Twenty years have passed since a team of creative young Jordanians launched Arabia.com, the first ever Arabic web portal. Even though it fell victim to the dot-com crash, the pioneering Internet project left behind a legacy that resonates to this day.
By Laith Abou-Ragheb
It was at an IBM product launch in Munich in 1994 that Khaldoon Tabaza saw a website for the first time. “As a demonstration of the power of their new notebooks, they showed us something called the Internet, which I had never seen before,” he said. For Tabaza, it was a revelatory moment that marked the start of a journey that would see the launch of the first Arabic web portal and the careers of a whole generation of talented, tech-savvy Jordanians.
The remarkable tale of how Tabaza and his team set up Arabia.com and went on to introduce millions across our region to the marvels of the Internet actually began around a decade before his trip to Germany. It started in the classrooms and corridors of the Amman high school Tabaza attended with another computer obsessed teenager called Ahmad Humeid.
At the time, personal computers were just starting to appear in Jordanian homes and the pair bonded over their shared obsession with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. “We used to pool our allowances together to buy Sinclair User magazine,” Tabaza said, in reference to the long-running British publication dedicated to the tiny, rubber-keyed computer that rose to prominence in the 1980s. Their love of the device even extended to the creation of their own one-page ZX Spectrum fanzine, which they wrote and designed using a typewriter and photocopier, before selling copies to their friends. “Basically, we were geeks who were very interested in computers,” Humeid said.
Their enthusiasm for journalism led them to cross paths with Osama al Sharif, a seasoned journalist and political commentator who had set up a weekly English-language newspaper called The Star. He was quick to spot their potential and gave them an entire page of the newspaper to fill with whatever they found interesting. “He gave us a great opportunity to start writing about technology, media, and music,” Tabaza recalled.
The two friends then enrolled at the University of Jordan. Tabaza began studying medicine while Humeid opted for architecture. But this didn’t spell the end of their interest in publishing and media. Tabaza managed to convince editors at the esteemed pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat to allow him to write about IT developments in the Middle East. Naturally, this greatly raised Tabaza’s tech profile in the region and around the world. So much so that he attracted the attention of the New York-based publisher of Byte, the PC magazine that was hugely influential during its 1980s heyday.
Tabaza was offered the chance to produce the Arabic-language edition of Byte, but only if he found a way to fund it himself. Tabaza knocked on the door of Ramzi Zeine, the founder and executive chairman of STS, who agreed to help him finance the project.
Tabaza said he never felt suited to a career as a doctor. So when the chance came along to pursue his real passion, he seized it. “The day after my last day at medical school, I threw everything related to medicine out of my mind. That was the first day of Byte magazine,” he said.
With Zeine’s backing, Tabaza formed Arabian Communications and Publishing (APC) in 1994. Along with Byte, the company also won the rights to produce a host of other Arabized editions of big name magazines like Popular Science.
Humeid was drafted into the company for his design and branding talent. While al Sharif and his considerable “old school” journalism skills were called upon to oversee the editorial output of the fledgling operation.
By any measure, the publishing company proved to be a solid success. It even secured a journalistic coup in the form of a rare Bill Gates interview. But then Tabaza embarked on his fateful visit to Munich, and became convinced he had to gain a presence on the emerging Internet. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it to the extent that flying back to Amman from that trip I wrote the press release about the launch of Arabia.com.”
Humeid was appointed to a subdivision within the company called Arabian Media Concepts that was charged with developing the new portal in terms of coding, design, and coming up with the overall identity of the website. Even though it started as a relatively small side project, Tabaza had big ambitions for it. “We wanted to own the Internet in every Arab country, across all sectors,” he said.
The web portal was initially launched under the name of Arabia Online in March 1995 and was later rebranded as Arabia.com not long later. It featured a mixture of news, sport, chat, and travel, and was syndicated to different countries across the region. Nothing revolutionary there, you might think. But it’s important to keep in mind just how new portals and the wider Internet were at the time. Yahoo, for example, only went live a few months after Arabia.com did. “Just remember that the commercial Internet as we know it was only just coming into existence,” Humeid said, pointing out that commercial, widely available Internet services didn’t even arrive in Jordan until 1997. “We used to have to dial overseas to be able to access the Internet and ran up international phone call bills.”
Just like Byte magazine, Arabia.com had to sell advertising to survive. This was made trickier due to the complete unfamiliarity of this new untested medium called the Internet. “We had to feel our way as we started to work on marketing and advertising because the whole concept was a novelty, it was new for advertisers,” explained al Sharif, who served as Arabia.com’s publisher and general director. “We had to convince advertisers they could actually reach a new generation of Arab consumers. And that was not easy. The (Internet user) numbers were small and the technology of calculating hits, and guaranteeing that people saw the ads was still in its early days as a business concept.”
Humeid agreed it really was year zero as far as digital advertising was concerned. “It was crazy. We were running advertisements in our own magazines and other media basically explaining what the Internet was to people,” he said. “You had to make a point-by-point argument about what the Internet was and how it could be useful and why a company should want to build a (web) a presence. With almost zero Internet penetration, you’re trying to convince Arab businesses, not just in Jordan, but across the region.”
But even though there was only a fraction of the number of Internet users as there is today, Tabaza said Arabia.com still had a relatively huge reach. Two years after its launch, the portal had a penetration of more than 80 percent of total Internet users. Furthermore, it was turning a profit without the need for any additional funding.
Then in the summer of 1998, Tabaza and his team received some bad news: Byte magazine, one of their prime revenue sources, was being sold to another publisher. This forced Tabaza to go all in and spin off Arabia.com as a stand-alone venture. “We suddenly lost Byte magazine. So we decided to move entirely into electronic publishing,” Tabaza said.
Without Byte, Tabaza had to find a new source of funding, and fast. A chance encounter with two Saudi delegates at a tech conference in Italy led to the commissioning of an online interactive prayer time application. This brought in enough money to keep Arabia.com going in the short-term. But a lot more would be needed for the company to grow.
Luckily, the dot-com boom was in full swing, and eye popping amounts of money were being thrown about by tech investors across the world. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire Saudi investor, was amongst them. Arabia.com, which at the time was racking up hundreds of thousands of unique users each month, popped up on the prince’s radar.
He invited Tabaza and Zeine to meet him in his office high up in Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower. “We told him we will own the Internet in the Arab world,” Tabaza said. Their pitch must have been convincing because Prince Alwaleed agreed to buy 50 percent of Arabia.com for $1.5 million.
The deal suddenly catapulted the company into a different league. Prince Alwaleed parachuted a crack corporate team into Arabia.com’s Amman headquarters to help it hit a fundraising target in the high double digit millions before going public.
The company began growing fast. Its staff almost quadrupled to 75. Zeine became Arabia.com’s CEO and additional senior employees were poached from global giants like Pepsi and Hilton. A new office was opened at the top of Dubai’s Emirates Towers. Tabaza even recalls how one senior executive had a yellow Porsche to go with their rented luxury villa in Dubai’s upmarket Jumeirah district.
Yes, it’s safe to say Arabia.com got well and truly caught up in the dot-com frenzy. “It became almost a typical dot-com story of people throwing money at something and growing very, very fast,” Humeid said. “Suddenly we got all these expatriate managers running it and things became extremely corporate and costs became extremely high.” Humeid left Arabia.com around this time to form his design firm Syntax.
Al Sharif said hindsight is always 20/20. “By the late 90s the world had gone crazy for Internet portals. There were a number of Internet sites being taken public and raising millions and millions of dollars. We thought this road was there for us … and we could follow suit.”
Pop Went the Bubble
Sadly for Arabia.com, the dot-com bubble burst when it had only raised around $25 million—well below the amount it originally envisioned it needed to go public. Tabaza became convinced the time of tapping easy money was at an end. “The previous dot-com plan for burning money, raising more money, and then going public wasn’t going to work,” he said.
He implored Arabia.com’s board and shareholders to change track and use 90 percent of the money they had raised to buy Internet Service Providers (ISPs) across the region, which at the time were undergoing a potentially lucrative liberalization process. While he thought the remaining 10 percent should be used to keep the Arabia.com portal up and running.
In the end, Tabaza’s plan was rejected in favor of ploughing ahead with the original IPO plan. “I was extremely sad. There are lots of lessons learnt. I gave up too easily, but at that time I didn’t have that much power to fight. I was still young and didn’t have much experience,” he said. In May 2001, at the age of 33, he decided to leave Arabia.com to run a venture fund and incubator in Cairo.
The company then began burning through its $25 million. But it only managed to raise a further $5 million, followed by another $1 million. Al Sharif, who stepped down from Arabia.com in 2001, said it was obvious what was happening. “We just missed our opportunity to IPO the company. Therefore we found ourselves in deep water, unable to maintain the trust of the investors and we faced the inevitable process of restructuring and restructuring again, and restructuring again until there was nothing left to restructure.”
Arabia.com finally folded in 2004. Its assets were sold off, including its domain name which eventually wound up with an Egyptian tech company that resurrected it as another portal-like website that still serves up a frothy selection of sport, cars, and showbiz stories.
But even though Tabaza might not have left the company under ideal circumstances, he still has no major regrets. “When we started Arabia.com, Yahoo was buried inside the Stanford University servers,” he said. “I think I’m the person that made the least money out of Arabia.com, but I am extremely proud that I left before the money was burned. The years that I managed Arabia.com, we broke even, we made a profit,” he said.
Arabia.com’s legacy in the annals of the region’s Internet history would have been secured purely on the fact it was the first ever Arabic portal. But its importance perhaps lies even more in the remarkable individuals that formed around the project from its inception, many of whom went on to shape and influence so many creative industries in Jordan and across the wider Arab world. Al Sharif said: “It was a historic moment when all of these talents suddenly found themselves in one environment.”
Tabaza, Humeid, and al Sharif are part of a long list of people who can take credit for getting Arabia.com off the ground and who continue to be successful in their own right. Ramzi Zeine remains the executive chairman of STS. Waleed al Asfar, who was integral to producing Byte magazine, is now the head of internal communications at Qatar Telecom. Arabia.com’s cofounder Majied Qasem is now the CEO of d1g.com. Wael Attili also worked on Byte as a teenager before setting up his Kharabeesh empire. “It was a little hub of entrepreneurship and innovation before these became buzzwords,” Humeid said. “We need to celebrate it because it shows that you can have innovation in Jordan at the same time as global innovation.”
Al Sharif is clear about just how important Arabia.com was. “I think the most important thing is that we created the first generation of Internet professionals in the Arab world,” he said. “All those people who were associated with us are very successful in their careers, which was a direct result of the experience with Arabia online.”
After leaving Arabia.com, Tabaza spent eight years building tech companies across the region. Then in 2009, he founded the iMENA Group to invest and operate a host of online and mobile businesses.
Tabaza said Arabia.com was ahead of its time in many ways. But he doesn’t feel the same applies to iMENA’s companies like the Arabic online classifieds platform, OpenSooq. “At that time we had the most wonderful product, but there was absolutely no market. But now there’s a huge market and no products out there,” he told Venture in iMENA’s Amman office. “Now I’m completing my job. In iMENA, we’re doing it right.”
So why is he so convinced that the Internet has finally come of age in our part of the world? Rather than rattle off a long list of statics proving his point, like how the OpenSooq app has been downloaded more than two million times since it was launched in October 2103, he lifts up his smartphone, taps open the OpenSooq app and scrolls down to a section advertising camels for sale in Saudi Arabia (the asking price for one fine specimen is well over JD1 million). “When you know that someone on the edge of Saudi Arabia pulls out his smartphone, takes a photo and posts a classified ad, you know that the Internet has reached a critical moment in the Arab world,” Tabaza said.
Two decades have passed since the launch of Arabia.com, and Tabaza remains firmly wedded to the belief that the Internet will continue to change our lives immeasurably for the better. Will Jordan ever see success stories like Arabia.com again? We can only hope there’s another group of passionate young Jordanians out there working on an idea that will push the capabilities of the Internet to the next level.