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E-commerce for “Back to School” shopping for MENA parents

E-commerce for “Back to School” shopping for MENA parents

MENA online “Back to School” sales have grown 6 times and will continue to grow by Artem Rudyuk, would be an eye-opener on how certain countries of the MENA’s education systems related activities are evolving. As a matter of fact, E-commerce for “Back to School” shopping for MENA parents is, according to this article, increasing as demonstrated in actual happenings between 2017 through 2019.

MENA parents are attracted to e-commerce for the “Back to School” shopping, increasing their interests and buying habits at exponential levels between 2017 and 2019.

MENA online “Back to School” sales have grown 6 times and will continue to grow
  • The buying trends between August 2017 and August 2019 in the Back to School category revealed that traditionally the sales spike around the month of August
  • In 2019, online sales reached their highest level, measuring a 6 times growth compared with August 2017
  • With the region opening up more to e-commerce and with the market competitive sellers, the Back to School online sales will stay on a growth pattern

ADMITAD analysts recently released an online sales report that shows Back To School shopping has grown 6 times since 2017. Analysts observed data over the course of 2 years measuring the buying trends in the Back To School categories across different countries in the MENA region.

The buying trends between August 2017 and August 2019 in the Back to School category revealed that traditionally the sales spike around the month of August. However, in 2019, online sales reached their highest level, measuring a 6 times growth compared with August 2017. With the region opening up more to e-commerce and with the market’s competitive sellers, Back to School online sales will stay on a growth pattern, expecting to reach in August 2020 the highest level measured in the past years. 

“The growth we’ve seen in 2 years is indicative of MENA region developing into a more mature market in e-commerce, with giants like Amazon, Noon, Namshi creating outstanding value for the customers. Other factors are contributing too, such as the rise of social media influencers and the unparalleled cash value offers online shopping provides. Having said that, this is just the beginning as we estimate the growth to continue at a rapid rate in the next 2 years” said Artem Rudyuk, head of MENA Operations at ADMITAD

The convenience of fast-delivery, an abundance of offers and eye-catching promotions alongside a wider diversity of the products, are some of the top reasons why MENA region Back-To-School customers’ interest in online shopping is growing. 

One of the fastest-growing marketplace for parents, Sprii.com, is confirming the positive climb of the online sales during August, with a growth of 181% in the back to school category. Sarah Jones, CEO, and Founder of Sprii said: “Sprii has seen a 181% increase in sales in its back to school category over the last year. We see traffic fast moving away from your traditional bricks and mortar stores to online platforms as product ranges increase, prices are cheaper and delivery becomes easier. The leading contributor of growth in this category has been kids lunchboxes and healthy snacks, which we see in keeping with the regional movement towards healthy sustainable living, and the site-wide increase in organic product sales.”

The estimated increase in back-to-school spending represents an opportunity for MENA based e-commerce companies to capitalize on this new profit-making shopping season, together with Christmas, Ramadan, and Back Friday. The MENA region players have an unprecedented opportunity to convert customers with competitive advertising, offers, prices and bundles during the online browsing process.

Read: Cartlow: the UAE e-commerce app that sells top quality goods for less

Read: Back to School – Three priorities for Education IT Teams in the new academic year

Author

Artem Rudyuk is the Head of MENA Operations for Admitad, heading the Development of affiliate partnerships between e-commerce merchants and online publishers on cost per action basis and bringing affiliate marketing in MENA region to a new level with the most transparent and tech advanced platform.

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A Decade of Entrepreneurship in MENA

A Decade of Entrepreneurship in MENA

Looking back at a decade of entrepreneurship in MENA is by Triska Hamid of WAMDA who on September 30, 2019, reported the following.

This year marks a decade since Yahoo acquired Maktoob, in a deal worth $164 million. It was the first time that a technology company based in the Middle East had attracted such significant interest from a giant of its day.

At the time, the deal paled in comparison to the acquisitions and mergers typical in the region, between telecoms operators, industry and real estate. But for the entrepreneurship ecosystem, it was a seminal moment, validating the region as a place for technology and startups.

Back when this happened, there were no venture capital (VC) funds, mobile and internet penetration was low, Apple’s iPhone was still out of reach for most people and unicorns were mythical creatures with the power of flight.

Ten years later, the region boasts its own unicorn: Careem, which was acquired by Uber earlier this year for $3.1 billion, global investors are investing in Middle East startups and entrepreneurship is increasingly becoming a viable career path.

Maktoob was founded in Jordan by Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury as an Arabic webmail service. It grew to become the main destination for Arabic speakers on the internet and amassed 16 million users. Beyond the main portal, Maktoob offered online payments through CashU, an e-commerce platform that resembled US-based eBay called Souq and gaming company Tahadi MMO Games.

Yahoo was only interested in the main portal and so Toukan and Khoury established Jabbar Internet Group to absorb Maktoob’s other assets. In hindsight, Yahoo failed to see the consumer trends that unfolded in the region and the inevitable rise of online payments and shopping.  

Souq became the biggest asset in Jabbar’s network. Emaar Malls reportedly made an offer of $800 million in 2017, but it was Amazon that would come to acquire the e-commerce site for $680 million of which $580 million was paid in cash. Emaar’s chairman Mohamed Alabbar decided to pump $1 billion into launching his own e-commerce platform, noon, as a result.

In between these two acquisitions, the technological landscape in the region had changed drastically. Internet penetration was on the rise, mobile penetration was close to or exceeded 100 per cent in every country of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Smartphones were also popular and Nokia’s dominance in the mobile phone market had been dismantled across the region, replaced by the app-friendly iPhones and Android-based Samsung and Huawei phones. With the introduction of 4G technology, the cost of mobile broadband fell from an average of $9.50 for half a gigabyte in 2016 to $5.27 for double the amount of data.

Empowering The Youth

Amid the protests and revolutions that disrupted the region’s economies in the so-called Arab Spring, the high youth unemployment highlighted the importance of the private sector for job creation. Entrepreneurship was presented as the silver bullet to stymie the rise of unemployment and a way to empower the youth, who make up two thirds of the region’s population.

Government policies and regulations across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) slowly became friendlier to entrepreneurs and investors. Efforts to cut down startup costs continue as regional competition to become a hub for entrepreneurship has ignited. Startups have been recognised as a way to create not only employment but a means to solve for problems that societies and economies face in the Middle East.

The general shift in attitude and government policies created fertile ground for companies like Dubizzle, Talabat and Babil to emerge, most replicating models and ideas that had proved successful in other parts of the world. Germany’s Rocket Internet arrived in 2011 and began founding startups aggressively, replicating successful business models to launch companies like Namshi, which was recently acquired by Emaar Malls, wadi.com and Carmudi. Serious investors began to emerge and institutionalise and the region became home to VCs and angel investors with an eye to reap lofty returns. Today, there are several funds dedicated to entrepreneurship and a few governments have established fund of funds, to co-match VCs and help develop a local ecosystem that can generate economic growth.

One of the most prolific of these early angel investors was Aramex founder and Wamda chairman Fadi Ghandour. He was one of the initial investors in Maktoob and then in Jabbar Internet Group before establishing Wamda Capital.

“The world was changing and I had felt the internet change the world, I already felt it affecting Aramex, so when Samih and Hussam came for investment, for me, it was a no-brainer,” he says.

Still On The Backfoot

But even after all these years, there has only been a handful of exits valued at more than $100 million across the Middle East. Oil still accounts for the majority of gross domestic product (GDP) in the GCC, youth unemployment is the highest in the world at 26.5 per cent according to the World Bank and costs to start a business in the current hub of the region, Dubai is among the highest in the world. For almost every country, regulations still need improvement beyond registering a business. Innovation is also lacking, the highest-ranking MENA country in the Global Innovation Index is the UAE at 36th place, behind smaller economies like Cyrpus and Malta.

Yet, there is hope.

“There are more mature companies and more mature VCs, so there are better deals happening. Exits like Careem and Fawry, those kinds of big companies that are having a real impact is one key metric of a potentially successful ecosystem,” says Abdelhameed Sharara, founder of RiseUp. “I think we are still very early compared to the US and China, but it’s a very promising space compared to the past.”

The region also has a more active female population in the startup sector, with 23 per cent of startups in Gaza and the West Bank led by women, while 19 per cent are led by women in Beirut, both ahead of New York which stands at 12 per cent. Even at RiseUp, women accounted for almost 40 per cent of the attendees last year.

“The region has really become a place where entrepreneurs can thrive and provides supportive environments for startups,” says Amina Grimen, co-founder of e-commerce beauty site, Powder. “In the beauty space, looking at the accomplishments of big female players like Huda Kattan and Dr Lamees Hamdan is truly inspiring.”

Read more from WAMDAs

Global uncertainty, Trade tensions, Fintech impact Banks

Global uncertainty, Trade tensions, Fintech impact Banks

Per the Central Bank of Kuwait, Global uncertainty, trade tensions, fintech impact banks. Central Bank chief lays out a multipronged strategy to face these challenges. An article dated 23/09/2019 and written by Jamie Etheridge sheds some light on the stressful world trends as witnessed from Kuwait. These on-going trends if contextualised happen at a time when the global energy transition, the historic shift to low-carbon emission economies, is increasingly gaining attraction as more and more countries make the move to sustainable development in all its forms. Would not be this the real reason for the current upheaval in the financial world?

KUWAIT: (From left) Central Bank of Kuwait Governor Mohammad Al-Hashel, Finance Minister Nayef Al-Hajraf, Acting Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and Minister of Commerce and Industry Khaled Al-Roudhan attend the International Banking Conference on Shaping the Future yesterday.- Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

KUWAIT: Financial technologies are disrupting the global banking industry, creating concerns across the globe for what the future holds at a time when the global economy is facing many challenges. To address this issue and hear what senior regulators, policymakers and industry leaders think, the Central Bank of Kuwait organized the International Banking Conference on Shaping the Future yesterday.


In his keynote speech, Central Bank of Kuwait Governor Dr Mohammad Al-Hashel addressed the challenges facing the global banking sector today. “Three challenges are particularly worth highlighting: The state of the global economy; the revolution in financial technology; and the rapidly evolving needs and expectations of customers,” Hashel explained.
He noted that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) twice lowered its global growth projections for 2019 to 3.2 percent, with developed economies expected to grow at a much slower rate of 1.9 percent. A key driver of this slowdown is economic uncertainty brought about by rising trade tensions and protectionist policies. “If trade tensions continue, the IMF may further revise down its economic growth projections,” he said.
The Central Bank chief also explained that “global debt over the past 20 years has grown on average by 6 percent annually, compared to 3.5 percent for global GDP. If these rates continue, we could see global debt over the next 20 years reaching $780 trillion, or 500 percent of GDP. This is clearly unsustainable, and requires urgent action by both governments and financial institutions.”


The threat from Big Tech is also a looming concern for regulators and the banking industry. “What would happen when the likes of Facebook, Amazon, WhatsApp and Alibaba start competing with banks to provide financial services? These technology giants come with large and captive user bases, low online acquisition costs, and a better understanding of their customers through their utilization of big data. Moreover, they don’t face the same regulations and associated costs that banks do,” Hashel pointed out.


Meeting the evolving needs of customer expectations in the fast-paced global environment further adds to the weight of the need for change, and all of this is further exacerbated by heightened geopolitical tensions and trade disputes. To meet these challenges, Hashel laid out a strategy of attack that focuses on five key areas – customer loyalty, value, efficiency, resilience and talent. He also called for greater proactivity on the part of regulators and the banking industry.


“We the regulators must also consider how we should operate in the future. We need to take a proactive and dynamic approach to promote innovation, and act as a catalyst for the industry. We need to promote collaboration and share our experiences with each other to develop frameworks that will fit the needs of our societies. And we need to focus on capacity building to ensure that our staff can meet the future challenges of the industry,” he said.


Held under the patronage of HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and attended by Acting Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the conference brought together central bank chiefs from around the region, banking executives, chief economists and leaders in the industry to discuss what the future holds for banking, the impact of fintech and how banks can better collaborate, cooperate and shape a sustainable future for all.

MENA region’s Countries in the World Economy

MENA region’s Countries in the World Economy

The point of this article dated September 5, 2019, published by World Economic Forum in collaboration with Visual Capitalist and elaborated by Jeff Desjardins, Editor-in-Chief, Visual Capitalist, is to possibly enlighten us on the actual world situation. We could also get a clear picture of the actual position of the MENA region’s countries in the world economy at 5th as ranked by the World Bank.

The $86 trillion world economy – in one chart

U.S. dollar, euro and Swiss franc bank notes are seen in a bank in Budapest August 8, 2011.The forint lead currencies lower in emerging Europe; the euro and the dollar lost ground against the Japanese yen and the Swiss franc amid worries about a European and American debt crisis spiralling out of control.   REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo (HUNGARY - Tags: BUSINESS) - GM1E789002701

The $86 Trillion World Economy in One Chart

The world economy is in a never-ending state of flux.

The fact is that billions of variables — both big and small — factor into any calculation of overall economic productivity, and these inputs are changing all of the time.

Buying this week’s groceries or filling up your car with gas may seem like a rounding error when we are talking about trillions of dollars, but every microeconomic decision or set of preferences can add up in aggregate.

And as consumer preferences, technology, trade relationships, interest rates, and currency valuations change — so does the final composition of the world’s $86 trillion economy.

Country GDPs, by Size

Today’s visualization comes to us from HowMuch.net, and it charts the most recent composition of the global economic landscape.

It should be noted that the diagram uses nominal GDP to measure economic output, which is different than using GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP). The data in the diagram and table below come from the World Bank’s latest update, published in July 2019.

The Top 15 Economies, by GDP

The above 15 economies represent a whopping 75% of total global GDP, which added up to $85.8 trillion in 2018 according to the World Bank.

Most interestingly, the gap between China and the United States is narrowing — and in nominal terms, China’s economy is now 66.4% the size.

A Higher Level Look

The World Bank also provides a regional breakdown of global GDP, which helps to give additional perspective:

The low-income countries — which have a combined population of about 705 million people — add up to only 0.6% of global GDP.

Looking Towards the Future

For more on the world economy and predictions on country GDPs on a forward-looking basis, we suggest looking at our animation on the Biggest Economies in 2030.

It is worth mentioning, however, that the animation uses GDP (PPP) calculations instead of the nominal ones above.

Have you read?

More readings on the WEF’s agenda.

The Right Place To Locate Your MENA Business

The Right Place To Locate Your MENA Business

When you’re looking at where to locate in the MENA region, it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of the different regions. Here are Four Tips To Find The Right Place To Locate Your MENA Business per Ahmad Saud Numan, Director of Marketing and Corporate Communications at Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone Authority (RAKEZ).

You’re reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

The image above is of What you need to know about the Middle East startup space to be read conjunctly with the proposed article.

Four Tips To Find The Right Place To Locate Your MENA Business
Image credit: Shutterstock

Setting up a business is exciting, but it requires level-headed planning. To be successful you need to consider the logistics performance of the country in question, along with its reputation, ease of company setup process, simplicity of doing business, and opportunities for future growth. So, when you’re looking at where to locate in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of the different regions. If you’re considering this part of the world, here are four tips to improve your chances of finding the right place for your MENA business:

1. The best location for logistics A quick look at the World Bank Logistics Performance Index (LPI) helps define all the logistical considerations in six points: customs, infrastructure, ease of shipping, tracking and tracing, timeliness, as well as logistic services. These factors are important for all businesses and vital if you will be importing and/or exporting. Why the UAE has got logistics covered: In that World Bank Logistics Performance Index, the one MENA country that stands head and shoulders above all the rest is the UAE. It ranks 1st in the GCC and MENA. Globally it’s listed 11th, ahead of the United States and Switzerland. In terms of specifics, the UAE is placed 5th in the world for international shipments and 4th for timeliness. Meaning you can expect to have your deliveries reach their destinations by the deadline.

And it’s important not just to stop at Dubai when it comes to thinking about locations for your new MENA business. Investigate the other emirates that boast excellent logistical networks as well as ample warehousing space at a lower cost. Setting up in Ras al Khaimah, for example, is the perfect jumping-off point to do business across the UAE, the Gulf and entire MENA region, and it’s less than an hour’s drive to Dubai.

2. Finding an easy setup process Here we have to consider procedures, time, cost and minimum capital required to start a company. Different countries in the MENA region take different approaches to helping new businesses achieve this. There are a huge number of options, so it’s important to locate your company in a top-level business hub that can offer you a tailor-made solution. The UAE is always going to score highly when it comes to easy setup. Look for a hub within the UAE that gives you flexibility, allowing you to choose whether you want to set up on the mainland or in a free zone.

Why the UAE has the easiest setup process: In the World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 report, the UAE was ranked 25th in the world for starting a business, with a score of 94.06 out of 100. The MENA average was 82, with only one other regional country, Bahrain (89.57), breaching the top 100. Why? Well, the UAE was deemed to have hugely streamlined procedures and greatly reduced setup times. It’s worth looking outside of Dubai and Abu Dhabi as well– Ras al Khaimah has put in place a highly-simplified and fast-tracked business setup process. So, look for a hub that offers this level of service, and get your company off to a strong start. It’s about costs as well: Choosing the right location can mean halving your setup costs.

3. The importance of a good reputation The MENA country you set up in will be a reflection of your business. Set up in one that is well respected for business equality and fairness and this rubs off on the organization itself. It also affects how you are perceived by companies in the MENA (and wider) region with which you do business. 

Why the UAE’s reputation speaks well for your business: The UAE has a great reputation for business for a number of reasons. It’s politically stable, has a strong economy, and offers state-of-the-art infrastructure. Its laws prohibit monopoly and encourage competition, while maintaining intellectual property rights and trademarks. No surprise then that it’s probably the major international business hub of the Middle East. Even if you do business outside of the UAE, being based there puts you in great standing with the MENA region.

4. Having the room to expand Whatever the size of your business right now, you’re probably aiming to grow. This means you need to keep options open because what might be the best choice now, especially in terms of location and suppliers, may change in the future. You need a location that offers flexibility. One that has good access to other markets and one that lets you expand your offering. For example, you could be attracted by the easy setup process and zero taxation offered by many UAE free zones, but perhaps one day you will want to do business directly with the mainland. Finding the right hub that allows that type of flexibility will be a vital part of your decision-making. So, it’s important to think about your immediate requirements, and how those requirements might change down the road.

Why the UAE helps your company grow: On top the strong economy and great transport links, choosing the right business hub in the UAE brings peace of mind that you are set up for years to come. You haven’t just taken an ‘off the shelf’ solution but got one that truly reflects the kind of business you want to run today, and tomorrow. 

Question your way to success

When setting up in the MENA region, you need to make an informed decision rather than a leap of faith. You can improve your chances of success by asking the right questions about your business needs and the locations on offer. The UAE ticks the right boxes– the question, then, is making sure you pick the right economic zone and the right location within it.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The region’s Digital Startups and Fintechs grow and prosper

The region’s Digital Startups and Fintechs grow and prosper

In MENA’s Maturing Ecosystem dated September 3, 2019, author Chloe DOMAT says that “as the region’s digital startups and fintechs grow and prosper, they must learn to scale, despite a highly fragmented economy.”

The region’s Digital Startups and Fintechs grow and prosper

Once again this year, the digital economy of the Middle East and North Africa is set to break records. The first half saw $471 million in total funding and 238 deals, according to the latest report from Magnitt, a Dubai-based entrepreneurs’ network. That’s a 66% increase over the dollar volume in the first half of 2018 and 28% more deals.

Digital startups barely existed in the MENA region a decade ago. Now, fintech is a thriving sector embracing hundreds of new companies, jobs and investors. As the ecosystem expands with tens of newcomers each year, funding tickets get bigger and bigger.

“If we look back a few years, a deal at $2 million or $3 million would have made the headlines; today, we have multiple $10 million-plus deals,” says Omar Christidis, founder and CEO of Arabnet, a Beirut-based events and research company specializing in the region’s digital economy. “This is an indicator of the increasing maturity of the market.”

Major deals so far this year have included a $100 million capital injection in Dubai-based Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG); a $65 million Series A round for Yellow Door Energy, also in Dubai; and $42 million for Egypt’s Swvl, a transportation app.

There is still a disconnect, however, between the growing demand for funds at all levels and the capital currently available to satisfy it, industry insiders say. Money is expected to keep pouring in, as an increasing number of international institutions enter the region. Big names like Endeavor Catalyst (US), Vostok New Ventures (Sweden), MSA Capital (China), Global Founders Capital (Germany) and Kingsway Capital (UK) already make up a third of the Middle East’s investor list.

Aiming to attract even more foreign capital, countries including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also started establishing funds of funds.


CompanyActivityCountryFunding ($ Mil.)
EPMGReal EstateUAE100
Yellow Door EnergyEnergyUAE65
SwvlTransportEgypt42
AWOKe-commerceJordan30
Mawdoo3e-commerceJordan23.5
Jamalone-commerceJordan10
Noon Academye-learningSaudi Arabia8.6
Spriie-commerceUAE8.5
JustCleanServicesKuwait8
yallacompareFintechUAE8
 

For the first time, numbers of local companies are successfully reaching the end of the startup lifecycle and exiting through mergers or acquisitions. In March, Uber bought Careem, a Dubai-based ride-hailing application, for $3.1 billion, in a deal that marked the region’s first unicorn exit.

The pace has only picked up. At least 15 Middle Eastern startups have performed exits since January, including digital fashion platform Namshi, sold to Dubai’s Emaar Malls in February; the purchase by Majid al Futtaim, a Dubai-based shopping mall and retail operator, of Saudi Arabian online grocery store Wadi in May; and EMPG’s purchase of Jumia House, a property portal for Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, in June.

These exits leave a new generation of former staff members with a lot of means. After Careem’s exit, 75 ex-staffers cashed out over $1 million each. That financial capital, as well as the beneficiaries’ acquired knowledge and expertise, will allow a number of them to start new business ventures.

The Imperative to Scale

While tech companies grow larger, entrepreneurs face new challenges.

“As mature startups move to larger funding rounds and raise interest for acquisitions, they need to scale operations, whether vertically with new business lines or geographically,” says Philip Bahoshy, CEO and founder of Magnitt.

Navigating across the region’s approximately 22 countries, each with its own complexities, is not easy, however. From Morocco to Iraq, Arab states differ dramatically from one another in size, population, wealth, laws, digital infrastructure and business culture.

“Seeing the MENA region as one big market is to a certain extent a misrepresentation because our markets are superfragmented,” says Christidis. “A company that wants to grow from Lebanon into Jordan into Iraq into Kuwait into Saudi Arabia has to enter five separate markets.”

The UAE is clearly driving the game. In the first half of 2019, the Emirates received 66% of the money invested in all MENA startups and captured 26% of the deals, according to the Magnitt report. Dubai has by far the most developed ecosystem, with a concentration of global firms’ regional headquarters, major funding institutions and accelerators.

The UAE, and Dubai itself, have worked to build an advantage. In 2017, the UAE became one of the first countries in the world to appoint a minister of artificial intelligence. Dubai’s Crown Prince Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum has promised that the government will go 100% paperless by 2021.

“The UAE has been leading from the front,” says Amol Bahuguna, head of payments and cash management at Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBD), which just launched a new e-invoicing service. “Everything that has to do with the government is going digital. You have a real top-down approach to innovation and things move fast.”

Much will hinge on how the UAE, and Dubai in particular, manage their response to the current economic slowdown. Recent government data show that real estate, financial services and tourism—the pillars of the economy—are in a slump. In 2018, Dubai also recorded its biggest net loss of jobs since the global financial crisis.

The Emirates have competition, too, from Saudi Arabia, the biggest emerging market in the region with over 34 million people and high purchasing power. The authorities there are keen to diversify their oil-based economy, including promotion of the digital sector.

Riyadh set up a fund of funds to attract foreign investors to support startups. Saudi authorities will invest dollar-for-dollar as a limited partner in any new fund that commits to investing in the kingdom. They have also promised to streamline the licensing process for foreign startups so that they can settle in Saudi Arabia easily.

New Saudi-based funds such as Saudi Telecom’s $500 million ST Ventures, Vision Ventures and Hala Ventures, that have emerged in the past three years, are becoming large players in the regional venture capital game, leading $10 million-plus investment rounds.

On the other side of the MENA map, North Africa is also showing strong digital growth potential. Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are investing heavily in the development of their own high-tech ecosystems, aiming to become the bridge to Europe and the gateway to sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia recently passed laws supporting tech innovation; and in September, Tunis will welcome Afric’Up, a large pan-African startup-pitch competition.

Fintech’s “Gold Mine”

Although it hardly shows in this year’s top deals, fintech remains the fastest growing sector within MENA digital economy. In the first half of this year, fintech accounted for 17% of all deals, up 9% from 2018. Interestingly, almost 90% of the total $24 million funding went to early stage startups, underscoring that the sector is still in its infancy.

The data also reveals enormous potential. Arab countries are home to over 380 million people, half of them under age 26. Financial inclusion is among the lowest in the world, with only 52% of men and 35% of women owning a bank account as of 2017. The vast majority of those with bank accounts, however, own a mobile phone (86% of men and 75% of women).

By mid-2018, the whole MENA region, including North Africa, had 381 million unique mobile subscribers, according to GSMA Intelligence, a mobile industry trade body. Smartphones accounted for 52% of all connections and are expected to grow to 74% by 2025.

“These figures highlight the tremendous opportunity,” says Nameer Khan, founding board member of the newly established UAE-based MENA Fintech Association. “The region is literally a gold mine.” The lure for fintech investors and entrepreneurs is the chance to enter an untapped market in which hundreds of millions of users could leapfrog from the cash economy to the digital.

Fintech subsectors widely thought to hold growth potential include insuretech, robo-advisory wealth management and sharia-compliant services. But payment services, not surprisingly, stand out prominently for both the number of startups and the value of deals. Mobile payment, money transfer and lending platforms remain the main focus; while more-sophisticated technologies such as blockchain, the cloud and artificial intelligence still lag.

Egypt’s Fawry is one of the biggest success stories in payments. Launched in 2008, the company raised $122 million; its initial public offering on August 8 sold 36% of its share capital for $97 million.  Also attracting notice in the sector are PayTabs, a Saudi Arabian online payment facility that announced in August that it had raised $20 million to support its expansion in the region and into Southeast Asia, India, Africa and Europe; and the Dubai-based peer-to-peer lending platform Beehive, with a total capital injection of $15.5 million as of March 4.

The payment landscape looks to change rapidly, however, as larger players seek their share of the fintech market. Careem, for instance, claims over 30 million users in the region and is currently rolling out its Careem Pay e-wallet. If the service succeeds, Uber-owned Careem could become one of the biggest MENA fintechs.

Digital Banking Multiples

Banks and financial institutions view the fintech surge as an opportunity to outsource innovation and digitization. From simple online banking and mobile applications to investment platforms and e-wallets, most MENA lenders are seeking partnerships with startups. Some have even rolled out fully fledged, branchless digital neobanks, including Emirates NBD’s Liv., Mashreq Neo, and Gulf International Bank’s Meem.

These operate under a conventional lender’s license, however. Since they were developed by traditional banks, they are not industry disruptors, like startups Revolut and N26; rather, they act like new-business verticals, intended to seduce tech-savvy youth and target the unbanked. For a digital banking startup to seriously challenge the major players would be a monumental task.

“Banks in the Middle East are very large; what we are seeing recently is market consolidation, so they are getting even bigger,” says Arabnet’s Christidis. “I don’t think any of the startups really want to take them on, head to head. I’m not sure either that there would be investors ready to bankroll that kind of an investment. Furthermore, I question what kind of industry lobbying bite the banks would put on if they really started seeing that kind of thing emerge.” Christidis believes only an already established player from outside the region would have the financial muscle to give it a chance to compete.

Such a competitor might come from outside the financial sector entirely, however. Abu Dhabi Global Market, a key Emirati financial center, announced in July that it is ready to issue digital-banking licenses to nonbanking firms “with innovative value propositions.”

As this suggests, while the MENA digital economy is developing faster than ever, legal and regulatory frameworks need to adapt for growth to be sustained. Procedures to register a company, licensing and liability laws in case of business failure or bankruptcy are among the key differentiators governments will have to consider as they look to make themselves more competitive.

“Governments are showing concerted interest in building digital ecosystems for their countries,” says Magnitt CEO and founder Bahoshy. “There are still challenges to be overcome, but we can expect success stories to be more frequent, have higher value and have more impact in the coming years.”