Editor’s note: While working at Buzzcar (Zipcar founder Robin Chase’s project in France) as community manager, Aline Mayard decided to go explore the Middle East. She quit her job, and starting investigating society, innovation and change there on her travel blog: yallabye.eu. She’s sharing what she’s learned about local Web ecosystems on The Next Web. You can follow her on Twitter as @aline_myd or @yallah_bye.

Oman is probably the least known and most discreet oil country of the Gulf countries.

The sultanate has been through an intense period of development ever since the 70s, and is now a relatively rich country (with $ 27.600 GDP/capita, Oman is ranking 49th in the world). Its economy is benefiting from a rapid diversification (Since 2004, non-oil related GDP has tripled from US$2.1 billion to US$6.4 billion), and is driven by a large number of expatriates (20% of the population), albeit in way smaller proportion than in the other Gulf countries. Despite all those changes, Oman remains a really traditional country, and the way its people use the Internet is no exception.

Oman is just starting to get to know the Web. ADSL services were launched in 2005, and are still quite expensive ($258 for unlimited 8 Mbit/s access). Internet users living in Oman would find it hard to quote more than 1 or 2 websites they use in Oman. And those websites are nothing revolutionary. They may sound a tad simple for westerners, but they are changing everything: they’re creating an Internet culture in the Sultanate, they’re educating an entire country.

I decided to go talk with the two websites people have been talking about: Clickformeal and Alatool.

Clickformeal is an online food ordering portal that lets Internet users easily find restaurants, view their updated menus, read restaurants ratings, and place orders for takeaway and delivery restaurants with no extra fee charged. Alatool Muscat offers daily deals in Muscat, available only for a limited period of time. You can buy anything on Alatool, from hotel stays to products, but you have to be quick enough, thus the name, Alatool, which means ‘quickly’ in Arabic slang.

Other websites should be launched soon such as platforms to find a job, to rent a house (muscathomes.com) or to shop groceries.

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Keeping it simple and local

Both of these websites have one thing in common: their concepts are nothing new – various similar websites exist worldwide – but those two were created in Oman and designed for the Omani market.

Clickformeal was created to resolve three typically Omani problems: the heat and the traffic (you can’t walk in Oman) that can turn any trip into a painful experience, and the difficulty of putting an order in English when most of the people don’t speak a good English.

Alatool had to take into consideration the geography of the country: Oman is a very large landscape, with lots of small cities, so it’s hard to create ultra-local communities. Therefore, Alatool didn’t want to set a minimum number of clients to reach. With Alatool, the deal will happen even if only one person buys it.

Creating the trust

Clickformeal and Alatool also took into consideration how people use the Internet in Oman. People are still learning how to trust websites, they still assume that a website that doesn’t ask for money has to be a scam. That’s why Clickformeal and Alatool’s main objective is to create the trust.

Clickformeal decided to set a cash-on-delivery payment system, as both the clients and the restaurants feel more conformable dealing with the money themselves. The other advantage of this solution is that Clickformeal avoids one major administrative obstacle: online payment can only be made with Omani credit cards in Oman. If this banking rule proves one thing it’s that clients are not the only ones to be afraid of fraud, so is the government.

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Alatool took a different approach. Jessica Asher, founder of the website, believes that people who have a credit card don’t mind using it on the Web – after all, they’re already buying airplane tickets or paying their bills on the Internet – but they need to trust the websites. That’s why Jessica Asher is focusing all of her energy on customer service, and creating the trust. Alatool implemented live online chat, a telephone hotline, and inquiries are solved within two hours. Alatool also offers three payment systems: cash on delivery, credit cards, and payment at the office. The latter is particularly important to create trust as it sets the websites offline.

Asher proudly explains that, at the beginning, people were only purchasing small items “to try” and are now starting to buy bigger deals.

But the success she can be the most proud of is to have changed the administration’s view on online payment. After six months and having proved that there was no fraud going on, Alatool has been allowed to accept payment from non-Omani credit cards, and/or outside Oman.

Educating the market

Jessica Asher, remembers when she was creating the service and she was confronted to Oman officials who didn’t understand the Web industry. “We needed to explain the concept over and over. They wanted to see a boutique, they didn’t understand the online thing. For them, a store needs to be a boutique.”

Sencer Ozokur, Clickformeal founder, is laughing when he recalls the first time he talked to restaurant owners. “They were saying, ‘we don’t need a website. Our clients don’t need it, they haven’t been asking for it.’”

According to Jessica Asher, most businessmen in Oman don’t understand the advantage of the Internet, and what they can do with the data, what they can create for the customers.

Oman is still learning. Ozokur and Asher believe that with time, people will be ready for more complex services. Omani are far from being ready for eBay. For now, they have to keep it simple. ClickforMeal had to come with an easy process for the restaurant owner. He doesn’t require restaurants to have a computer or to be connected to the website. He provides them with an automated device connected to its server. 30 seconds after an order has been placed, the restaurant receives all the details, and is free to accept it or not.

Who are the entrepreneurs of Oman?

Who are Clickformeal and Alatool founders? They’re both foreigners. Sencer Ozokur is Turkish. He has been living in Oman for 7 years ago in the construction sector. He decided to create Clickformeal because he found Internet companies inspiring, and was interested in the restaurant business. Why would a new entrepreneur start in Oman, rather than in Turkey? For the challenge! “Because in Oman everything is still to be done.”

Same thing for Jessica Asher from Alatool. She’s a third-generation Indian living in Oman, who worked in the digital marketing field in Dubai but was longing to become an entrepreneur, like her father and grand father before her. It didn’t matter if it was online or offline, but she wanted to go back to Oman. She was tired of seeing all the Omani companies going to Dubai for their marketing, design, and communication needs. She wanted to help Oman be independent. So she created Socioholics, an online brand management agency. Following Socioholics, she launched Alatool, mostly in order to gather data about Omanis’ use of the Internet for Socioholics.

What about Omanis? Let’s say that they are not really what you imagine when you think entrepreneur. They’re known for being quite relax (a work day will end at 2pm, and they will benefit from lots of different holidays), and for being reluctant to take risks. But things are changing. Asher says she’s been to various entrepreneurs meetings where she met many very educated Omanis wanting to launch their business, but always offline.

One of the main problems is there is no IT-educated Omani. So, entrepreneurs have to go abroad to find designers and developers.

No startup scene, and so?

It comes to no surprise after reading this article, that there is no proper startup scene: no digital entrepreneurs meetings, no coworking spaces, no incubators, not many events, no investors networks. Our two interviewees didn’t know any other Web entrepreneurs when they launched their website and only had their spouse for advice and moral support. And so?

Those entrepreneurs believe that making business in Oman is not harder than anywhere else in the world, and is actually more interesting.

They agree that Oman is not the most entrepreneur friendly place in the world, but nothing that a good witty entrepreneur can’t overcome. The two main obstacles are probably that an entrepreneur needs to make a 150 000 OMR ($389,661) deposit while Omani officials are processing the creation of the company, and that they need to find a sponsor. You can always find a way to find the money. As for the sponsor, it’s apparently not that hard to find a well-educated silent partner you can trust (but it may take one or two shots). Sometime, a sponsor can even be useful as he knows the market better than the foreigner entrepreneur. But in any case, a sponsor doesn’t know the business, so in case of a problem, the
entrepreneur will probably be the one to win.

But at least, the taxes are low, and everything is yet to be done. Jessica agrees “In Dubai, it’s easier to set a business with the free zones and everything, but it’s not easy to swim because there are so many people in the sea already”. She says she received much more support in Oman than she would have had in Dubai because here everybody knows everybody and what launching a website is more unusual.

After meeting Ozokur and Asher, I had that feeling that being a web entrepreneur in Oman was quite a fun adventure. They were both so optimistic and positive. Well, of course, how would you feel knowing that you’re creating something new, the future for the Internet culture in Oman?

Don’t miss Aline’s previous posts on Lebanon and Jordan.

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