Saudi Aramco World: May/June 2014 - page 26

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Saudi Aramco World
There have been few opportunities in the Arab tech industry like
that which was seized by Jordanian Samih Toukan. After complet-
ing his
MBA
in London, Toukan went on to work as an
IT
consul-
tant for Andersen Consulting in Amman, but sensing demand, he
left the job in the mid-1990’s to start his own business. Toukan had
made a proposal to one of his former Andersen clients, fellow Jor-
danian Fadi Ghandour,
CEO
of Aramex, the region’s largest courier
service. Internet penetration was still nascent in the region, and very
little of it was in Arabic. The solution seems obvious today: Create
Arabic content and an email server for its readers. And by the late
1990’s Toukan did just that by launching Maktoob.com.
As a first market entrant, the site exploded from 100,000 us-
ers in 2000 to 10 million by 2005. Yahoo bought
the company in 2008 for $175 million. It was the
kind of “exit” or sell-off that gave impetus to the
regional industry.
“Before that exit, the industry was nonexistent.
Maktoob was a turning point,” says Toukan from
his new offices in Dubai. “It was the beginning of
the industry. After that exit we saw an acceleration
of ideas and investment.”
Toukan, Ghandour and a handful of others have
grown into major drivers of that trend. The proceeds
from the Maktoob deal helped Toukan launch Jab-
bar Internet Group, which has invested in products
like Hobeika’s Instabeat as well as Souq.com, an
online retailer akin to amazon.com in the
US
. With a
thousand employees, Toukan says Souq.com already
generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues, but he will
not disclose exactly how much. In March, South African media
giant Naspers invested $75 million for a 36 percent stake in the
firm, after having put $40 million into Souq.com in 2012.
“Give us three years and you will see a company bigger than
Maktoob,” Toukan says. “This could be a much bigger exit. I
think the industry is beginning to materialize,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Jordanian monarchy is placing bets on similar
success stories beginning with the launch, shortly after Toukan’s
watershed sell-off, of Oasis500. Established in 2010 with the
backing of King Abdullah, Oasis was given a mandate to mentor,
invest and help launch 500 regional startups over six years.
Ahmed Alfi returned to Cairo in 2006 and in 2011 launched one of the region’s best-known incubator spaces, Flat6Labs. He is now remodel-
ing part of the former campus of the American University of Cairo to become Egypt’s largest technology park. “Everyone knows my main
goal is collaboration,” he says.
Flat6Labs
CEO
Ramez Mohamed has overseen the
company’s incubation of 36 startups with loans from
$10,000 to $15,000, in exchange for which Flat6Labs
received 10-15 percent ownership.
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