A Syrian Entrepreneur Looks To Build The Amazon Of The Arab World : Parallels Souq.com, created by U.S.-educated Ronaldo Mouchawar, has a strong presence in the Middle East. Since the boom in cell phones in the region, "you can feel the crescendo" in its tech sector, he says.
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A Syrian Entrepreneur Looks To Build The Amazon Of The Arab World

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A Syrian Entrepreneur Looks To Build The Amazon Of The Arab World

A Syrian Entrepreneur Looks To Build The Amazon Of The Arab World

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's talk about a way to spend money that you don't have to disclose unless it's to your spouse - shopping. Some describe the Persian Gulf city of Dubai as one giant high-end shopping mall. People flock there from all over the Arab world. And this is noteworthy - almost all of that shopping is done the old-fashioned way, in brick-and-mortar stores. Online shopping in the Middle East is still a largely untapped market but a potentially huge one in a region where over 60 percent of the population is under 40. From Dubai, NPR's Deborah Amos has the story of a company leading the e-commerce charge.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The Middle East is the latest digital frontier. Step into the offices of souk.com, the most successful e-commerce site in the region, and you can see the revolution. The workforce is young. They're tech savvy. There are plenty of women monitoring computer screens and heading planning meetings. CEO Renaldo Mouchawar walks the open-space office. He chats with the staff. This is an important day, and an all-nighter is ahead. It's the countdown to the biggest shopping sale of the year.

RENALDO MOUCHAWAR: So this is kind of the command center. We have screens to see traffic, sales, Twitter feeds, what customers are saying.

AMOS: Will everybody be up all night?

MOUCHAWAR: Pretty much from 11 on.

AMOS: Think Black Friday but rebranded. Mouchawar calls it White Friday here. He says it's a better label for a sale on the traditional Muslim day of prayer. This is a model borrowed from the West, localized and Arabized.

MOUCHAWAR: One of the challenges we had is how we Arabize all these millions of products that are on the site - how we build the proper catalog index. It's available in English but not as easy in Arabic. So this is another one of the challenges, you know, but it also gives us an edge.

AMOS: Mouchawar is an Internet pioneer. He's educated in the U.S. He worked as an engineer in Boston but wanted to move back to the region. He launched his site in 2006. The business took off when the cell phone boom spread across the region and millions more customers came online. Commerce is in his DNA, he says. He comes from a merchant family in Syria.

MOUCHAWAR: I studied engineering. My dad was, like, a really strong trader merchant, so it's like the combo is kind of no-brainer for me. It's just really an incredibly complex but very exciting space.

AMOS: Here in Dubai, shopping is part of the culture. These giant shopping malls have indoor ski slopes, waterfalls. Eighty million customers come each year. E-commerce is still a fraction of those sales, but the Emirates have cut red tape for startups. International investors are moving in to pick the winners and help them grow.

FADI GHANDOUR: You can see the crescendo that is going to explode. For those of us that sit in the middle of it, we already feel it.

AMOS: That's Fadi Ghandour, the founder of Aramex, a Jordan-based logistics company. He moved his operation to Dubai, and he spends his time listening to startup pitches. He's now a full-time investor in a tech movement he believes will reshape the region.

GHANDOUR: People will start to feel that energy that you saw in Tahrir Square in Egypt. This is the energy of the startup community across the region.

AMOS: There's energy here at the call center for souk.com, a place where young tech experts find jobs, also where a merchant with a small shop on a Cairo Street can expand to sell to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. souk.com handles the deliveries even to places with no reliable mail service. And now the company is attracting international talent. Sam Daoud left his job at eBay in the States.

SAM DAOUD: Because I met a great entrepreneur who was onto a great idea and decided that, you know, we can make history.

AMOS: He signed on as the chief tech officer, willing to take a risk.

DAOUD: The rest of the world was pretty much conquered, and this was territory that was no man's land, right? And these guys were way ahead of the game, right? So Souk was way ahead of everyone else, but there was still a long way to go. So we figured this is an opportunity to make this company, like, it.

AMOS: The website hit its goal of 10 million users from sales on White Friday - another step in building a brand. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Dubai.

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