Saudi Arabia puts buzz back into Mideast startup scene

Visitors are seen at the Saudi Aramco stand at an exhibition in Manama. The oil giant has become increasingly active in startup funding. (Reuters)
Updated 30 November 2017
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Saudi Arabia puts buzz back into Mideast startup scene

LONDON: A maturing investment ecosystem is bolstering startups across the MENA region, according to a new report, with a notable increase in activity from Saudi investment institutions over the past year.
Since 2005, the top 200 funded startups in the MENA region have attracted more than $2 billion in capital, according to a report issued by MAGNiTT, which tracks the development of startups across the region.
To date, the majority of top funded startups in the region were established in the UAE, and the primary financial backers have also tended to be UAE-based.
But a recent uptick in funding from Saudi investment firms points to a developing ecosystem for startups in the Kingdom, according to MAGNiTT founder Philip Bahoshy.
“The Crown Prince has made it part of his Vision 2030 to try to push for further entrepreneurship in the region. While previously it was just an idea, now it is becoming a strong reality,” Bahoshy told Arab News.
As the Kingdom and governments across the Middle East diversify national portfolios away from natural resources and heavy industry, waves of startups providing everything from financial services to digital football fan clubs have burst onto the scene.
Following a number of success stories — including the high-profile acquisition of UAE-based Souq by the American e-commerce giant Amazon — the investment culture supporting startups has developed apace.
In August, Saudi Aramco Ventures, a unit of the Kingdom’s national oil company, invested more than $20 million in the payments startup PayTabs.
The momentum continued this fall when the Saudi-based restaurant management startup Foodics raised $4 million, with inputs from local funds Raed Ventures and Riyad Taqnia Fund (RTF).
The movement in Saudi Arabia follows a broader regional trend, Bahoshy said, where investors are beginning to see meaningful returns on startups established between 2012 and 2015.
Investors across the region have shown a preference for early-stage funding, according to the report, pouring more than $400 million into Series A funding rounds since 2005.
Still, increasing investment at the earliest stages of the startup cycle remains a challenge. On average, regional startups require over three years to close Series A funding but raise just $1.5 million in the Seed and pre-Seed stages.
Citing the lack of a transparent angel investing community in the region, Bahoshy said that governments and international financial institutions such as the World Bank should help incubate startups in their nascent stages and support local entrepreneurs.
“As more startups enter the ecosystem, you need to continue to fuel the base of that pyramid so (the companies) continue to grow,” Bahoshy explained.
According to the report, Middle East Venture Partners, 500 Startups and Wamda Capital are the most active investors in the region, contributing significant capital to the sector.
E-commerce startups have attracted the most funding to date, generating some $700 million since 2005. But of late, investors have shown a preference for startups providing financial technology products, like remittance payments and peer-to-peer lending.
Bahoshy said that startups providing solutions for broader regional challenges such as sticky logistics and cross-border banking frictions stand the best chance of attracting meaningful investment.
More than half of the top-funded startups in the MENA region were founded in the past five years, suggesting a momentum around financing entrepreneurship that has not seen previously been seen.
Broadly speaking, Bahoshy said the outlook for startup funding across the region was one of cautious optimism.
“The general trend is positive. We’re beginning to see new entrances into the space (including) Saudi venture capitalists and international investors,” he said.
 


Libya’s NOC declares force majeure on El Sharara oilfield

Updated 18 December 2018
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Libya’s NOC declares force majeure on El Sharara oilfield

  • El Sharara — a 315,000 barrels a day field was taken over on Dec. 8 by groups of tribesmen, armed protesters and state guards demanding salary payments
  • Some government officials favor offering quick cash to the occupiers to make them leave, but NOC officials have warned that would set a precedent

TRIPOLI: Libya’s state oil firm NOC has declared force majeure on operations at the country’s largest oilfield, El Sharara, a week after it announced a contractual waiver on exports from the field following its seizure by protesters.

The 315,000 barrels a day field, located in the south of the North African OPEC member country, was taken over on Dec. 8 by groups of tribesmen, armed protesters and state guards demanding salary payments and development funds.

Officials have been unable to persuade the groups, who have been camping on the field, to leave the vast, partly unsecured site amid disagreements how best to proceed, workers on the field said.

Some government officials favor offering quick cash to the occupiers to make them leave, but NOC officials have warned that would set a precedent and encourage more blockades, workers at the oilfield say.

NOC has described the occupiers as militia trying to get on the payroll of field guards, a recurring theme in Libya where many see seizing NOC facilities as an easy way to get heard by the weak state authorities.

Production will only restart after “alternative security arrangements are put in place,” NOC said in a statement.

Operations at the smaller El Feel oilfield continued as normal, engineers said.

“Production at Sharara was forcibly shut down by an armed group — Battalion 30 and its civilian support company — that claimed to be providing security at the field, but which threatened violence against NOC employees,” NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanallah said in the statement.

His comments came after the chief of staff of the Tripoli-based government, Abdulrahman Attweel, criticized some of Sanalla’s previous comments about the protesters as “irresponsible.”

“These people (guards) were there to protect the field without salaries and without any attention to them and their daily needs, not in terms of accommodation, supply, transportation and communication,” Attweel told Al-Ahrar channel late on Monday.

Their demands were legitimate, he said, echoing comments by some southern lawmakers and mayors demanding more jobs and development for the neglected region.
The blockade has been complicated by the presence of tribesmen, who have argued against quick cash payments saying they want funds to improve hospitals and other services, which might take time to deliver.

The shutdown of the El Sharara has not affected the El Feel oilfield, also located in the south. It continued to pump around 70,000 barrels a day, field engineers said.
Its exports were being routed via the Melittah oil and gas port, which like El Feel belongs to a joint venture NOC has with Italian energy company Eni, another engineer said.

A spokesman for NOC did not respond to a request for comment.
El Sharara crude is normally transported to the Zawiya port, also home to a refinery. NOC runs the field with Spain’s Repsol , France’s Total, Austria’s OMV and Norway’s Equinor, formerly known as Statoil.