How coronavirus crisis has changed business in the Middle East

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CAIRO: While countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have responded unevenly to the coronavirus pandemic, a majority imposed aggressive temporary lockdowns on businesses and people’s movement.

Containment efforts, paired with a global economic slowdown, supply chain disruptions and a drop in crude oil prices, have had grave implications for regional enterprises.

In anticipation of prolonged pain, some MENA businesses have reacted quickly and creatively to this economic turmoil. Here is a look at some of the innovations that swiftly took hold.

* Fine dining delivered to your home

Luxury dining is perhaps the hardest-hit segment of the food and beverage industry. Operators were quick to switch to delivery and takeout.

“High-end fine dining restaurants such as Coya (and) Zuma, amongst others, have pivoted in this way, and it’s inspiring to see restaurants quickly move to a completely new business model,” said Ryan Andrews, marketing director of Eat App, a Bahraini startup providing an electronic system for restaurant reservations.

Chatfood, a platform offering a commission-free direct-to-consumer delivery option for restaurants, witnessed a surge in new clients from the region, said co-founder Ben Mouflard.


(Image: EAT App)

* The rise of e-commerce

E-commerce in the region has been growing at a cumulative rate of 25 percent since 2014, and online-only retailers have long captured more than 90 percent of this market.

To mitigate the deleterious effects of the lockdown on luxury retailers relying on in-store sales, Dubai Mall launched Noon.com, enabling them to sell and deliver products through the virtual store.

Dubai Airport Free Zone (DAFZA) is accelerating its efforts to launch Dubai Commercity, a 2.1 million sq. feet haven for e-commerce businesses with spaces for offices and logistics.

“Given the traction witnessed by clients (going) online due to the pandemic, we are on track for the scheduled opening by the end of 2020,” said Mohammed Al-Zarooni, DAFZA director-general.

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* Mobile banking and e-wallets

A surge in the use of mobile banking and e-wallets has been observed across the region. Starting in March, Egyptian banks — including National Bank of Egypt, Banque Misr and BLOM Bank — have increased their electronic service capabilities.

National Bank of Oman encouraged users to make contactless payments. Fintech startups have been capitalizing on this trend with the launch of new services, among them PayBy’s mobile payment app in the UAE.

“The future of banking is not digital. The future of banking is customer experience, and digital is a tool enabling customer experience,” said Ali Khan, financial services director of PwC Middle East.


(Photo: AFP)

* Virtual music concerts

No-crowd live-streamed music concerts have become hugely popular, with a tipping point reached over the Eid Al-Fitr holiday.

The Egyptian Culture Ministry’s YouTube channel started live-streaming music concerts in March. By the end of May, it had added more than 1 million new subscribers.

Supported by major production companies, several popstars from the region, including Egyptian Tamer Hosny and Saudi Mohamed Abdo, performed to an online audience.


(Photo: AFP)

* The shift toward gift cards

Entertainment businesses had to innovate to keep the cash flowing as many countries enforced curfews.

With the entertainment market shut down, companies have been promoting gift cards to stay afloat.

Vouchers and gift cards for cinemas and restaurants offer customers future discounts once restrictions are lifted.

“We’ve helped restaurants market their vouchers” via a dedicated marketplace, said Andrews of Eat App.

* Telemedicine gets a real-life test

Based on a recent report by Research and Markets, the digital health care market in Saudi Arabia will grow by 8.8 percent in 2020 to $16.1 billion.

This growth is fueled by hospitals’ rapid adoption of telehealth services to cater to non-urgent medical needs while people’s movement is restricted.

As part of its response to COVID-19, Saudi Arabia has required that health insurance companies cover the costs of telehealth consultations.


(Photo: AFP)

* Virtual guided tours

Tourism was the first sector impacted by the pandemic, and is expected to be the last to recover.

Egypt’s Tourism and Antiquities Ministry launched online virtual 3D tours of ancient tombs and monasteries.

The Contemporary Art Platform in Kuwait and the Akkasah Center for Photography in Abu Dhabi are among the region’s art galleries currently offering online tours of their collection.

* Drive-in cinemas are back

Drive-in cinemas are coming back to help film lovers in the region get their entertainment fix without breaking social distancing rules.

Dubai welcomed its latest drive-in cinema in May on the rooftop of Mall of the Emirates, with a capacity of 75 cars.

It was followed by one at Dubai Mall, and Cairo’s Mall of Arabia has also launched its own version.


(Photo: Courtesy of VOX Cinemas)

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This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.

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