Having now reached a mature level, the pan-Arab entrepreneurial scene offers unique opportunities, given the extent of the Arabic language market and the impact local startups are having on society.

“It’s time the traditional image of the Arab region gave way to a more entrepreneurial mindset”

Interview with Hala Fadel, who chairs the MIT Enterprise Forum for the Pan-Arab Region, on the sidelines of her session at the LeWeb 2013 event, held in Paris on 10-12 December.

L'Atelier: Why does an organisation such as yours feel the need to be at the LeWeb event today?

Hala Fadel: We’re here because we need to help drive the entrepreneurial scene forward. The MIT Enterprise Forum is an initiative whose purpose is to promote entrepreneurship worldwide, and here we’re focusing on a session on the pan-Arab region. We’re here today to show that such a region has a place in the international markets. We organise startup competitions and also events open to the public which help to get these startups better known, as well as arranging mentoring and running a co-working space where we bring entrepreneurs together so that they can learn from one another. In fact the companies that we have with us today are extremely diverse.

What’s special about the startups here at the event today?

The startups being showcased today all offer a product or a new approach to a given market. Each has a viable and scalable business and, most importantly, they are all representative of many startups in the pan-Arab region. They distinguish themselves by the social impact each company makes. One example is U-Turn, the first online television channel in Saudi Arabia, which already has a strong following with an audience of close to 10 million viewers. U-Turn is making a real impact – we’ve seen that traditional television viewing in the country has declined as the U-Turn audience has grown. This company has really broken through the traditional mentality in Saudi Arabia, and at at the same time its business model should enable it to expand into neighbouring markets, indeed to serve Arabic-speaking people all over the world. We might also mention Anghami, based in Lebanon, which is the region’s Spotify or Deezer. In fact one might argue that Anghami has gone even further than those two companies as it provides a music streaming service in 2G and 3G, with exclusive legal rights to relay Arab music. In a society where mobile penetration is very high, Anghami was one of the first companies to offer a vast range of intuitive content on mobile, and this has engendered a real change in consumer habits.

So do these startups have an Arab-world vocation or real global prospects?

To be honest, there’s a bit of both. On the one hand we do see ‘me too’ startups which, like Anghami, are making a market breakthrough in the region by providing platforms that exist elsewhere but not previously as an Arabic-language product. On the other hand we have some startups which are genuinely innovative at world level, such as Presella, also Lebanon-based, which is a crowdfunding platform that enables event organisers to put on a show free of risk. For instance if you want to organise an event but you don’t know your audience very well, you can use Presella to test the viability of your plans and then cancel the show and reimburse people who’ve bought tickets if the response proves to be inadequate.

What would you say to potential investors in the region?

The pan-Arab market today reminds me of the United States or France in the 1990s. I don’t mean there’s a bubble, what I mean is that there’s very high potential but the market is under-developed. I believe this is not only a unique investment opportunity, but a smart move as well that will bring good returns and achieve a strong impact on a region which really needs this entrepreneurial mindset. It’s time the traditional image of the Arab region gave way to a more entrepreneurial mindset. We’re talking here about investment that can have a huge impact on society.

By Quentin Capelle