10 people who will shape the region over the next decade
As modern middle east culture continues to evolve, a perfect mix of creativity and ambition is changing the game across several industries.
In a break from our normal deep-dive into the life of a celebrity A-lister (*gasp* they’re just like us!), we decided to focus our spotlight on ten people from the region who we believe will positively impact their industries over the next decade.
Men and women who are currently pushing boundaries, and raising expectations of what we can achieve here in the GCC in the fields of film, business, real estate, sport, media and food. And they are doing so by adding value to people’s lives.
“When I was younger, I was never able to travel to Europe to watch football games,” says Egyptian football fan Amr Nassouhy, who now uses his YouTube channel to travel big games and share his match-day experiences with his audience of 1.5 million people. “I want people to share what I am doing with others, because I never had that growing up and I would have loved it.”
There is Oweis Zahran, who wants to make every aspect of owning a car in the region an easier and more streamlined process. Meanwhile, Fahim Al Qasimi is spearheading a regional investment firm that wants to ensure that local start-ups factor in positive environmental and social impacts into their buisness models.
And then there is Elissa Freiha, the founder of Womena—the largest women’s empowerment platform in the Middle East—whose goal is to increase the inclusion of women in business and key decision-making positions within the region.
Here are ten people at the forefront of their professions that we believe will shape the region over the next decade.
Some projects are so ambitious that they have literally never been attempted before, that is the case with Skyline, a new Cairo-based property that once opened—according to Guinness World Records—will become the largest residential property in the world. “It’s a project unlike any other, not just in Egypt but anywhere in the world,” says the developer’s CEO Hassan Morshedy.
For Morshedy, Skyline’s goal is not about setting a record, but about solving a housing problem. The introduction of more than 13,500 apartments into a single building—along with every conceivable amenity and service you would expect from an entire town, from nurseries and shops, to cinemas and green areas—will help deal with the growing demand for real estate in Egypt where there is a housing deficit in middle- and upper-middle income housing.
But as you would expect from a developer that has been operating for 35 years, the Skyline project is no shot-in-the-dark.
“We have done a similar project to Skyline but on a smaller scale, and they have been hugely successful with the people who bought the properties,” says Morshedy. “Since then we have been approached by several countries inquiring about similar projects, and we are currently doing our due diligence for each request.”
Should the Skyline project be a success, it could very well change how people build residential communities going forward.
“We are very serious about what we want to achieve, and are working with some of the world’s leading architects and design talents including Mohamed Hadid, Raef Fahmy and Van Der Pas in Barcelona,” says Morshedy. “We want to change people’s lives for the better by helping give them a higher quality of life, as well as good investment opportunities.”
Being a professional athlete forces you to grow up quickly. From the minute you meet Ali Saleh he comes across as calm and composed, and then you realise that he was born in 2000.
“As a professional footballer it’s not just about going on the field and playing for yourself,” he says. “You have to learn the tactics of the manager and be ready to adapt your game for the benefit of the team.”
Still only 19-years-old, Saleh has long been tipped as one of the UAE’s most promising footballers, in fact, he holds the honour of being youngest-ever player to play in the UAE Pro League, having made his debut for Al Wasl the day after his 15th birthday.
The skillful young midfielder grew up admiring Cristiano Ronaldo, actively modeling his game and mentality on the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
While last season saw Saleh win the Golden Ball for Best Young Player in the league, and make his debut for the UAE national team, there is little chance that he plans on resting on his laurels.
Regional football is at the most competitive level it has ever been. “In the last four years, four different teams have won the league and the UAE were in the Asia Cup semi-finals,” he says with a laser-like focus.
“The level of the players in the GCC is improving, and players from the region have a really good chance of moving to Europe and playing for some really important teams. But for now, my focus is to help UAE qualify for the World Cup in 2022.”
The UAE government has set goals for the country to become one of top 25 countries for gender equality in the world by 2021— a goal that it would struggle to achieve if not for people like Elissa Freiha. The Emirati-Lebanese businesswoman is the founder of Womena, a platform aimed at empowering women by attracting investors to invest in new female-led start-ups.
“We are getting there!” laughs Freiha when asked about the astounding success Womena has had on women since it started in 2014. For more than five years it has dedicated itself to the goals of supporting more women in business, more women investors and a more inclusive, diverse, and consequently booming ecosystem—helping it become the largest women-empowerment platform in the Middle East.
“I work in female inclusion, and therefore my industry is essentially all industries,” Freiha explains. But while female representation still lags behind on a global scale, Freiha is conscious that the GCC region has its own specific obstacles to clear.
“Parts of this region are definitely ready to accommodate the work we do, especially when it comes to economic growth and female inclusion in the economy,” she says, “however, what we are working on is the inclusion of women from a wide variety of backgrounds and industries in decision-making positions, because true innovations come from a diversified viewpoint. This region is different and it requires a difference in mindset to overcome the difficulties that we all face.”
Dubai-dwellers may be familiar with the names The Surf House, Hapi, Parkour DXB and Seafood Souq, a string of charming, local businesses that look to build a sense of community around them. What they are unlikely to be aware is the link behind these home-grown heroes.
“Profits with purpose” is how Fahim Al Qasimi describes it to entrepreneurs looking to invest in local businesses. As a partner at the firm AQ&P he is driving the principle of ‘ESG’—Environmental, Social and corporate Governance, or, in layman’s terms: businesses that make a positive environmental and social impact on their immediate community, and run on business models using best practices. Not only does he want people to help the economy, he wants them to do some social good at the same time.
“Our firm looks to help entrepreneurs succeed in Dubai and the UAE via impact investing, but only if they understand that it is their duty to make a positive impact on their immediate community and the wider world,” he says.
“Today, we’re very fortunate in the UAE that they have identified ESG priorities in sustainability moving forward,” he explains, “I wouldn’t be able to do my job if we didn’t have that awareness already. The exciting part is that we’re going to see more interest in the sustainability sphere, and we are in a position to develop our own framework to help this succeed.”
Anyone who has ever owned a vehicle will tell you at some point of the pains of getting it serviced, or buying a spare part or selling it—Oweis Zahran wants to put an end to all that. Under his holding company, OWS Automotive Solutions, he continues to create partnerships with several of the region’s governments to try and streamline the processes of everything automotive.
“The biggest thing lacking in the automotive industry anywhere is honesty, so that’s what I build into the core of all my businesses,” he says. “For most people a car is the second biggest purchase they will ever likely make—after a house—so they tend to be very aware of what they need. People are not ignorant or foolish, so you need to create something that will add value to their lives.”
Despite becoming a self-made millionaire by his early twenties, Zahran attributes a lot of his success to hard work and working with people to be part of the solution. “I’m a firm believer in partnerships. It is the quickest and strongest way to grow both personally and professionally.”
The American-born entrepreneur is also a firm believer in the potential of the region, and is committed to making a positive impact.
“When your country is less than 50 years old, certain fundamentals that exist in more mature economies may not exist yet—helping build those fundamentals is what I want to contribute to the region.”
“Sabaho!” is the catchphrase of the immensely likeable Egyptian YouTuber Amr Nassouhy. A self-proclaimed ‘football-fanatic’ Nassouhy has created a legion of fans—1.5 million and counting—via his near-constant videos about “pretty much anything to do with football!”
But this self-made star of the digital stream is more than just a charismatic man with a passion for the beautiful game, he is someone who believes in the impact of authentic content that needs to provide value to its viewers.
“Growing up, I was never able to go to football games in Europe,” he explains. “In fact the first time I ever went abroad to watch a big game was the World Cup 2014 in Brazil.”
Like millions of fans around the world he dreamt of travelling to the world’s most famous stadiums to watch the world’s most famous teams, and now Nassouhy has built a platform to do so, he wants to take everyone along with him on that journey.
“When I’m vlogging, I want people to experience what I am experiencing, because that’s what I wish I had when I was growing up,” he says. Across the region the internet and explosion of social media has created a cultural revolution in terms of creativity and access, and Nassouhy is a prime example of this.
“The Arab world is definitely moving into the digital sphere and what I want to show people is that you don’t need a lot of resources to make good content. You just have to provide people with something of value.”
“There is an absolute neglect of the human element when it comes to real estate,” says Mohammed Zaal. As the founder of the Dubai-based real estate company KOA that opinion is built half on frustration and half on opportunity. “Developers tend to be so numbers-driven that, in general, they don’t think about the human beings who will be living and interacting in the spaces that they are creating.”
While real estate has always been the backbone of human society, for Zaal, today’s generational needs of real estate has changed. A more holistic understanding of the human connection between people and their surroundings is something that continues to shape the work he does in small-scale luxury projects including Dubai’s Al Barari development, and now KOA.
“I enjoy creating things that will fill a need in society,” he explains. “Our goal is to create something that is sustainable and blurs the lines between live-work-play, because that is something we believe fits the new generation’s requirements for real estate.”
For Zaal, the personal relationship between an individual and a building is something real estate in the region desperately needs and, more importantly, it is something that the current generation of people across the UAE are ready for.
“How many cultures have experienced a moment in time when cinemas have opened following a 70-year ban?” It’s a rhetorical question that Saudi filmmaker Shahad Ameen proposes, and can barely hide her passion with her follow-up: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! The world is now looking to us to share our stories and experiences after so long of not being allowed to.”
Ameen has rocketed into the spotlight this year following the hugely positive reception her debut film, Scales, received at this year’s Venice Film Festival. The film is a feminist fable that draws on Arabic folklore—an area that she feels is hugely under-represented in cinema.
“The Arab region has tremendous talent, and if we really want people to truthfully understand what it was like to be an Arab growing up, or what it is like to be an Arab now, then that needs to come from Arab people. It needs to come from us.”
While it is easy to categorize Ameen by her gender and nationality, she is not all too comfortable with it. “I cannot differentiate myself from my experiences in life,” she says.
“My experience in life is that I am a woman and that I live in a society that does not appreciate women as much as it should. That is part of who I am, and that will affect the stories I tell.” But according to Ameen the most important thing going forward is that, finally, people are starting to take notice.
If doing what you love for a living can be considered lucky, then Abdullah Al-Jumah may very well be one of the luckiest men in the region. Still in his early 30s, the Saudi national has visited more than 100 countries, written three books about his adventures and has grown a fan-base of like-minded young readers from across the GCC.
“The idea of traveling and exploring the world is not a new concept for Saudis, even though it has never been a big part of our culture,” says
Al-Jumah. “A large part is down to the growth of Social Media in the region, which has allowed people to see and learn about parts of the world that they had not experienced before.”
This year the Kingdom announced its new e-visa system committing to open up its borders for tourist to visit.
“I think it is an absolute game-changer, not just for tourism in Saudi, but for the entire GCC region,” says Al-Jumah. “The impact of welcoming international tourists and having them explore and appreciating our culture will have a great effect on the people of the country.”
As for Al-Jumah, while he’s modest enough to play the ‘right place at the right time’ card, his passion for travel and commitment to doing what he loves is clear evidence that within the Kingdom (and the region) previous borders are now very much surmountable.
Nick Alvis & Scott Price
“Every night when I stand in Folly and it’s bustling, it gives me an enormous sense of achievement,” says Scott Price of the dynamic, Madinat Jumeirah-based restaurant. “It makes all the hard work worth it.”
That ‘hard work’ that Price makes note of is not only a culmination of nearly 20 years of working as a chef, but also the gamble him and his business partner Nick Alvis took in moving to Dubai to become restaurateurs. Together the duo have opened nine venues, with the home-grown Folly very much the flagship.
“It’s an exciting time for Dubai,” says Alvis. “It’s starting to develop its own real style of what Dubai is in the food scene and not relying on importing it from somewhere else, and I think that we have helped create that.”
It is no secret how cut-throat the UAE’s restaurant scene is, and for the two Gordon Ramsay-trained chefs ensuring high standards persist in their venues is crucial to their success. “With so many new restaurants opening the industry has a very high turnover of staff,” says Price.
“We were both trained for years in the ‘right way’, and believe that if we can pass on our knowledge of all aspects of running a restaurant—not just cooking techniques—to our staff not only will they improve their skill level by the wider industry as a whole will increase and everyone will benefit.”
Photography / Oliver Doran
Art Direction / Cate Warde
Styling / Stuart Robertson
Production manager / Chaz Wacdagan
Hair & Make-up / Lina Dhalbeck
/ 8th street studios