Arabic Gamechangers … Anghami to Cafu, Chalhoub and CropOne, Neom to Noon, RedSea and Savola … the Middle East has become a hub of creativity, from tech innovations to sustainable living.

November 17, 2022

I spend much of my time working with the leaders of companies across the Middle East. It is a vibrant region, driven by its young and ambitious consumers, entrepreneurs and governments.

When arriving to deliver a keynote at the UAE Prime Ministers Office, I was greeted by a Pepper robot, who guided me around the ultra high-tech facility. Later I visited the Ministry of Possibilities, listening to the government’s Minister for AI talking about how a new generation of advanced tech will be prioritised to drive innovation, and make Dubai the world’s “best city to live in” by 2040.

Leading the executive team of Al Ghurair Investments – a Dubai-based group of real estate to mobility, energy and resources – through a two-day vision workshop, they looked back to their heritage – the first flour mill, the first bank, the first mall. Now they want to be pioneers of the future, enhancing everyday life, in novel and practical ways.

It’s the same story in KSA. Working with the board and exec team of Savola Group, the leading food and retail business, we explored the latest advances in more sustainable food production, for example pasta made from quinoa rather wheat, and new technologies to engage consumers, like quick-commerce. We explored new horizons, categories and geographies, with purpose beyond profit.

Oil no longer shines quite so brightly across the region. Aramco is huge, and the world’s most valuable company (or second to Apple, depending on oil prices), but there is a real commitment to diversify, and to use that oil-fuelled wealth to drive radical innovation, not to catch-up but to leap frog into a global hub of knowledge and innovation. In KSA, the nation’s Vision 2030 is driving transformational change, everywhere.

Technology is at the front of everyone’s minds. Enter Dubai’s new Museum of the Future, and you are immediately in a new sci-fi reality. It’s almost 20 years ago since I first worked with STC, previously known as Saudi Telecom. Today it is one of the most innovative tech businesses in the world. The same when I go to Etisalat or Zain. Same when I go to banks like Boubyan or NBK.

And then, of course, there are some truly mega-projects. Not just a local rivalry to construct the world’s tallest building, or most impressive shopping mall, but ventures like Neom. “It’s an attempt to do something that’s never been done before and it’s coming at a time when the world needs fresh thinking and new solutions. Simply put, it will be a destination, a home for people who dream big and want to be part of building a new model for sustainable living, working and prospering.”

Of course there are still big ethical questions, but mindsets and practices are changing quickly. Better to engage with local people and business leaders, to educate and support their positive developments, rather than passively judge from afar. Is this greenwashing? Yes, sustainability is a hot topic, and there is still plenty of oil being drilled. But in sectors like agriculture, necessity is driving the region to pioneer new sustainable methods. Q-commerce is growing faster here than anywhere in the world, driven by investment and a youthful demographic. And governments have committed to net-zero carbon by 2060.

Culturally, the region is transforming rapidly. Along the Jeddah waterfront women are out walking and even running. Justin Timberlake and the world’s richest Formula 1 Grand Prix are regular visitors too. In Cairo, I can’t wait to use the new Great Egyptian Museum open its doors, right in front of the pyramids. In Abu Dhabi you can visit the new Louvre (until 2037 when its brand license expires). KSA’s Ministry of Culture is doing great work too, to educate the world on Arabic heritage, but also to interpret culture in a modern way too.

Here are 12 of the most innovative companies I see right now in the Middle East:

Anghami … streaming Arabic music

Abu Dhabi-based Anghami is the biggest music streaming platform in the Middle East and North Africa. The service licenses music from big Arabic labels such as Platinum Records, Mazzika, and Melody, which it features alongside international hits. Its catalogue comprises more than 30 million songs available for over 70 million users. The company also serves as a social network in a region where few concerts are held, experimenting with ways for fans to share music with each other and discover artists as a community.

Aramex … frictionless delivery

To improve customer experience and last-mile transformation, Aramex has implemented frictionless and contactless delivery, and updated the Al model to factor in new transit times to increase transparency. It has boosted digital touchpoints to optimize delivery routes and shorten delivery times. It launched Aramex mobile app, rolled out an integrated logistics execution platform, and scaled impact through its Delivering Good platform, which is focused on education, youth empowerment, entrepreneurship, and the environment.

Cafu … on-demand car fueling

Cafu, part of Al Ghurair Investments, offers an on-demand fuel delivery service, saving time queuing up at fuel stations, and coming to the rescue during emergencies with the click of a button. As the MENA region’s first on-demand car service designed to meet the consumer’s needs, it has evolved to become the app of choice to streamline car ownership, setting a higher bar for innovation–from refueling vehicles to renewing car insurance.

Chalhoub … talent for fashion

Being a key player in the luxury market across the Middle East, Chalhoub rolled out programs to empower local designers, accelerate startups, and encourage women leaders. The conglomerate has launched an accelerator program for retail and tech startups to implement and test their solutions. They also brought new technology to brick-and-mortar stores, self-checkout powered by computer vision, experimented with immersive virtual experiences, transitioned towards unified commerce, and created a personalised shopping experience.

Emirates Crop One … vertical farming

Bustanica, based in Dubai, is the world’s largest vertical farm with 330,000-square-foot of shelves growing lettuce, spinach, arugula and more, with 95% less water and no pesticides, developed by Emirates Crop One (ECO) and JV between USA’s CropOne and Emirates Airlines, in a nation where 90% of food is imported.  Passengers of Emirates and almost 100 other airlines served by Emirates Flight Catering will be first to taste the produce.

Econcrete … living concrete

“ECOncrete” partners with cement makers to produce modified concrete whose composition, texture and design fosters the growth of native plants and animals. The company recently worked with the Rotterdam Authority to build 16 tide pools on the Calandkanaal, turning them into miniature ecosystems. The Israeli company has also worked on projects in New York, Georgia, Florida, and London.

Five Hotels … super-luxury living

Five Hotels and Resorts, which includes Five Palm Jumeirah and Five Jumeirah Village, has been rewriting the rules of hospitality and is a culinary destination with a range of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Five has prioritised customer relationships, adopted sustainability measures, and expanded digital touch points.It has adopted sustainability measures, including preserving biodiversity with over half a million square feet of flora at Five Jumeirah Village. It has a record label and an upcoming recording studio to bring together a global audience of music enthusiasts.

Huspy … digital home buying

With the increasing demand for home ownership in the UAE, Huspy is digitalising the home-buying experience for the entire ecosystem: buyers, real estate agents, and mortgage brokers. Huspy uses technology to create a transactional platform that lets users participate in every stage of the home-buying process—from finding a property to financing it. Using technology and expert knowledge, it has built a transparent and easy-to-understand experience.

Masdar City … sustainable living

Abu Dhabi’s clean-tech cluster, business-free zone, residential neighbourhood and public green spaces – has emerged as a hub for research and development, offering quality life with the lowest possible environmental footprint, with established measurable goals in energy consumption, water usage, waste generation, social impact, and economic viability. The city’s tenants include the International Renewable Energy Agency, the UAE Space Agency, G42 Healthcare, Siemens, Honeywell, Advanced Technology Research Center, and the Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence.

Neom … the futuristic megacity

The $500 billion project seeks to create a huge economic zone, a 26,500-square-km (10,230-square-mile) high-tech development on the Red Sea, including industrial and logistics areas, and able to house 9 million people. “The Line” is envisioned as a 200-metre-wide series of “modules” for different urban uses sandwiched between two 500-metre-high, 170-km-long mirrored exterior facades that cut through a vast array of desert and mountains. There will be hanging pathways, gardens and even a stadium. Glow-in-the dark beaches. Billions of trees planted in a country dominated by the desert. Levitating trains. A fake moon. A car-free, carbon-free city built in a straight line over 100 miles long in the desert. That’s the vision.

Noon … connecting entrepreneurs

The online retailer launched a quick-commerce service in Dubai, Riyadh, and Cairo, delivering home and beauty products, toys and groceries to customers in as little as 15 minutes. The Mahali initiative by Noon has embraced local Emirati and Saudi micro-entrepreneurs, providing them with assistance and support to build their enterprises online. Its food delivery service, Noon Food, offers local food and beverage providers viable means to engage with their customers online at low commission rates along with their logistics and fulfilment network.

RedSea … desert agritech

RedSea uses its patented technology to grow fruits and vegetables in harsh desert climates, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE, while reducing carbon, energy, and water footprint. It has developed salt, heat, and drought-tolerant crops and created solutions allowing them to grow. Using sunlight and saltwater as base resources, its innovative technology achieves savings of 300 litres of freshwater per kilo of produce, enabling greater production, improving food security, and reducing food miles in the MENA region.

Savola … sustainable foods

Egypt’s Nile Delta is one of the world’s most vulnerable areas to climate change and rising sea levels.With a population of over 100 million that already imports 60% of its food, any significant decline in agricultural output poses a major threat. Savola is one of the region’s largest food companies, now moving from commodities like cooking oil to develop added-value foods, but with sustainability as a key driver. One recent project was the development of Quinoa-based pasta, a much more environmentally-friendly ingredient, and more healthy too.

STC … daring with digital

STC has evolved from basic telecoms to advanced tech over 25 years, to become a world-class digital leader, built on “drive, devotion and dynamism”. 4 years ago STC recognised it needed to accelerate change in a tech-driven world, and put in place a bold plan to transform itself into a fully digital company incorporating all the elements of an ecosystem to serve the future. The strategy, called DARE, provided a new direction and pace of transformation. DARE stands for “Digitising STC, Accelerating performance, Reinventing experience, and Expanding in scale and scope of everything we do.”

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