The startup landscape in the Middle East may be quieter than much of the rest of the world, but don’t let that deceive you. Behind the scenes, there are countless talented developers working on services, applications and websites, some of which not only cater to a Middle Eastern audience, but to the entire world. From sites built on the Groupon model, to video sharing sites, to browser extensions, there is no stone that has been left unturned.
That’s not to say that Middle Eastern startups aren’t working in the face of some pretty intimidating obstacles. The Middle East is still on the hunt for its Silicon Valley, and internet usage in the region is significantly lower in comparison to the rest of the world. But that number is slowly increasing, along with the number of awesome startups in the region.
There are a few startups that have been around for several years now, and they have demonstrated just how successful they can be. Maktoob was one of the first Middle Eastern success stories, bought by Yahoo to the tune of USD 80 million. Others such as Yamli, Bayt and many others have gained a strong following in the region over time.
We’ve put together a list, in no particular order, of 15 startups coming out of the Middle East which you should definitely keep an eye on.
Jordanian based Istikana, an Arabic version of Hulu, offers full length video content in Arabic that is one hundred percent legal. As we’ve mentioned before, Istikana is not the first site of its kind catering to an Arabic viewership, but it sets itself apart by providing older content. With on-demand videos in a variety of genres from Cartoons and Theatre, to Comedy and Religion, take a trip down memory lane with some great Arabic classics or discover some shows you’re too young to remember.
The content has primarily come from Jordan, but from Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia is on its way. With 3 to 4 new titles released on a weekly basis, you can constantly come back to Istikana and get your fix of Arabic videos. Istikana can also be accessed on the go from your iOS or Android devices.
Still in private beta, Cashbury is definitely one Middle Eastern startup you have to keep an eye on. Loyalty cards are still a popular marketing method to create brand loyalty in the Middle East. The guys behind Cashbury have come up with an environmentally friendly alternative, which will also come in handy for those of us who tend to accumulate several loyalty cards, and never end up using them, because we forget them at home.
Cashbury provides a smartphone app that ensure that your loyalty card comes with you no matter where you go. Business owners who want to get in on the action will have to pay a monthly fee of $9, which is likely less than what is paid to print loyalty cards themselves.
With Groupon leading the way in the group buying phenomenon, it’s no surprise that several Middle Eastern specific group buying websites have made their way to forefront of the region’s market. A few have stood out, one of which is Cairo-based Offerna, whose name literally means “Our Offers” in Arabized English. Originally slated to launch in January 2011, Offerna’s doors officially opened in March, offering deals in its home town, there are plans to expand throughout the Middle East.
The site has already met with resounding success in Egypt, with offers selling out in a matter of hours, despite the fact that e-commerce is a niche concept in the country. The success is atributed to knowing the Egyptian consumer and givng them what they want. Available in both Arabic and English, the site offers a daily deal, with purchases including restaurant, spa and workshop discounts.
The first company in the Middle East to cash in on the group buying craze, Gonabit started out in Dubai and has now expanded into several other cities across the region. Gonabit has several firsts to its name, including being the first to break into certain markets, including Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan, as well as being the first site of its kind to offer an Arabic interface. Like Offerna, Gonabit offers a daily deal for each of the cities it caters to.
E-commerce has finally come into its own in the Middle East with several major online retailers that have Middle Eastern consumers turning to the Web instead of the mall for their shopping needs, such as Souq.com and Otlob Mall. Nahel entered the e-commerce scene in 2009, and looks to be a true contender for Souq, offering a variety of products to online shoppers from electronics to books to health and beauty products. The sheer volume of brand names, including Apple and Blackberry, is bound to make Nahel a huge success in the region. The UAE based site caters to a local audience, while also offering international shipping on all products via Aramex.
Marginize is a browser extension that gives you a space to interact with other users who visit the same sites as you. Taking a page from location-based social networks, you can “check in” to a site, and leave a comment about it. Like FourSquare’s Mayor incentive program, the most active Marginize participant for each site becomes its ‘curator’.
In addition to Marginize user comments, you will also see what is being said about the site on Twitter. Based in the US, with a Lebanese developer at its helm, Marginize is one of the Middle Eastern startups which has gone beyond the region and has been met with resounding success throughout the world.
Based in Israel, Genieo is a great news app that studies the stories that you read and generates a personalized website, or as they put it, newspaper, just for you. Genieo’s accuracy is impressive, and not only gives you an interesting way to keep up with your favourite sites, it also allows you to discover new sites you may have overlooked.
After downloading and using the browser extension for a while, you’ll find a wealth of articles and information waiting to be read, without having to lift a finger. Genieo is Windows and Mac compatible and works with Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari and Opera.
Edufina is a Jordan-based bilingual hybrid site, providing a forum, news updates, and basic information on universities in the Middle East. The site aims to become the one-stop shop for all university-related information from the region, for students, parents and educators.
Prospective students can compare up to 3 different universities at a time when choosing the right college. The site, however, isn’t without its glitches. The search function doesn’t seem to be working, and the profiles of many of the listed universities are far from complete. If these kinks are worked out, the site could become an invaluable tool for students throughout the region.
Still in its early stages of development, Mimix, the winner of the 2010 Global Startup Battle, is a Lebanese startup which, once launched, could aim to bridge a language barrier that we don’t often think of. A desktop application, Mimix translates both spoken and written words into international sign language. To begin with, Mimix is focusing on translating the English language into sign language, with the ambitious plan of expanding into translating other languages into various sign languages and dialects.
Nakhweh is a community service website which makes it easy for volunteers to find an organisation to get involved with. NGOs and civil service societies can sign up for free, putting out a call for volunteers, telling people exactly what they’re looking for. So far, the Jordan based website only has listings from Jordanian organisations, but there is an amazing amount of potential in the site to really make a difference throughout the region. Nakhweh has also launched a blood drive in order to link blood donors with those in need.
Kngine is an Egypt-based search engine which does things a little differently. Rather than yield search results based on rank, Kngine is a semantic search engine which tries to understand what you’re looking for by analyzing your search terms and how they relate to each other. Kngine has met with great success despite having some pretty stiff competition from other similar sites around the world, such as DuckDuckGo.
One of Istikana’s main competitors in the market is Shofha, which was the first site of its kind to launch in the Middle East. The site, available both in English and Arabic, offers a variety of full length films, both old and new, with most if not all of them Egyptian in origin. However, unlike Istikana, you do have to pay to download or stream the films. You can buy, rent or stream movies on Shofha, but in order for the site to work, you have to have Microsoft Silverlight installed.
Mustalahatak is a recent addition to the Arabic web, and if it receives enough contributions, it has the potential to become the leading authority in Arabic tech terminology. Any Arabic speaker knows how English technology or Internet related terms are simply Arabized. Rather than twist an English word to suit an Arabic accent, Mustalahatak (which literally means ‘your expressions;), uses crowd sourcing to translate these words into Arabic.
While the interface certainly leaves something to be desired, this can be overlooked (for now) because of the site’s potential. To contribute your own translations, you can either sign up for a free account, or connect the site to your Facebook account.
MawalyMawaly is a site that any Arabic music buff should have bookmarked. The site is pretty much your one-stop shop for everything you need to know about your favourite Arab singers. With Mawaly, You can stream thousands of songs, watch music videos, and keep up with the latest industry gossip and news. Mawaly is 100% legal, but in order to take advantage of the site’s features, you will have to sign up for a free account.
Available only in Arabic, our hope is that they will eventually launch an English version of the site, so non-Arabic speakers can get a taste of the latest in what Arabic pop music has to offer.