Alabbar's message to GCC business patriarchs: Participating in the digital revolution is our obligation

Mohamed Alabbar will make his debut in the digital space by launching Noon, a $1bn e-commerce platform

One story has dominated our news feed and headlines since November last year. The anticipated launch of Noon.com, the MENA’s latest e-commerce platform, with $1bn in what can be considered as seed funding left everyone in awe.

But don’t be misled - grandiose, generously funded projects were not uncommon for the man behind it, Mohamed Alabbar, the chairman of Emaar Properties, one of the world’s biggest property developers.

Biographers might attempt to decipher why years ending in seven have been the turning points in Alabbar’s career.

In 1997 he founded Emaar Properties, masterminding an aggressive growth strategy to diversify the company’s interests in real estate, retail and hospitality in the following two decades. Before that Alabbar had won plaudits for leading the Department of Economic Development (DED), within which he initiated the Dubai Shopping Festival, one of the world’s best-known shopping fiestas, among his other professional endeavours.

Due to Emaar’s rapid progress over the years, today’s commentators are prone to believe that the entrepreneurial path of Alabbar, as we know him today, has been a smooth ride.

In 2013 Alabbar shared with Arabian Business a story about how his boss - the Ruler of Dubai HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum – had simply left the meeting without saying a word after Alabbar had presented nine possible designs for the Burj Khalifa, today’s tallest building in the world, leaving him to ponder what that meant.

He also talked about how he dealt with the sudden launch of two competitors, much stronger than Emaar Properties at the time, namely Nakheel and Dubai Properties, both real estate developers founded by the Dubai government itself.

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From 2017 onwards, Alabbar has decided not to rely solely on safe, low-yielding real estate investments, but to start playing a role in the digital economy. That is the decision that came as a thunderbolt to many.

“I have a digital officer who is turning the company [Emaar Properties] upside down, right now as we speak,” he says at a press conference on the sidelines of the 14th Arabian Business Forum held in Dubai last November.

“My advice to any company in the world is do not think whether to change the way you do business or not. Digitise! It took us one year to search for the chief digital officer for Emaar. Why does a real estate company need a digital officer? Because we also need to change.”

However, Emaar’s undergoing digital transformation is just a part of Alabbar’s plans. The region’s fast-growing online retail market appears to be his new playing field.

Noon, funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and a group of investors led by Alabbar, each of the partners contributing US$500mn, should  launch this month. It is expected to help drive e-commerce sales from 2 percent of the market, or US$3bn, to 15 percent, or $70bn, over the next decade.

To secure Noon’s taking the “lion’s share” of this sum, Alabbar previously acquired Kuwait Food Co, which owns the Middle East franchises for KFC and Pizza Hut, for US$2.4bn; led two investor groups to buy a combined 16.45 percent stake in Aramex, a Dubai-based courier; and formed a joint venture with YOOX Net-a-Porter (YNAP) to conquer the region’s online luxury retail sector.

Among other announced digital projects are his plans to launch a phone messaging service for the Middle East to compete with WhatsApp.

“I was asked: ‘What are you doing with this? Where is your focus?’” he says at the press conference. “I told them that there were only two ventures, to be honest. There is a digital venture and there is my traditional real estate business, which is where I belong.

“I don’t think that my age fits the digital revolution, but I’m participating in it. I support and promote the ideas, but my bread and butter is my real estate business.

“We all go through cycles. These things happen in business. You have good years, you have slow years, but in general this market is okay. Not as rosy as in previous years, but it is really good in the long term.

“However, no matter who is investing in which business, I think that the digital path is a path that we have to open up. We have to open it up, we have to be involved.”

In the days following Noon’s announcement, some observers raised eyebrows questioning not only its viability but also its necessity; others expressed concerns about its possible deterrent effect on the development of the local start-up ecosystem.

Nonetheless, as the story follows us from 2016 into 2017 and beyond, it might unfold favourably for local entrepreneurs – sooner rather than later.

“I think it will attract attention to the start-up ecosystem,” says Hasan Haider, CEO and founder of Tenmou, Bahrain’s first formal angel investment group, when asked for his opinion on the impact of Alabbar’s latest initiative on the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. Haider was speaking to a group of journalists, including Arabian Business StartUp, during the MENA Angel Investor Summit 2016 held in Manama last November.

“One of the things I have heard is when Mohamed Alabbar announced that he had started to look into tech, other traditional real estate investors started to think: ‘Oh, if he’s going into it, there must be something to it.’” Haider adds.

“So, I think this might actually trigger more investors to come into the market, whether they will be the right angel investors or not still has to be seen. But what I have seen is that in some markets, like in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the younger generation is getting the go-ahead from their parents who are like: “Oh, if Mohamed Alabbar is doing it, maybe the thing you’re talking about isn’t so crazy, so I’ll give you a little bit of money to go and invest in this tech start-up stuff.”

When conveyed Haider’s opinion on the matter, Alabbar says: “If this is true, then my job is done. [I was also asked] ‘Why do you have to start this thing?’ I said that it was an amazing opportunity, but then it became a purpose as well.

“I think that my generation needs to respect the digital revolution and we need to contribute. Money, fame, that’s okay, but now we need to participate in it.”

As with many other projects, Alabbar is hardly wrong with this one as well, and a valuable way of participating in the digital revolution is by supporting local technology companies.

The UAE has already become a significant incubator of these, with the country’s 32 most well-funded tech start-ups collectively raising $2.3bn since 2013, according to a recent report by CB Insights. Excluding Noon, the country is home to two unicorns – private companies valued at US$1bn and above – Souq and Careem.

(L-R) Hisham Farouk is the CEO of Grant Thornton and Hasan Haider is the founder and CEO of Tenmou.

The question that arises is how much of these dollars has come from high-net worth local business families?

“Historically, local family business portfolios have largely been represented by equity and real estate,” explains Hisham Farouk, CEO at Grant Thornton, an international accounting and consulting firm. “In the early 2000s, these portfolios remained similar in structure, however, the region experienced a shift in geographic distribution, whereby overseas investments being brought back into the region.

“When it comes to investing in local tech start-ups, we are very much in the infancy stage. Currently, accelerators and regional VCs are the main source of support for start-ups, specifically within Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and more recently within the UAE….Yet, overall the ecosystem of funding is still very much in its embryonic stage.

“That said, the acceleration of funding will be powered by significant success stories, such as the two unicorns, Souq and Careem, which have both raised much more funding than other tech start-ups.  The investors of these unicorns have been varied and diversified.

“Nevertheless they are institutes, therefore attracting market attention and awareness, which inevitably will drive returns for investors, whilst providing assurance for other tech start-ups.

“The next wave of local tech start-ups will gradually attract family offices who will diversify their investment portfolio based on the changing regional landscape. Perhaps family members are already investing in tech start-ups, but doing so on an individual basis as opposed to leveraging the family name.”

Globally, family offices collectively control over US$2tr in assets, according to the recently published report by the World Economic Forum and J.P. Morgan. Most of the surveyed families have progressed from focusing solely on local business ventures and real estate, and have started allowing access to capital for start-ups and/or direct investing opportunities to their younger generations.

Farouk explains that for this shift to occur in the GCC region, the right type of information needs to be presented to the family business leaders. “Don’t forget that the patriarchs or the senior executives within these family offices have built their businesses as a result of them being shrewd, intelligent and their ability to understand where the opportunities are,” he says.

“Real estate has always been the safest investment stake globally; however, we would advise that portfolios need to be diversified. In order to remain relevant, whilst capitalising on the regional opportunities we would suggest that the second and third generation adopt and advocate such messages to the remainder of the family office.

“With this principle in mind, family offices do need to consider allocating a percentage to be invested in the upcoming tech businesses. Perhaps family offices could consider creating micro VCs which would allow for further investment in tech start-ups. This would not only address the portfolio diversification gap but also support these start-ups to accelerate for the benefit of the region. We need to consider that not all start-ups will cross the finish line, but the ones that do will obviously win gold medals.”

Available data on GCC family offices is scarce. However, their distinctive feature is that those who are in line to inherit wealth stay committed to the ventures founded by their predecessors – the region’s family-built and family-run business behemoths. One in three second-generation entrepreneurs from Asia and the Middle East join the family business compared to just 15 percent of those in the US and Western Europe, states a HSBC global study.

However, the majority of the next generation of the region’s family business leaders intend to make changes when they take over, reveals the ‘Next-Generation Family Businesses’ report by Deloitte EMEA Family Business Centre, published in May 2016. The report further reveals that 51 percent of them intend “to take more risks than their predecessors.”

The report adds that innovation is important to the next generation, with 76 percent of respondents considering it among their top three priorities. Conversely, 61 percent of the previous generation of family members are “well aware of the need for innovation”, but 40 percent are “not so willing to take on the associated risks.”

Rashid Alabbar, founder of online fashion portal SIVVI, which falls within the portfolio of Alabbar Enterprises, is one example of a younger family business member who has succeeded in making changes even before he came to the helm of his father’s business empire. Launched in 2014, SIVVI is the spark that led to Noon.

Rashid Alabbar, founder of Dubai-based unisex e-tailer SIVVI.com.

“It was about smart data,” Rashid Alabbar says when asked how he helped steer his father’s company into a formerly unthinkable direction. “My father is very analytical, and when you show him the right data, he gets  [excited].

“He understands the numbers, he knows that there is a market, and he understands the demographics of the population and that younger generations are always on iPads.

“So, for me it [to convince him] was not that difficult also because our market is really an attractive place for any industry in terms of the population, the adoption of technology, and so on.

“Obviously, it took me a little bit of time, but what my father is excited about is the evolution of big changes. If it is a small change, it does not really affect his energy level. But when he sees big changes, big opportunities, then he gets really excited.”

Elissa Freiha, an Emirati of Lebanese and American descent, has dogged determination to help transform the UAE into the next best entrepreneurial hub globally.

Raised and educated abroad, the vivacious daughter of Bassam Freiha, president of Dar Assayad, a pan-Arab publishing house, also makes no secret of her insatiable desire to empower women across the MENA region.

Having nothing but support by her family, she says, her journey from returning to the UAE a few years ago to launching Womena, her Dubai-based women’s angel investment platform, in 2014, nevertheless holds many lessons for the region’s young business leaders.

“Initially, my idea was to move to Dubai, where my father is based, because we saw potential for the UAE to become the next entrepreneurial hub globally, and for us it was also the most exciting place to launch a business,” she says.

“I got nothing but support from my family from the get-go.  Although my father was completely supportive, neither he nor anyone in my family understood what I was doing. What came along with that was a dismissal of the seriousness of my endeavour and of my capabilities, as well as the potenital of investing in technology and high impact businesses.”

Elissa Freiha, co-founder of Womena, a Dubai-based angel investment platform.

Teaming up with Chantalle Dumonceaux, whom she met while studying at the American University of Paris, Freiha launched Womena, the country’s only fully manager-led women’s angel investor group, with two goals in mind – to provide a platform for HNWI women to make educated and informed investment decisions and to secure funding for the region’s promising early stage technology businesses.

The partners spent a year studying the feasibility of their business idea. “Throughout that year I was supported, but I was also pressured into getting a job with the government; something that was considered respectable and helpful to the nation,” Freiha continues.

“And, sure, I was told to continue my project on the side.

“Regardless of my objections, I was pressured so much that I ended up taking a job for a short time until I realised that it was putting me in a situation where my family would be far more involved in my career, far more hands-on, including being able to call the CEO directly.

“I was not comfortable with that at all.

“So, I quit that job quite quickly, after just a month.

“What is interesting is that, whilst simultaneously launching what is now Womena, I was also considering opening a restaurant. I was pushed far more towards the restaurant, a more traditional business, whereas the investment network was dismissed because nobody understood it.”

Explaining that Womena  proved to be a source of “endless energy and motivation,” Freiha made it her full-time focus, dropping all other projects. Starting with a small group of 10 investors in 2015, Womena has grown to 42 members, who are expected to make at least one investment a year.

In addition to facilitating the investment process from deal sourcing to close, the  Womena team holds regular pitch meetings and special events to teach the finer points of angel investing to their members.

More than 40 entrepreneurs have pitched to their membership base, all of whom were carefully selected out of more than 1,000 inbound submissions. The group has invested AED 1.7 million ($462,000) in six portfolio companies to date.

“My father is now my biggest PR agent,” Freiha says, adding that her brother’s successful investments in a few US-based technology companies also contributed to this change. “He still does not blindly ‘trust’ the technology sector, but he blindly trusts the strength of his children’s decision making, and he also understands that we have a stronger risk appetite.”

Freiha considers Alabbar’s involvement in the digital sphere a reaffirming act of solidarity on the part of the country’s business leaders. “It is reaffirming to those of us who have been working hard and struggling in this ecosystem to grow the confidence of investors,” she says.

“It gives a lot of hope to the entrepreneurs here to know that funds are going to be deployed in their industry.

“It is going to attract more entrepreneurs to Dubai to raise funding and also an increasing interest in technology, but we have to make sure that our entrepreneurs can prove themselves and their business models time and time again.

“Otherwise, the investors who are now motivated to invest will be deterred from continuing because of failing businesses in their portfolio.”

With the likes of Rashid Alabbar and Elissa Freiha leading the way, it will be interesting to see how advanced the region’s technology start-up ecosystem will be in 2027. However, it will happen only if they get the go-ahead too.

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