Al Jaber founded in 2011, aims to make a bigger splash.
There are already plenty of start-up incubators in countries such as Jordan and Egypt that nurture businesses at their very earliest stages, but there is a big difference between graduating from an incubator and being ready to deal with venture capitalists, who typically look to make multimillion-dollar investments. According to Dr Al Jaber: “That gap needs to be filled.” The effects, he hopes, will ripple outwards, creating jobs and strengthening the economy.
At the moment, he says, the best bet for an ambitious Arab entrepreneur is to move to Silicon Valley to put his ideas into practice. “If [the same entrepreneur] comes to Syria or Jordan or Lebanon, the chances that his idea will be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars is almost zero. My dream is to change that.”
Of the 15 companies Mena Apps initially chose to invest in, three have folded (“which is quite normal”), 10 are generating revenues, and the other two will be launched by the end of the year.
“We invested about $3.5m, Dr Al Jaber says, and the valuation is now $12m. From every angle all of this has been positive.”
Among these companies is an online payments provider, an IT services start-up, a stock photography library, a company that helps manage ATMs and card payments, and SooShef, a website that allows users to search for recipes by selecting the ingredients they want to use. Founded by Salah Zalatimo, a Palestinian who was born and raised in the US, the beta version of SooShef was launched last month, with the final product expected out early next year, when it will incorporate elements of social networking. It is currently available only in English, but an Arabic version is also being developed.
“Being able to draw on [Mena Apps'] experience has helped us make some important decisions,” Mr Zalatimo says, “and their position in the Middle East will be critical as we roll out the Arabic version [of the site]. I would definitely recommend the experience to other start-ups.”
Mr Zalatimo will be running the business from New York, where he lives, but his software development team is in Nablus, Palestine. It is cheaper than hiring a team in New York and, after working with contractors in 12 countries (including the US, China and India) he says the Palestinian developers he worked with are the best he has found, “forward thinking, professional and passionate”. If SooShef is confirmed as part of the Arabreneur programme, they will move to its Ramallah space.
Arabreneur Palestine’s official launch was pushed back from mid-July, says Radi El Fassed, Mena Apps’ vice president of business development, with a first round of investments scheduled to be announced at the end of that month, and a second round taking place in December. USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, will cover part of the “operational expenses of managing the funds” but the funds themselves (as with all of Arabreneur’s initiatives) will come from serious investors looking to make a profit. The next 12 months will be about launching new hubs in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt; Mr El Fassed is also looking at Algeria and, “later on, maybe Libya”.
The idea is that eventually all these hotspots will be linked up. “If you look at the region” Mr El Fassed says, “you have 350 million people speaking the same language. We want to connect entrepreneurs in Morocco with entrepreneurs in Jordan and Egypt so that they can ask each other questions, or find mentors, or look for an investor in Dubai.”
Two of Mena Apps’ companies already have representatives in Dubai, and Mr El Fassed says that the number should reach five by the end of the year. “We definitely see Dubai as a hub for expanding the reach of these companies,” he says. “When they are ready to go to market, they will have offices or head of sales based in Dubai. That’s the vision.”