Arab World Needs (Entrepreneurial) Heroes

Photo: Ali Khan

Dubai is a city that defies the laws of physics. It is a place where architects are regularly commissioned to build the Dali-esque. Tallest building in the world? Check. Islands in the shapes of Palm Trees? Done. Want Whistler-like ski conditions in a shopping mall or an underwater hotel? Double check. It has more cranes than any city in the world today with the exception of Shanghai. Its airport terminals are a microcosm of the city-state:  epic in size, unabashedly commercial and catering to a cross-section of humanity that is simply unparalleled (how exactly do Seychellois communicate with Ethiopians?)

In the middle of the barren desert, Dubai has built one of the most impressive balance sheets of hard assets in the world. It is the showcase for entrepreneurial vigor (and renewal) in the Middle East. Yet in 2010, it was barely rescued by its neighbor Abu Dhabi from the verge of bankruptcy. So what gives?

Simple. Dubai, like much of the region, needs heroes.

A few weeks back I presented at the 2010 Celebration of Entrepreneurship conference, hosted by Arif Naqvi’s Abraaj Capital. The conference was a first of a kind Pan-regional unconference (a cross between TED and TechCrunch for the Middle East). Over 2,000 entrepreneurs, innovators and stakeholders in the region’s were buzzing to connect, share and hear the stories and lessons learned from entrepreneurial practitioners from around the world. Silicon Valley personalities like Mike Cassidy, Joi Ito, and my colleague Jim Hornthal, talked about their experiences, alongside regional innovators like Osman Sultan, CEO of du, a telco in the United Arab Emirates. Everyone shared pages from their playbook and themes that are all-too-familiar for Silicon Valley types, including embracing lessons from failure, failing forward, and nurturing a culture that encourages risk-taking.

My own talk
was entitled “Why Entrepreneurs are the New Asset Class,” a follow-up to a meme I’ve written about before for Forbes. I discussed the characteristics that I’ve seen in people, some of whom I’ve invested in, that personify great entrepreneurs. I mentioned the stories of Rich Skrenta, Tim Westergren, Renaud Laplanche, Salman Khan, and Leila Janah – all of whom embody the spirit of entrepreneurs for me in different ways. Yet I realize now that their stories, while instructive, fail to stir local imaginations in one distinct way — they aren’t homegrown.

The new Archetype


But there are many stories that are. Take conference co-host and entrepreneur turned uberangel investor Fadi Gandour. His is a story of a local Jordanian boy who made good. Fadi is the founder and CEO of Middle Eastern logistics company Aramex, the “FedEx of the Middle East.” Gandour’s prominence as a local entrepreneur is now only eclipsed by his role as an angel investor and enabler for young entrepreneurs across the region. Walking the conference floor with Fadi is an unending sequence of high-fives, broad smiles and a friendly arm around countless young entrepreneurs seeking advice from his playbook and funding from his checkbook.

As an angel investor, his story intersects with another local success, Jordanian Internet pioneer Maktoob, the leading Arabic language portal, which was acquired by Yahoo in 2009. Virtually every local entrepreneur I meet, digital aficionado or not, knows the story by heart: two local Jordanians Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury, bootstrap their way from consulting company to web developers, to an Arabic web email service. They expand the vision to build the Yahoo of the Arab world, and after years of lean-living, Yahoo completes the endorsement and buys the company in a deal rumored to be somewhere north of $100 million. As a mentor and investor, Fadi tells the story on his blog. Young entrepreneurs use this as their fuel to be the next success story from the region.

Then there are the stories of ex-pats coming back to the region. Take Usama Fayyad, formerly chief data officer at Yahoo. Usama came to the U.S. to earn his PhD in data mining, now perhaps the most coveted expertise for anyone in the web business. Usama joined Yahoo through an acquisition of his former company, the DMX Group, a data mining and technology company, and then became the executive responsible for Yahoo’s data strategy and much of their research organization.

He recently launched a startup incubator in his hometown of Amman, Jordan, called Oasis500. I had a chance to visit Oasis500 to meet some of their entrepreneurs. What struck me most was how each entrepreneur I met had a distinct, plausible vision. They are clearly self-assured, fueled by the transitive property of success – if their benefactor can do it, so can they.

Creating the next origin myth


One local entrepreneur has taken this notion of Arab heroes to heart. Naif Al-Mutawa, Founder and CEO of the Teshkeel Media Group, is the creator of “The 99,” a comic book about super-heroes that are derived from local cultural motifs. “The 99” is a reference to the 99 Names of God, attributes that are commonly used in Islamic literature to describe the Almighty. Most recently characters from the 99 have teamed up with their seasoned compatriots across the Atlantic from the Justice League of America – Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman – to take crime fighting globally. One of many firsts for Muslim superheroes.

Yet the majority of the conversations I had with young entrepreneurs touched on one of the main challenges to forging new paths, namely a culture of convention. It came across from a young lady who had recently moved to Dubai from Pakistan. An established marketer by training, she was now struggling with how to leave her well-heeled job to create her own brand identity firm. From a cushy job at a multinational firm to now sleeping on a friends couch, it was clearly as much a social struggle as a financial struggle to make the shift from the gainfully employed to the gainfully happy.

In a region where nearly two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30, an emerging generation is struggling to reconcile convention with a unique vision for their future. They are about to enter the workforce, and they need new examples. They also need jobs: by some accounts 80 million new jobs have to be created to accommodate their entry in the next 20 years.

This is the very real challenge facing Arab governments. Regional leaders have publicly and privately expressed an agenda to move their economies into the next era, an era beyond oil dependence – and that requires embracing change.

The good news is that the Arab World has a rich and ancient tradition of innovation. From this unique confluence of geography and peoples have emerged some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators including the creators of the first civilizations in Mesopotamia, mathematicians (Al-Khwarizmi for example, was the creator of ‘algebra’ and the term ‘algorithm”), the inventors of optics (“The Treatise on Optics” was written by Hassan Ali Aitan), pioneers in medicine (Rhazes, Avicenna, and Averoes, authors of “Havi”, “The Book of Healing”), and astronomers (Al-Biruni introduced the possibility of the earth‘s rotation on its own axis 500 years before Galileo). The oldest surviving universities in the world today are in the region, such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, and polymaths from Edward Said to the inventor of ice-cream cones can be traced there.

So rather than embark on the next real-estate development, or free trade zone, or embellishing the regional balance sheet with the next physical asset, perhaps it’s time to reclaim this legacy. It’s time to celebrate homegrown iconoclasts.

It’s time to celebrate your heroes.

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Saad Khan is a Partner at investment firm CMEA Capital and leads their seed initiative and crowd sourcing investments in companies like Pixazza, Blekko,
Jobvite and Evolution Robotics. You can follow him on Twitter @saadventures or read his blog at saadwired.com.

Previously published by Forbes Blogs.