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Upstarting the Middle East: youth and innovation

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Upstarting the Middle East: youth and innovation

Upstarting the Middle East: youth and innovation
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This week, Inspire Middle East looks into some of the driving personalities of the innovation scene across the region.

The journey begins in Dubai, looking at the Middle East’s ride-sharing company whose philosophy is helping it give rivals like Uber a run for their money.

The fourth edition of the show then travels to Jordan where inspiring businesses like the Sharqi shop, set up by Syrian Saleem Najjar, lead the way to a hip hub in the country.

The last stop is in the very home of UAE Minister of State His Excellency Zaki Nusseibeh, who explains how important it is to focus on a skilled and educated youth.

Careem: the tech unicorn of the Middle East

Valued at more than a billion dollars, Dubai-based car booking service Careem has racked up 15 million customers in more than 90 cities across 14 countries, all in just over 5 years.

One of its founders, Magnus Olsen, took Inspire Middle East on an exciting car ride and told us more about the thrills and challenges of running a business with the middle eastern upstart philosophy.

INSPIRE MIDDLE EAST: How much have you pushed, for example, in Saudi Arabia for the lift in the ban of female drivers?

MAGNUS OLSEN: We think this will spur economic development… a lot! Now from our point of view what we are maybe the most excited about is that we can maybe start having female captains. What we do know is that in a place like Saudi Arabia a majority of our customers are women and we still believe that there are still a lot of other women that are not using our services because they would feel even more comfortable having a woman captain.

INSPIRE MIDDLE EAST: Is that key to the middle eastern market, that you have to focus on regional differentiations?

MAGNUS OLSEN: In reality, it’s not as simple as it being one homogenous region. It’s quite different.

In this part of the world, credit card penetration is still relatively low so we had to adopt cash payments.

Now, accepting cash sounds like a simple thing: you push the ‘cash’ button, in the app and that’s it, right? But how are you actually collecting cash from 500,000 captains across 80 cities or more? That’s an operational nightmare!

INSPIRE MIDDLE EAST: How do you tackle the issue of driver rights across all your markets?

MAGNUS OLSEN: From day one, being ‘Careem’ to our captains, being generous with our captains is a core priority for us. We are making sure that we have very strong insurance for all our captains.

We are not trying to just shut off a captain that is getting bad ratings but rather taking the approach of how can we help you improve and get better.

INSPIRE MIDDLE EAST: What are some of the funniest things someone has done in one of your cars?

MAGNUS OLSEN: We launched a matchmaking service we basically had an older aunty in the car and the customer could book it and she would give you advice on how to find your soul mate or life partner.

For the Eid holiday in Saudi Arabia a few years back we allowed customers to order a sheep on demand. So, when you opened the App, you had the Economy car, the Business Car and you could order a sheep.

A hip innovation scene at the heart of Jordan

Young Jordanians have been at the forefront of some of the middle east's most popular startups. Together they've helped build the country’s growing innovation scene.

King Hussein Business Park is home to Oasis500, one of the few combined business accelerators and seed stage investors in the Middle East.

They've funded about 147 startups, with approximately 37 of them still active today.

One of these startups belongs to Saleem Najjar, a Syrian entrepreneur based in Amman.

Saleem is the co-founder of Sharqi-shop, an online marketplace that allows local artisans to sell their traditional wares to a wider customer base. He says the key to selling items is telling their story.

“We’re trying to make a personalized website or platform about the artisan, more than about their products.”

It starts by connecting with local Jordanian and Syrian craftsmen who make high-quality handmade products but desperately struggle to reach customers.

That’s when Saleem and his team step in. They handle everything from marketing online to packaging and delivery.

Sharqi shop has been around for a little more than a year. It’s one of the many seed-stage startups that have come here to launch their businesses.

Saleem came to Jordan in 2011 from Syria. As a refugee, he couldn’t register his company and at one point he nearly had to shut down Sharqi shop. But in 2018 the business is growing as companies from Saudi Arabia and Dubai have reached out to do business with him. Plans are to go from using 40 artisans to 200, with hopes to take Sharqi shop worldwide by this time next year.

While the future might take Saleem overseas, he remains grateful for the opportunities he has had in Jordan:

“We are hiring Jordanians as a way to say thank you to the Jordanian community that allowed us to move here and with all the problems and the challenges they already have they allowed us to come. So I came through a lot of challenges but in the end we’re OK”.

The UAE and its investment in youth

As much as these modern forces come from the young and tech savvy, an inspiring push from those in charge is always a lead way for new opportunities.

So what do you do when you have a lot of young people in your population looking for growth?

In an exclusive interview in his renowned library, UAE Minister of State His Excellency Zaki Nusseibeh explains the foundations of sparking change through the generations of a very young country.

INSPIRE MIDDLE EAST: What connection do these books have to the vision for young Emirati?

ZAKI NUSSEIBEH: Books, knowledge and the search for education is at the heart of what the United Arab Emirates is all about. It’s a small country and it needed, in a very short time to set up a modern state, starting from scratch. Therefore, the investment it really needed to make was in the young people.

INSPIRE MIDDLE EAST: Is there a pickup of what’s happening here with young people around the Arab world?

ZAKI NUSSEIBEH: I believe so. I believe that - the Emirates - it serves as a beacon of hope, if you’d like, to young people across the region. And today with the existing communication infrastructures everybody learns about everything.

Young people are looking around them, fashioning their own future and have hope for their future. So what you need to do is provide the right kind of education. An education that also responds to the needs of the markets. And the markets are changing every year. Life has to become a library connected existence. You need to continuously develop yourself.

INSPIRE MIDDLE EAST: The young people in the Arab World, here in Abu Dhabi or in Dubai, what’s the one thing that annoys you, that you want them to stop doing?

ZAKI NUSSEIBEH: I think the misuse of technology if you’d like, of communication. They have amazing opportunities given to them through the internet, through social media. And it can either help them in leading a fulfilled life, and have a fulfilling career or it can truly undermine the personal development in that they waste too much of their time. So you see young people in a museum, instead of looking at the painting in front of them they still look at the messages they receive. They waste too much time on some of these social media. And then also the fact that the search for knowledge becomes artificial. So, it’s enough to look up Wikipedia and then see two lines about a subject to think that you have learnt all you need about that.

Social eyes: Inspired talent trending online

Take a closer look at some examples of what has inspired The Middle East on social media this week.