Hello Tomorrow … the rise of Arabic innovators, beyond sand and oil, beyond borders and cultures

March 27, 2019

“Hello Tomorrow” proclaims the bold advertising of Emirates. Indeed the airline has soared ahead of its global challengers in recent years, focusing on a strategy not just to compete, but to change the world of travel. Its strategic model and brand experience, have transformed what success looks like amongst its peers, and customer ratings and financial performance prove it works.

Arabic businesses and brands are on the rise. They now have the ambition and resources to be the best in the world. Al Jazeera gives the world a different view of what’s happening, Emaar astounds the world with the scale of its constructions, and Etisalat is building a global network of partners.  Jumeirah extends its hospitality to new destinations, whilst the future smart city of Neom promises to transform living in Saudi Arabia, and Savola extends its food brands in response to changing culture and taste.

I have worked extensively across the Middle East from Egypt and Lebanon to KSA and UAE in many different businesses – food and drink, telecoms and tech, retail and travel, start-ups and stock exchanges. Over the last decade I have seen a huge change in both capability and action. Projects have included developing new insights and business strategies, brand extensions and marketing communications, embedding creativity and accelerating innovation, designing new products and business models, rethinking pricing and channels, and inspiring business leaders to go further and faster.

The world keeps moving forward. Change is relentless, accelerated by technology and globalisation, with new experiences and expectations. In the last 25 years, the Arabic marketplace has changed dramatically. Local businesses face challenges from new start-ups and new competitors, new technologies and new business models. However the best  ideas to compete and innovate are already out there – banking learning from hospitality, pharma from food, airlines from gaming – and from the new entrepreneurial hubs around the world like Hyderabad, Schenzen, or even Nairobi.

“Gamechangers” are the new breed of businesses who play a different game. They don’t believe that success is achieved through heritage and scale, they imagine new possibilities through creativity and partnerships. They are uninhibited by the old conventions of business, and have little respect for the established boundaries of markets and nations. They embrace digital, fused with physical, to explore new ways of working, of engaging customers, and driving growth – embracing social networks, collaboration and customisation, franchising and syndication, advocacy and branded movements.  They win through imagination and ideas, by out-thinking the competition.

The World Expo 2020 is a fabulous opportunity to showcase for the most creative Arabic brands and businesses, the ideas and innovations of a region on the rise. Whilst it is always tempting to bias innovation towards the spectacular, particular in places like Dubai famed for the extravagance of the Burj Khalifa and Palm, it is often the humble innovations that make life better. The Middle East grew up out of sand and oil, but its growth will be sustained through more human and social innovations.

At the back of my “Gamechangers” book you will find the “Gamechangers Lab” toolkit of 16 canvases to help you get started, plus video tutorials and more tools to download online. Also online you will regular updates, “Gamechanger Profiles” stories and videos to inspire you. There are also “Gamechanger Awards” in each region to select and celebrate the most innovative companies.

Arab Innovators

Here are just a few of the Arab innovators that stand out right now:

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Faisal Bin Khalid Al Qassimi, MBF Holdings

33 year old, Sheikh Mohammed has an impressive list of achievements over the 10 years since he started out as an associate at HSBC private bank in London. In the UAE his projects and plans include a new hospital concept in Jumeirah Beach Residences – having already co-founded Al Zahra Hospital in 2003 – a school in Nad Al Hammar Gardens, a hospital in Abu Dhabi and a 74,103 sq m shopping mall in Sharjah. The strength of these projects, according to Sheikh Mohammed and MBF, is that they are evergreen – they stay relevant at any point in time. International projects include projects including the sprawling 600,000 sq m, 400-bed Al Waha Medical City teaching hospital in Madinah and an international financial centre in Istanbul. “One thing that is absolutely certain about today’s world is change, and it is important our future growth strategies adapt to the rapid change the world is undergoing every day,” he says.

Hind Hobeika, Butterfleye

Hobeika is an inventor and entrepreneur, pioneering the way swimmers train for their races. While participating in the Qatar-based reality show, Stars of Science, Hobeika invented Butterfleye – the first heart rate monitor specifically designed for swimmers. Her invention tells the swimmer when they’ve reached their target heart rate inside their goggles. She has since received major investments for Butterfleye and is on her way to changing swim practice for good. Hobeika is the winner of the 2012 MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Business Plan Competition, and her invention was tested at the 2012 London Olympics by 15 Olympic simmers from the U.S. and New Zealand.

Huda Kattan, Huda Beauty

The mastermind behind the Huda Beauty brand initially scraped a living as a makeup artist for Revlon before starting a YouTube channel and amassing millions of viewers who were quickly lured in with free makeup tips and tricks. She launched her company in 2010 and now sells a line of beauty products ranging from skin foundations to lip colours and false eyelashes. The Iraqi-American, who has 30 million followers on Instagram alone, released a reality series on on-demand viewing service Facebook Watch in June, which goes behind the scenes of her daily life to share the ‘good, bad, scary and ugly times’ of running her Dubai-based family business.

Elie Khoury, Woopra

Khoury co-founded iFusion Labs and developed Woopra in 2008,  pioneering real-time analytics and giving businesses and blogs the power to instantly turn live data into actions and results.  The site offers instant, detailed visitor data giving its over 100,000 users the ability to harness the power of their stats through tools that enable them to automatically and manually interact with individual visitors. Khoury also co-created YallaStartup, a project that seeks to support MENA tech entrepreneurs. Wamda Capital is an investor in Woopra.

Sara Al Madani, Rouge Couture 

Madani’s parents inspired her to start her own business at a young age. Following her success as a young entrepreneur and business woman, Sara was selected to inspire women in the UAE to be more active and self-confident in order to achieve business success. Recognized for her creativity and hard work, Sara is an honoured speaker in many universities, colleges and institutes. She truly believes that it is important to be an active member of the community, inspiring the younger generation and continuously sharing knowledge, experience and information.

Haitham Mattar, Ras Al Khaimah

Mattar was appointed CEO of RAKTDA in May 2015 to drive the economic growth of Ras Al Khaimah by positioning the emirate as a world-class destination for sustainable tourism across the globe. With more than 25 years of experience in global destination and hospitality management and marketing, Mattar has held senior roles with leading global brands including Marriott, InterContinental and Hilton. He has lead Ras Al Khaimah’s destination growth strategy, through capturing existing and emerging source market movements and global tourism trends. Under Mattar’s leadership, the Destination 2019 tourism strategy was launched to diversify the emirate’s tourism offerings. As a result, it is achieving continued growth in visitor numbers and netting a growing share of the global outbound tourism market.

Shaji Ul Mulk, Mulk

Mulk is one of the UAE’s richest Indians with an estimated net worth of $2.7bn, and how could he not be when he is the founder and chairman of Mulk Holdings, a global business powerhouse with diversified interests in the manufacturing of building facades, facade contracting, healthcare, plastics and sports assets. The company employs over 7,000 staff around the world, with manufacturing operations in the US, Europe, India, UAE, Oman and Ghana. The group’s flagship brand, Alubond USA, is the world’s largest metal composite brand and the first aluminium composite panel in the UAE market.

Abdulrahman Tarabzouni, Syphir 

Tarabzouni is the co-founder of Syphir which developed MailRank, an algorithm that prioritzes e-mails by assigning scores based on probabilistic analysis on a person’s social graph. The system addresses productivity problems created by lost time sifting through irrelevant e-mail. Syphir won the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Business Plan Competition in 2009. Tarabzouni was named by Arabian Business as one of the most influential Arabs under 30 and was the first recipient of the MIT ASO Science and Technology Achievement Award. He has since led the team at Google Emerging Arabia, responsible for working across to establish, incubate, and grow Google’s core and emerging businesses while fostering the internet ecosystem in the region.

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