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The Triumphs and Struggles of Arab Startups

More than a dozen startups in the Middle East and North Africa now have estimated valuations above $100 million, and Souq.com, a 3,000-employee company founded in 2005, is poised to be the region’s first “unicorn,” with a valuation above $1 billion. Yet the region’s entrepreneurs still face serious structural impediments to progress.

DUBAI – The recent STEP conference in Dubai – the biggest startup conference for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region – attracted a lot of buzz. It seemed to indicate that the region’s startup scene was coming of age. Yet MENA entrepreneurs are still facing serious structural impediments to progress.

The successes of the region’s startups should not be underestimated. According to Wamda, a regional accelerator platform, more than a dozen startups – including Bayt, Careem, MarkaVIP, Namshi, News Group, Propertyfinder, and Wadi.com – now have estimated valuations above $100 million. Souq.com, a 3,000-employee company founded in 2005, is poised to be the region’s first “unicorn,” with a valuation above $1 billion.

Yet the regional environment remains far from conducive to entrepreneurship. Beyond the wars, terrorism, and political turbulence plaguing the Arab world – not to mention the usual challenges facing entrepreneurs outside Silicon Valley, such as lack of adequate risk capital, talent, or infrastructure – is a slew of deep-rooted structural problems.

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