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Amazon of the East

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Northeastern Magazine.

By Sarah Coppola

When Ronaldo Mouchawar co-founded the e-commerce site Souq.com in the Middle East in 2006, his aim was not only to create a thriving business but to have a positive economic and social effect on the region where he grew up.

Mouchawar—a merchant’s son—had spent two decades in the U.S., earning two degrees at Northeastern and working in fulfilling tech and engineering jobs. But the Syria native always felt a pull back to the Arab world. He watched the rise of eBay and Amazon and realized the Middle East could benefit from an online marketplace.

“[The Arab world] is full of young people and small- and medium-sized businesses, but there was no e-commerce platform to connect those businesses,” says Mouchawar, E’88, ME’90. “We knew that building one would be a huge challenge, but that it could improve the lives of people in the region.”

Today, Dubai-based Souq.com is the most successful e-commerce site in the Arab world; analysts value it at more than $1 billion. It sells 2 million products, from clothes to electronics, and attracts 45 million visitors per month.

Most importantly, says Mouchawar, an entrepreneurial ecosystem has sprung up around Souq. More than 75,000 businesses sell merchandise on the site, which creates a huge marketplace for startups. In addition, Souq regularly invests in new companies that supply and enhance its business. Finally, the company employs 3,000 people and has created jobs for 6,000 more through its supply and delivery networks. In short: the company creates economic opportunity and good jobs for young people in the Arab world, a region where more than half the population is under age 35.

“For a region that is often in the news for the wrong reasons, these are glimpses of hope,” says Mouchawar. “We see more young people who are building startups of their own [through Souq.com]. The fear of failure is less.”

Souq.com was not an overnight success. Mouchawar constantly had to experiment with and rethink elements of the site. For example, he changed the site from its initial model (an auction) to fixed pricing to accommodate customer preferences. Mouchawar developed supply-chain and logistics strategies to get deliveries to communities with no postal addresses or reliable mail service. Another challenge: In some regions, very few residents have a credit card. So Mouchawar created a cash-on-delivery system to ensure that merchants got paid. He also rebranded the discount shopping day “Black Friday” into “White Friday,” to use a phrase that’s more acceptable in Arab culture. Friday is the traditional day of prayer.

Although Souq is now a bona fide success—commonly called “the Amazon of the Middle East”—Mouchawar prefers to still think of it as a startup.

“Being an entrepreneur is not just about managing success, but how you confront the next challenge,” he says. “You build a business because you believe in it and want to touch other people’s lives. The key is to keep that passion and commitment going, because this is not a short-term game.”