The E-achievers

Visa and Arabian Business.com honour the Middle East’s New Economy and e-business pioneers.

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By  Published  December 6, 2000

|~||~||~|When ITP, the publisher of Arabian Business.com, conceived the idea of an e-business awards ceremony, it wanted to achieve two things. One was to help ourselves, of course, by creating a gala event that would help build and reinforce the Arabian Business.com brand. But the company also wanted to give recognition to the people who are driving the development in the region of this thing we call the New Economy.

These people all share a dedication to technology as an enabler of new business models and a way of rejuvenating existing ones. Many of them are also taking a significant financial hit, in the belief that their businesses and projects will ultimately prove to be revenue generators and achieve profitability.

When Visa was approached with the idea of sponsoring the awards ceremony, it was very enthusiastic. The company is an active supporter and proponent of all forms of electronic business.

“Visa is committed to championing the benefits of e-business and through our e-smart cards and payment network we are helping businesses and consumers reap the benefits of technology,” says Peter Scriven, regional manager, Visa.

A judges panel was appointed to oversee the selection of the award winners. The panel included over 20 prominent individuals from top international and regional information technology companies.

Choosing the winners wasn’t quite as easy as getting all the judges together in a room around a dinner table. First of all, we had to select the judging categories.

Shoehorning many sites into a narrowly defined category doesn’t work, as the exact purposes and target audiences of many can overlap on different areas. Whether or not a site is a B2B or a B2C, a portal or a community site can be a huge bone of contention. Some site operators can be extremely fussy about how they are defined.
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LET THEM DECIDE: The Visa/Arabian Business.com judges prepare to deliberate.

In order to help the judges in their deliberations, users of ITP.net were invited to submit their favourite sites for consideration. After going through our readers’ nominations and after considerable internal debate within ITP, we settled on fifteen awards: eight for individual Web sites, four for outstanding personal contributions, one for the e-achiever of the year, one for the young e-achiever of the year, and one special award.

With the categories settled on and a comprehensive list of nominees drawn up, ITP’s senior editors and the judges were locked into a room to begin their deliberations. Prior to the judging sessions, each panel member was allocated two Web site categories and asked to closely review all the sites nominated in that category.

The judges were required to look at factors such as overall look and feel, quality of information, ease of navigation and speed & stability. At the judging session, with their notes in hand, judges then split off into their allocated focus groups and were asked to come up with a recommendation.

A nominated foreman then presented the focus group’s recommendation to the entire panel, after which each individual judge voted, in secret, for his chosen winner.

In some cases, the judges panel went with the recommendation of the focus groups, but in some cases it did not, showing that the vote was truly independent.

The awards for outstanding personal contributions, the e-achievers and the special award were voted for from a list of candidates drawn up from the recommendations of ITP.net’s readers.

The Visa/Arabian Business.com awards dinner took place at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel on October 29. The event was a huge hit, as demand for seats outstripped supply. The delight of the winners showed that they clearly took the concept seriously.

If you visit their Web sites now, you can see the Visa/Arabian Business.com winners logos prominently and proudly displayed.

Fifteen awards were presented in the following categories:

" E-achiever of the Year
" Outstanding Personal Contribution - 1
" Outstanding Personal Contribution - 2
" Outstanding Personal Contribution - 3
" Outstanding Personal Contribution - 4
" Young E-achiever of the Year
" Best English Portal
" Best Arabic Portal
" Best B2B Marketplace
" Best Hotel/Travel Site
" Best News Site
" Best E-Shopping Site
" Best Financial Services Site
" Best Commercial Services Site
" Judges Special Award

||**|||~||~||~|E-entrepreneur of the Year: Ramzi Zeine

Ramzi Zeine, CEO of Arabia.com

Back in 1995, no-one was using the Internet in the Middle East and no-one was quite sure where the Internet would end up. Ramzi Zeine had a hunch that it was going to be big, very big. He’s been proven right.

As the CEO of the company that pioneered the Internet in the Middle East, it was little surprise that Ramzi Zeine picked up the award for E-entrepreneur of the Year.

In 1997, Zeine was one of the founder members of Arabia.com when it was spun off from the Internet publishing division of the magazine publishing company, Arabian Communications and Publishing.

Zeine and his fellow pioneers at Arabia.com took a huge risk in 1995 when they first set up the Internet publishing site, at the time called Arabia Online.

“We saw through our articles in the magazine, which we were getting from the US Byte version, that the Internet was becoming a new phenomenon, a new medium developing rapidly in that area in that period of time,” says Zeine.

It was a big risk at first because there were no Internet connections in the Arab world and no ISPs. Arabia Online was being run from an office in Amman, Jordan, and it needed to dial America for connections that were expensive and caused many problems.

The directors persevered, though, in the belief that getting into the market early would be beneficial in the long-run. They believed it had a lot of potential because of the speed the Internet was spreading and simply prayed that it would arrive in the Middle East sooner rather than later.

“It’s the excitement of a new medium,” says Zeine. “The Internet gave us the chance to become a leader from a level playing field. We thought if we start early and pull it off we could become a leader in a new medium, instead of competing with giants in publishing where the chances are lower for success.”

They put half a million dollars into the new venture, gambling on it taking off, despite having no Internet users in the region. It paid off, though, and further investments have helped see Arabia.com grow into one of the biggest Arabic sites in the world.

Initially it was targeted at US Arabs but since the company ventured out onto its own in 1997, the target customer base has swung towards Middle Eastern Arabs, who now comprise a greater proportion of customers than US Arabs.

Zeine was the ideal man to oversee this great new adventure in the Middle East. His background was in the IT industry and in 1989 he set up his own computer company, a systems integration house called STS which represented brands such as Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

It was this background that got him into publishing Byte and then his IT and publishing history made him the perfect man to front Arabia.com.

Arabia.com is generating revenue through online advertising and e-commerce and Zeine has big plans to grow the company. One of the options he’s considering is a stock market floatation, but it’s still very much just an idea.

His long-term plan is simply to react to the needs of his audience. It’s this attention to the needs of his users that has made him such a worthy winner of the E-entrepreneur award.
||**|||~||~||~|Outstanding Personal Contribution: Lubna Al Qasimi

Lubna Al Qasimi of Tejari.com

Whether she has been working at the UAE General Information Authority, the Dubai Ports Authority or Tejari.com, Lubna Al Qasimi has always delivered an outstanding personal contribution.

Being born into the ruling family of Sharjah did nothing to blunt the ambitions of Lubna Al Qasimi to become a leading figure in the Middle East information technology market.

Spend an hour with her, in fact, and you will not once be reminded of her royal background. Al Qasimi has established her authority within the IT market in spite of, not because of her family name.

Her drive through the education system culminated in earning a Batchelor of Science degree from California State University. She then brought this expertise back to the Middle East as she began a career developing IT systems for the UAE government.

One of her first positions was as Dubai branch manager for the General Information Authority, an organisation responsible for automating the federal government of the UAE.

From there, Al Qasimi moved to Dubai Ports Authority, where she spent seven years in the information systems department; a department that she had total authority for at the end of her tenure.

It was at DPA that her talent for management, coupled with her technical expertise, were noticed at the highest levels of the Dubai government.

Those skills were seized on by His Highness, General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Defense Minister for the UAE when he announced his drive towards e-government earlier this year.

When an executive task force was created to oversee the transition towards e-government, Al Qasimi’s name was first on the team sheet.

The task force’s mandate was to look under every rock; examine every process; evaluate every manager in an effort to force disparate Dubai government agencies to work together as a cohesive IT-driven unit.

“We are looking at improving services, improving efficiency, simplifying procedures, adding value. We want to give comfort to customers of the government so that they can do their business with the government without running around for two days to different departments,” Al Qasimi told Arabian Business.com earlier this year.

A key element to the Dubai e-government drive is a process of taking all government procurement online. The most efficient way of achieving this, in the view of the e-government task force, was to create a single online business-to-business marketplace that would marry all government suppliers and all their suppliers into one trading community.

To create that portal, a separate organisation was formed, and the Tejari.com marketplace was created.

To build mass and momentum for Tejari.com, the organisation is courting private businesses in the Middle East as buyers as well as sellers on the site.

“We are focusing on bringing the largest suppliers on board, and as we do this we will bring the buyers from the government. We will look for common suppliers that sell to a number of government departments so that we can increase efficiency,” explained Al Qasimi.

Less than a year since the launch of Tejari.com and suppliers and government agencies are already using its services. The speed of development of both the organisation and the Tejari.com site are testimony to the drive and ability of Lubna Al Qasimi.

The year 2000 has been a whirlwind 12 months for this far-sighted business leader. The next 12 months will prove equally challenging as Al Qasimi drives both the Dubai e-government and Tejari.com projects forward.
||**|||~||~||~|Outstanding Personal Contribution: Mohamed Seddiq Almutawa

Mohamed Seddiq Almutawa, founder & MD of UAEMall.com

Mohamed Seddiq Almutawa could have stayed in the US, but returned home because he wanted to contribute to his country. With UAEmall, he’s certainly done just that.

Mohamed Seddiq Almutawa, the founder and managing director of UAEmall.com, could now be living in the USA. After graduating near the top of his university class, he worked as a portfolio manager, obtaining the certification that would have allowed him to live and work in the USA.

The desire to return to the UAE, however, was more of a pull on him than the career prospects on offer. He returned, wanting to make a contribution to the development of his homeland. “We need to do a lot of things in the Middle East and I want to contribute to that,” says Almutawa.

Surprisingly, his first brush with the Internet wasn’t in America but came when Etisalat launched Internet services in 1995. Almutawa was impressed not so much with the Internet as a technology but saw wider potential. “I have never been a technical person or engineer,” he says. “Rather, I look at the Internet as a businessperson.”

Just after the Internet’s launch, Almutawa established the Open Marketing Centre (OMC), whose aim was to give smaller companies a physical space and wider promotional resources to sell their products.

OMC developed into a hybrid operation called bestbuyone that sold products both online and over the phone from catalogues.

This in turn morphed into UAEmall.com, which was born in April 1999 in response to ever growing demand. “The bestbuyone.com site was successful, but we realised we wanted to expand internationally and needed more powerful branding,” says Almutawa.

With UAEmall.com, Almutawa has succeeded in taking an international idea and localising it. For example, in the absence of widespread credit card usage, UAEmall allows buyers to pay for products on delivery of orders. Products are tailored to local tastes and anyone wishing to put their products online, but lacking the resources, can put up their own store within UAEmall.

Almutawa certainly has some clear ideas on how dot.coms should be moving forward. For starters, he doesn’t believe that online pricing should by rights be lower than bricks & mortar pricing. “Why?” he asks. “Because the service that we provide is higher than in any store.

“What Internet shopping gives you is convenience. So why do some people still insist that, in addition to that convenience, they should also get a lower price,” he adds. Nevertheless, UAEmall.com does strive to offer lower prices than bricks & mortar stores, because “it is a custom.”

Another of Almutawa’s rules is to compare himself with the best anywhere, not just locally. Only by striving to match international standards, can a company move fast enough to keep up with the market, he believes. “A lot of people say that UAEmall is the number one Internet company in the Middle East,” he says. “I ignore this. I compare myself to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Beyond.”

At the same time, companies should be moving at Internet speed, he believes. One year in the Internet or “IT Time Zone”, he likens to seven years in normal time. “If you don’t live in the IT Time Zone, you are going to be dead in the water,” says Almutawa.
||**|||~||~||~|Outstanding Personal Contribution: Fahd Al Sharekh

Fahd Al Sharekh, of Ajeeb.com

Fahd Al Sharekh refuses to accept that the vast majority of the Internet is off-limits to Arabic speakers. Using Sakhr translation software, he is now making every English Web site in the world available to Arabs.

The history of the Al Alamiah group is peppered with examples where the company has taken significant risks, and invested huge amounts of money in developing products for the Arabic market.

It was Al Alamiah that developed early Arabic personal computers. It was Al Alamiah that created Arabisation shells for DOS and Windows. It was Al Alamiah’s subsidiary, Sakhr, that has driven the creation of Arabic religious software, educational software and business software.

It has long been the dream of the company’s founder, Mohammed Al Sharekh, to bring all the benefits of computers and computerisation to the Arabic speaking market. That dream has made Al Alamiah the most substantial Arabic software producer in the world after Microsoft.

But the Internet waits for no man, and today, Mohammed Al Sharekh’s son, Fahd Al Sharekh, has been charged with continuing the group’s Arabic domination in the Internet era.

That challenge has required many dramatic changes to the group’s business practices. But one fundamental belief has endured: that the Internet revolution, like the computer revolution, must not exclude Arabic speaking individuals.

That belief drove the creation of a new company to launch Ajeeb.com, a site that like the Sakhr Arabisation of Windows before it, translates English language text into Arabic on-the-fly.

The site uses the advanced artificial intelligence Sakhr developed in its linguistics labs and is essentially capable of translating the entire Internet into Arabic. “It’s not a perfect translation,” admits Al Sharekh, “but it gives Arabic speakers the ability to be part of the Internet.”

The “imperfect” translator gets things about 80% correct at the moment, but this is being constantly improved and Ajeeb.com hopes to get translation accuracy over 95% over time.

But with the vast, vast majority of Web sites running in English, any translation facility opens up a huge area for Arabic browsers.
E-commerce is an area that lends itself perfectly to the Ajeeb.com concept.

If Arabic speakers are browsing for products, the translation engine allows them to find what they want; complete the transaction details on any site; and take the process through to a purchase. Buying a book through Amazon.com, for example, would previously have been off-limits to any Arabic-only speaker. With Ajeeb.com it is simple, suggests Al Sharekh.

Today, Ajeeb.com does not charge either the online shopper or the online retailer for providing this translation service. The opportunity to do so, however, is compelling.

Going back to the Amazon.com example, Ajeeb.com could charge Amazon.com 1% of any transaction made by an Arab using the Ajeeb.com service.

With hundreds of thousands of shopping sites instantly available in Arabic through Ajeeb.com, this could create the opportunity for millions of dollars in transactions to be funnelled through the site, with Ajeeb.com taking a small slice of every deal.

That type of revenue generating potential is some way off for Ajeeb.com. In the meantime, the company is concentrating on providing as many services as possible to Arabic browsers.

Ajeeb.com is already generating a loyal following for its news services and other content designed specifically for Middle East customers.
||**|||~||~||~|Outstanding Personal Contribution: Abduljabbar Al Abduljabbar

Abduljabbar Al Abduljabbar, chief of Arabian Adbanced Systems & Naseej

When it comes to the establishment of Internet services in Saudi Arabia, Abduljabbar Al Abduljabbar, a former Aramco engineer, stands out as a true pioneer. His Naseej remains one of KSA’s most popular ISPs.

Abduljabbar Al Abduljabbar, chief of Arabian Advanced Systems and its ISP, Naseej, began his working life after graduation from King Fahd University for Petroleum & Minerals.

After picking up his engineering degree, he worked for many years at Aramco, before leaving to establish his own IT solutions company, Arabian Advanced Systems.

Naseej.com, the online information service that later morphed into a market leading Internet service provider, followed in 1996. It’s establishing Naseej for which he is most famous and which was the reason why the Visa/Arabian Business.com judges’ panel bestowed upon him an award for Outstanding Personal Contribution.

Amongst his other achievements, however, he can claim to be a member of the Institute for Electronic & Electrical Engineers and to have an entry in ‘Who’s Who.’ He’s also closely involved in engineering and information technology associations in Riyadh and Saudi Arabia.

The reason behind Abduljabbar’s establishment of Naseej is familiar to anyone who has followed the story of KSA’s long wait for Internet access.

By the mid 1990s, Saudi Arabia’s citizens were becoming extremely interested in the Internet, and for many businesses being online was rapidly becoming a necessity, not a ‘nice to have.’

Since there was little prospect of Saudi being imminently plugged into the Internet, for various reasons, Abduljabbar came up with a solution. Arabian Advanced Systems would first of all create a kind of proprietary, private Internet for the citizens of Saudi Arabia.

Think of America Online or MSN but without the ability to go out and browse other Web sites. That’s essentially what Naseej was in those days. Deals were done with various third parties like Saudi Press Agency, Al Mujtamaa magazine and Economic World magazine to beef up content and an e-mail facility was added.

The second part of the Arabian Advanced Systems’ plan was to take all Naseej’s content, which was tailored to the Arab user, and post it to a Web site that could be accessed by Arabs outside KSA.

As Al Abduljabbar says, “The aim of establishing Naseej was to create an information network for businesses and Arab individuals in all corners of the world. We can use the Web to develop information for use by other Arab and Islamic countries and be better able to communicate our views and opinions.”

As Naseej develops and attracts attention, Al Abduljabbar is keen for customers not to forget about Arabian Advanced Systems. The company aims to help businesses make the most of technology and start using it to turn information to their advantage. “The ability to connect to the Internet is a very simple part of the services that Naseej offers,” says Al Abduljabbar.
||**|||~||~||~|Young e-Achiever of the Year: Mohamed El-Zohairy

Mohamed El-Zohairy, the Visa/Arabian Business.Com's Young e-Achiever of the Year

He wants to be the Bill Gates of the Middle East and he’s spoken to Al Gore over a live videoconference link. He was also on the winning team of an international Web site design competition for young people.

“I want to be the first Arabic Bill Gates, “ said Mohamed Kamal El-Zohairy as picked up his award for Young E-achiever of the Year. (This after several minutes of profuse laughter.)

After meeting him, you’d hardly bet against him doing it. At 17 years old, the young Egyptian has already been on the winning team of an international Web site design competition, and he has spoken to former United States Vice President, Al Gore, over a live videoconference link.

To win the ThinkQuest Web Based Learning Challenge Competition, El-Zohairy teamed with Emily Boyd (Australia) and Helen Cheng (USA), to create a site called Forces of Nature (http://library.thinkquest.org/ C003603/).

To build the site, El-Zohairy, who is a student of Abbas El-Akkad Experimental School in Cairo, collaborated online with the two designers in Australia and the USA without even meeting them face-to-face.

The site fought off competition from over 1100 entrants to win a first prize that included cash and scholarships. Forces of Nature aims to build up environmental awareness with information regarding earth science, geology and common natural disasters.

El-Zohairy confessed to having a love of image editing and drawing packages, a skill he wants to develop alongside his planned higher level studies in computer engineering.

He’s certainly well placed to achieve those objectives: straight after receiving his award he was approached with offers from both Microsoft and IBM, offering him assistance with his studies. “I won’t say which one I’m going to go with,” he says, although Arabian Business.com has a pretty good idea.

ThinkQuest’s competition was open to students aged 12 to 19. They were asked to create Internet sites about a topic of their choice within five broad categories, including Arts & Literature, Science & Mathematics, Social Sciences, Sports & Health and an Interdisciplinary focus.

The students were specifically asked to work in teams. According to El-Zohairy, each of the teams were judged on their ability to select accurate and relevant content and work in teams.

El-Zohairy, an intelligent and self-assured young man, mentioned that his inspiration came from his father, who gave him his first computer when he was 10 years old. He’s the eldest of three children, and loves basketball and watching The Simpsons on the occasions when he’s away from his PC, that is.

El-Zohairy travelled to the UAE courtesy of Visa/Arabian Business.com and spent a week seeing the sights and smells of the city. He said he enjoyed being able to see the Gulf states, a big change from his native Egypt, for the first time. However, he did note that, “there aren’t enough museums here.”

This was his first trip abroad, and he confirmed that he had to rush round at the last minute to obtain a passport in order to be able to make the trip. Expect to hear more from this young man.
||**|||~||~||~|Best English Portal: UAEBusinessDirectory.com

Iqbal Butt accepts the award for Best English Portal.

FalconSearch started UAEbusinessdirectory as a complement to its offline e-services business. But then the new child took on a life of its own and has the potential to become a strong business in its own right.

FalconSearch.com proves the age-old saying that the journey is more important than its destination. Its portal, UAEbusinessdirectory.com, picked up the award for the Best English Web site.

With a directory of over 45,000 companies in the UAE, the sheer numbers in the UAE Business Directory listings impressed the Visa/Arabian Business.com judges’ panel. The user friendliness and the amount of information contained in its database allows the portal to stand out from competitors.

Yet surprisingly, eight months ago the Web site was merely planned as a launch pad for FalconSearch to promote its services. It was meant to provide specific information for the Middle East area to facilitate business interaction by people from abroad wishing to conduct their affairs in the UAE. But the Web site has quickly emerged as a highly reputable portal on its own.

It was a marketing exercise aimed at potential FalconSearch customers to promote the parent company’s services and it is even used to host FalconSearch’s banner adverts. But UAEBusinessDirectory offers a lot more than just a listing of local companies.

The site also provides detailed local news and hosts Web communities where people can register to a particular one, such as the UK community. Future plans include selling tickets for exhibitions, conferences and shows online, which director Iqbal Butt hopes will become a major source of revenue for the company.

These additional services are part of the reason for the success of the site, which attracts an average of 50,000 hits per day. But customer feedback has cited the search engine as the best part of the site.

The reason for this is that it can categorise and index information in a great number of ways and provides a series of links to the information visitors need, rather than jumbling it all onto the first page.

The success of the site has been lapped up by the FalconSearch directors, who now see the site as more than just an auxiliary marketing or promotional tool for the parent company.

“Now it has been accepted by the market we should start to treat it as a separate business entity,” says Lalit Tourani, director of FalconSearch. They say they have also received several lucrative offers to buy out the new company, but have thus far resisted the temptation.

“We want to go ahead with our plans,” said Butt. “UAEBusinessDirectory.com is huge now and it contains so much information. Winning this award has driven us much more to make it even better.”

Now that the site is being treated as a business in its own right, the company can concentrate on generating revenue rather than using it as a way to demonstrate FalconSearch’s e-services capabilities. Butt, who is overseeing the marketing of UAEBusinessDirectory.com, has three main sources he’s looking at. One is online ticket sales, while the others are banner adverts and logo support.

UAEBusinessDirectory.com has 100 major categories by which companies are listed. Butt intends to have one company from each category paying for a banner advert at the top of that category.

He also expects to get 10-15% of companies in the directory to pay between AED 20 and AED 50 to have their logo displayed on a page. With 45,000 companies listed, Butt expects a 10% success rate to generate a lot of revenue.
||**|||~||~||~|Best Arabic Portal: Naseej.com

Abduljabbar Al Abduljabbar picks up a second award on the night for Best Arabic Portal.

Naseej was online as a Kingdom-only information service long before the Internet even arrived there. Since the Internet was turned on, it’s built on this early progress to become a leading Internet service provider.

Most of you will know that Saudi Arabia didn’t make it onto the Internet until early 1999. Perhaps fewer of you will know that Saudi Arabia did however have its own online information service as far back as 1996.

That service, called Naseej, was very much an effort to tap into Saudi Arabians’ frustrated desire to become connected to the Web. The most accurate way to describe Naseej in those days would be to call it a private Internet for the Kingdom, along the lines of France’s still popular Minitel service.

Naseej established itself quickly, despite repeated problems that customers had connecting because of weak telephone lines in the Kingdom. In the years between its launch and the arrival of the Internet, it built up its content through partnerships and introduced e-mail. In fact, e-mail was believed to have been one of the primary drivers for its uptake.

So when it came to the launch of the Internet in the Kingdom, it was easy for Naseej to become a leading Internet service provider. After all, it already had its own proprietary content — becoming a full ISP was really just a case of adding Web browsing capability to its offering.

It’s an advantage that Naseej has never spurned. Although ISPs don’t release user figures and most operate at full capacity because of limited bandwidth, it is believed to be one of the most popular ISPs. Certainly, colleagues in the offices of ITP (this magazine’s publisher) like its range of content.

As it goes forward it faces a number of challenges. There’s the one that any ISP, anywhere faces: making its content compelling enough to retain fickle user loyalty. But there’s also one huge challenge particular to ISPs in the Kingdom.

KSA’s communications infrastructure puts limits on the number of users that ISPs can sign up and there are repeated service failures. In an interview with the Arabic language edition of this magazine, Naseej’s chief, Abduljabbar Al Abduljabbar, said that he sees competition as “a necessity in the development of the communications network in the Kingdom.”

Whatever happens there, Naseej’s parent company, Arabian Advanced Sytems, has a wider goal. It was established as a systems integrator and aims to be the company that helps businesses get themselves online. Both will be looking forward to the continuing improvement of the Kingdom’s communications infrastructure.
||**|||~||~||~|Best B2B Marketplace: Tejari.com

Al Qasimi picks up a second award on the night for Best Business-to-Business Marketplace.

There is no doubt that Tejari.com has an inbuilt advantage over competing online marketplaces in the Middle East. Its relationship with the government of Dubai, and that government’s plan to do all its online procurement through the site gives Tejari.com instant critical mass that others will find hard to beat.

That is not to say this is an unfair advantage, it is merely taking maximum advantage of prevailing market realities. That’s the name of the game in today’s New Economy.

But it is not just Tejari.com’s early leadership position that attracted the eyes of the Visa/Arabian Business.com judging panel. It was the speed of the company’s development, the strategic direction of the company, and the quality of execution on the Web.

Tejari.com went from concept to launch in only 60 days. That included creating a company and a brand, bringing together the right people, and putting the technical solution together.

Since that 60-day deadline was met, Tejari.com has gone on to pull in customers on the buying and selling side including the Dubai Immigration and Naturalisation Department, Alpha Data, CADD Emirates, Emirates Computers, ITQAN, Seven Seas Computers and SMB computers. The company has also built on its technical infrastructure with a recent deal adding cataloguing capabilities from Cataloga.

For the next 12 months, Tejari.com will grow on the buy-side as more and more Dubai government departments move towards e-government. At the same time, Tejari.com is starting to see success outside the government procurement area.

Companies like Emirates Computers are already saying that they will use Tejari.com to broaden their geographical reach across the region. As more customers of the marketplace come on board, greater efficiencies will be realised and Tejari.com could build an unassailable lead.
||**|||~||~||~|Best Hotel/Travel Site: AlTayer-travel.com

Manu Mehrotra accepts his award from judges Steve Lockie of Tech Data(left) and Gavin Struthers of Novell(right).

Altayer-travel.com chief, Manu Mehrotra, called its success ‘David versus Goliath.’ He was referring to the fact that the fledgling site fought off competition from some very big names to win in its category.

It probably came as a bit of a surprise to Atayer-travel.com when its name was called up to collect the award for Best Travel Site. Having been set up just five months ago, it’s basically still in its childhood, but even so, in just a short space of time it did enough to impress the judges’ panel.

Altayer Travel itself has been in existence for 21 years, but it was only recently that the company went online. The change came about more because of the appointment of a new CEO than any corporate strategy.

Manu Mehrotra joined Altayer about a year ago and immediately stressed the importance of getting a presence on the Web. He went straight to the owners and set the ball rolling by employing a company called Advanced Digital Technology to develop a Web site for Altayer.

Despite its late introduction to the market, Altayer immediately set about providing as many services as it could to help it stand out from the competition. Altayer provides a rare service to customers in the Middle East.

Most other travel agents specialise in either inbound travel, outbound packages or ticketing for corporate customers, but Altayer organises all three. The site has also been built to serve both B2B and B2C demand.

The move to the Internet was seen as essential to survival. Travel agents had traditionally been the distribution channel between airlines and customers, but then the Internet provided a cheaper alternative channel and also meant the airlines could slash travel agents’ margins.

Altayer decided it needed to get on the Web so it could keep pace with the airlines while retaining the advantage of offering choice. “To thrive in the future we must have the ability to transact on the Web,” says Mehrotra.

The Altayer-travel.com site includes the facility to make reservations through the Web site, although the management hasn’t so far activated it. At present, the amount of business generated online in the Middle East is very low, so Mehrotra doesn’t yet see the need to activate this service.

He wants to add more facilities to the site shortly, the first of which will be an online help facility. This will put visitors straight through to a consultant in the office, although it will be available only during normal working hours.

There are also plans to introduce other value added services, such as a currency converter. One existing feature is virtual tours for holiday destinations like Walt Disney World. These give holiday-makers the chance to get a sneak cyber-preview of a destination before they arrive.

Mehrotra and Altayer are striving to recreate the kind of services that can be offered in a retail outlet. “We should be able to translate every physical service in the office onto the Web; we want to duplicate the office online, to give the customers the choice of using our outlet or our Web site, but still receiving the same service,” he says.
||**|||~||~||~|Best News Service Site: BBCArabic.com

Hosam Sokkari, head of BBCarabic.com.

The BBC was the world’s very first and is probably still its best-known public broadcaster. But did you also know that it also has a wildly popular Arabic language news portal called BBCarabic.com?

The competition was always going to be tough in the category for the Best News Site, especially with the biggest voice in international broadcasting, the BBC, amongst the front-runners.

As it was, BBCarabic.com was a worthy winner and took the winner’s trophy for its 24-hour online news service with multimedia capability. Despite being a relatively new site (it was revamped in November 1999 after initially launching two years earlier as a text-based information service), its comprehensive news content integrated with audio, video and interactive forums, proved a definite winner amongst the Visa/Arabian Business.com judges’ panel.

Although, the Web site is quite new, the BBC has actually been broadcasting in Arabic since 1938. The Web site forms part of the wider group, BBC Arabic.

As part of BBC World Service, which is funded by a grant-in-aid from the British government and has a global radio audience of over 151 million listeners, BBC Arabic provides news, current affairs and topical programmes with objectivity and in-depth analysis.

It broadcasts over 18 hours of international radio programming every day with news on every hour. It has a measured weekly audience of 9.2 million listeners across the Middle East and North Africa with Egypt and Sudan comprising its largest individual audiences.

Since relaunching a year ago, BBCarabic.com has enjoyed a huge increase in visitors to its site. The site was relaunched to reflect the different understanding and approach to the Web as an individual medium rather than an extension of the radio service.

Hosam Sokkari, head of BBCarabic.com, collected the award, which he said reflected the efforts and dedication of his online team. “We are continually looking for innovative additions to the site, to bring added value to the Arabic-speaking community on the Web,” he says.

“Our full multimedia capability in audio and video has been one of the news site’s most effective features. But above all, we aim to offer users the most accurate, impartial Arabic online news for and about the Arab world, with the values that the BBC has always relied on.”

Sokkari is also proud to reveal that BBC Arabic is the fastest growing operation of BBC World Service, and Arabic is the biggest language site after English. Sokkari is looking to build on the core competency of the site as an information producer.

He wants to build on its experience in news delivery by introducing more directories and indices to help concentrate individual information on each Arabic country and also Britain.

“There’s a lot of interest in Britain from Arab users,” he says. “We are building Web modules for English language teaching with lots of multimedia capabilities.”

Sokkari himself started working for the BBC in 1994 with the now defunct BBC Arabic TV. He was the producer and then a presenter on a satirical news programme called ‘Electronic Café’ before presenting its radio version in 1997.

Sokkari originally trained as a pharmacist at the University of Cairo before making a bizarre career side-step and working as a cartoonist in Finland and then Germany. He recently finished a masters in Analysis, Design and Management at the London School of Economics and has been the head of BBCarabic.com since its revamp last year.
||**|||~||~||~|Best e-Shopping Site: UAEMall.com

Gary Halili, marketing manager for UAEMall.com collects the award for Best e-Shopping Site.

Meet the business to consumer e-tailing giant of the Middle East. UAEmall.com’s diversity of products for sale and its understanding of local requirements and needs made it the winner in its category.

The nearest thing the Middle East has to Amazon.com carried off the award for Best E-shopping Site for its range of products and local focus. For the record, it was even considered for the Best Hotel/Travel Site award.

For an example of how it successfully localises the international business to consumer shopping portal model, look at the way that UAEmall deals with payment, for example.

For starters, the regional offices of major credit card companies won’t insure payments unless they’re authenticated using the expensive and complex SET technology. That would only matter, however, if people in the region were big users of credit cards, which they definitely are not.

Given both factors, UAEmall.com has developed an alternative method of payment — cash on delivery. Around 85% of UAEmall.com transactions are currently reported to be carried out this way.

Another uniquely local solution to the challenge of payment has also been looked at. UAEmall has been in talks with banks in the Middle East about a system that would allow customers to order products online and permit UAEmall.com to debit their accounts.

“From the outset, we developed the mall with an understanding of people’s attitudes and behaviour in the Middle East,” says managing director, Mohamed Seddiq Almutawa (marketing manager Gary Halili is pictured here collecting the award.)

“95% of the Middle East population will still not put their credit card number online, and the mass adoption of credit card payment is still in the distance.”

A sign of the site’s popularity is reflected in the site’s ‘hits’ profile. Up to a quarter come from the USA, and the UAE’s visitor numbers are very closely followed by KSA and Egypt.

Right now, UAEmall.com is beefing up its warehousing in order to help ensure availability and timely delivery of goods. It’s also upping its marketing activities. It’s not known, however, whether the site has done the one thing Amazon is incapable of: turn in a profit.

One major area of focus for UAEmall.com right now is promoting its storefront feature, a vehicle for smaller companies and home enterprises to put up their own stores within UAEmall.com.

It gives enterprises that might not otherwise be able to put their wares online a window to the whole world, and diversifies UAEmall’s offering, helping cement user loyalty.
||**|||~||~||~|Best Financial Services Site: DLJdirect-eunion.com

Ali Zahed, president of DLJdirect-eUnion.com.

DLJdirect-eUnion has married the expertise of its US partner with the local understanding of its two regional partners. The site impressed judges with its combination of market data and equities trading engine.

The Visa/Arabian Business.com judges panel liked DLJdirect-eUnion’s combination of market information and a brokerage engine that allows users to buy and sell equities online. Perhaps quite a few of them are even using the service.

The company is a three way venture between DLJdirect, a major US e-brokerage player, Capital Union of Bahrain and Webtrade eVentures. Since starting life in 1988 as PC Financial Network, DLJdirect has signed up several hundred thousand customers in the USA. It’s also received numerous awards from magazines and industry associations for its customer service.

Webtrade eVentures is a Paris-based company looking to develop e-finance services in the Middle East & North Africa. Capital Union is a Bahrain-based investment bank, whose shareholders include Credit Suisse (which also recently acquired DLJdirect.)

The fundamental principle behind DLJdirect-eUnion is that regional investors have traditionally had very few choices in how they invest their money. Local stock markets are immature and investors have either had little knowledge of, or access to, investment opportunities in international markets.

“We are here to offer investments to a population base that is not used to investments beyond banking and regular financial services,” says Ali Zahed, the company’s president.

What DLJdirect-eUnion gives those investors is an easy way to buy equities on international stock markets, particularly those in the USA. Transaction charges are $20 per trade, lower than those generally demanded by so called ‘bricks & mortar’ equities brokers.

DLJdirect-eUnion is currently undertaking Arabisation of the Web site and Arabian Business.com has also seen a test edition of a WAP version of the service. This will allow DLJdirect-eUnion’s customers to begin making equities trades from their mobile phones.

Offering regional equities is still some time away, however, largely due to laws prohibiting expatriates, who make up a lot of DLJ’s customers, from buying local equities.

Ali Zahed, a shareholder in Webtrade-eVentures, comes to DLJdirect-eUnion from a financialcareer in the UK and Paris. He helped set up Olayan’s London investment arm and create Salomon Smith Barney’s European equity sales activities. He’s now focused on turning DLJdirect-eUnion into a major player in the region’s financial services market.
||**|||~||~||~|Best Commercial Services Site: AMEInfo.com

Klaus Lovgreen, MD for AMEInfo.com accepts his award.

It started out life as a CD-ROM-based information resource. Now, ameinfo.com has grown into a widely respected business portal, and it lays claim to that thing few dot.coms have: a profitable balance sheet.

AME Info is a great example of finding a market niche and focusing on it. The company is known in just about every business in the Middle East as a place to go and find contact details and information for any other business.

When the judging process for Best Commercial Services Site was taking place, a spokesman for the panel speculated that just about every judge in the room at the time had used the service.

None of them disagreed.

The veterans amongst you will know that AME Info began life as a CD-ROM around the middle of the 1990s. The CD-ROM was very popular and was widely distributed, but guess what? The Internet arrived, and the value of a resource that could only be updated as quickly as a CD could be re-issued was bound to diminish.

In 1999, it was decided that the company would focus its development and marketing efforts on ameinfo.com going forward. The site now boasts a directory of information on approximately 200,000 businesses across the entire Middle East.

The site’s underlying technology has been developed almost entirely in-house, under the guidance of managing director, Klaus Lovgreen. “What we’re doing is quite specialised and the software we have written is for a very particular purpose,” he says.

Whilst Lovgreen is driving AME Info’s technological development, Lars Nielsen, sales director, is helping drive revenue onto the site. AME Info has happily gone on record as saying that its Web site is profitable.

Ameinfo.com generates revenue by the usual means: banner advertising, keyword sponsorship and database marketing to name a few. What’s remarkable is that AME Info is making money from these things at a time when companies in the region are dedicating little money to online marketing.

The reason why it’s getting this money, the company says, is its audience, which the company says is almost completely high net worth businesspeople.

However, Lovgreen and Nielsen do not believe that a site can survive on advertising and sponsorship revenue alone. They’re now focusing heavily on reselling AME Info’s content to third parties. “We believe the way forward is to provide content to other Web sites and charge an annual fee for integrating the content into their site,” says Lovgreen.

Deals have already been struck with InfoSpace and iSyndicate. Both sites are essentially content marketplaces, reselling material from hundreds of Web sites to any other site operator that wants to buy it. A key area of focus now for the company is the development of WAP content and reselling it to third parties.

AME Info said it never expected to win the award. It carried it away by focusing on what it does well and remembering who its audience is. It’s something that others in the dot.com world might do well to remember.
||**|||~||~||~|Judges Special Award: Dubaiautismcenter.com

Mohammed A. Al Emadi, of dubaiautismcentre.com accepts his award.

The Judges Special Award recognises the achievements of organisations that have a sole aim in mind: to contribute to the society in which we live. This year’s winner is the Dubai Autism Center.

As our daily lives are driven by decisions on how to ensure survival and growth of our businesses in the New Economy, it is easy to forget that for some people, the challenge of getting through a day is a desperate fight.

We don’t pretend, as a magazine, that we can, or should regularly address the issues that face disabled people. However, when an opportunity arises to highlight and recognise the work done by organisations who deal with these issues every day, we are grateful for the opportunity to do so.

The Judges Special Award was created with a sole purpose in mind: to reward an organisation whose sole motive for existing is to make a valuable contribution to society; not to make a profit, not for personal gain. Charities immediately jump to mind, but they were not the only organisations considered.

To publish shortlisted nominees would be a disservice to the other organisations considered for the Judges Special Award. All of them make a valuable contribution to society and to say the contribution of one was more significant than the contribution of another would defeat the purpose of the award.

This year’s winner of the Judges Special Award is the Dubai Autism Center. It was chosen, perhaps first and foremost for its mission statement, that to the Judging Panel seemed to fit with the role the Internet can play in contributing to society.

That mission: “Working towards creating awareness among the general public about the autistic spectrum disorders.”

The massive reach of the Internet gives organisations like the Dubai Autism Center the ability to raise awareness among millions of people. Since Autism is a condition that lacks public awareness, the Center’s use of the Internet as a vehicle to alter perceptions was particularly valued by the judges.

The Judges Special Award gives us an opportunity to not only highlight the endeavors of an organisation, but also highlight the cause that organisation stands for.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them. Children and adults with autism sometimes struggle to relate to others. Their ability to develop friendships is impaired as is their capacity to understand other people’s feelings.

People with autism can often have accompanying learning disabilities but everyone with the condition shares a difficulty in making sense of the world. Reality to an autistic person is a confusing, interacting mass of events, people, places, sounds and sights. There seems to be no clear boundaries, order or meaning to anything.

The exact causes of autism are still not known but research shows that genetic factors are important. It is also evident from research that autism is associated with a variety of conditions affecting brain development which occurs before, during, or very soon after birth.

The earlier a diagnosis of autism is made, the better the chances are of a person receiving appropriate help and support. Specialist education and structured support can really make a difference to the life of a person with autism, helping to maximise skills and achieve full potential in adulthood.

Dubai Autism Center hopes to raise understanding of this condition and in so doing, improve the chances of normal life for those affected by the condition and raise the likelihood of early diagnosis and early treatment for those that are not yet receiving help.||**||

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