In a part of the world better known for towering skyscrapers and oil than for its startup scene, Gulf Arab entrepreneurs might be seeing bright times ahead. That’s according to Fadi Ghandour, executive chairman of Wanda Group, whose venture capital fund invests in tech companies all over the Middle East and North Africa.
“For years we’ve said there is an inverse relationship between how change happens on the regulatory environment and the price of oil — the lower the price of oil, the faster the change process happens,” Ghandour told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Thursday, pointing to Arab Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates whose economies have historically been dependent on hydrocarbon revenues.
Now that oil prices are dramatically down from their October highs, the veteran Middle East investor says the market moves “will definitely be a blessing in disguise” and in that it will force the development of sustainable, knowledge-based economies and jobs. He believes that startups founded five or more years ago are now reaching their maturity stage, meaning there will be more businesses scaling up in the next several years — if they can get the necessary support.
“These companies born somewhere around 2011, 2012, have raised much more money, they are growing much faster, the region is adopting mobile smartphone technology much faster, they are interacting much faster and at a much larger scale, specifically in Saudi Arabia,” Ghandour said.
“This is the time when there is size, there is scale, and the big funds globally who don’t want to take the risk early on, are going to be looking for entry into a market that they don’t have much presence in.” He pointed to New York-based global equity firm General Atlantic’s investment of $120 million in Dubai-based website Property Finder last November. The Middle East real estate platform was founded in 2007 and has been profitable since 2013.
Investments in Middle East and North Africa (MENA)-based startups went up by 31 percent between 2017 and 2018 to $893 million, with 366 deals made, according to Magnitt, a regional data platform for investors. The database also found that more than 155 institutions invested in MENA startups in 2018, 30 percent of which were from outside the region and 47 percent of which had not previously invested in the region.