Images of dead bodies lying in the streets of Syrian towns and men in pick-up trucks firing anti-aircraft guns across the wastes of Libya’s deserts might be expected to damp the enthusiasm of even the most determined optimist.
However, on the other side of the Arab world, one Dubai-based entrepreneur discerns opportunity and hope in the unrest that is gripping the region.
“We are contrarians in a lot of ways. For us there is great opportunity in the fact that social media is increasingly being used by our youth,” says Rabea Ataya, chairman and chief executive of Bayt.com, a job-hunting website.
“The Arab spring has meant that a lot of people are on the Internet. What all of this has told is that the youth of the region are looking for opportunities. We find that this is a particularly good time.”
Mr. Ataya speaks with some insight. Since opening for business in 2000, Bayt.com has become one of the most effective means of finding work in the Arab world, a region beset by high levels of unemployment.
At any one time, between 10,000 and 15,000 jobs are advertised on the site. Those looking for work post their qualifications and experience for free while employers pay a monthly subscription of about $1,000 to access the database. Bayt estimates that up to six million people and 30,000 companies are, or have been, registered.
Mr. Ataya, 39, was born in Kuwait of Palestinian Lebanese descent and studied engineering at Stanford University in the U.S. in the early 1990s before joining Alex. Brown, a boutique investment bank that specialized in technology. The idea of founding the business came as he tried to recruit personnel for a previous venture.
“There were way too many obstacles between employers and job seekers. The only way that you could actually find a job in the region was through a middleman. Most jobs were not advertised and there were very few recruiting agencies,” he says.
“If you remove the intermediary, you allow for a much more efficient marketplace. Ultimately they make their own match and we get out of the way.”
The site attracts 450 applicants on average for each job posted. Popular jobs such as business development or marketing posts with a multinational company can attract up to 900 people.
Bayt estimates that it helps between 130,000 and 180,000 people to find a job in the Middle East each year. And that is only the matches it can track. Mr. Rabea estimates that the same number of matches is made off radar.
Such efficacy is highly desirable. The region suffers from the highest youth unemployment in the world at more than 25 per cent, while labour force participation rates are only 35 per cent, compared with 52 per cent internationally, according to McKinsey, the consultants,
Just to maintain current average unemployment rates, the Arab world needs to create an additional 35 million-40 million jobs, McKinsey said in April in a report commissioned by the International Finance Corporation.
But for Bayt that means opportunity. Even in Egypt, where a government has yet to be formed following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak as president, Bayt is prospering.
“A lot of the large-scale brand name customers are not hiring very much but the market itself is very broad. Business is good. We are expecting a growth year in Egypt this year,” Mr. Ataya says.
His company is perhaps a rare example of a dotcom that has prospered.
The four founding partners remain onboard and Tiger Global, a hedge fund with a record in investing in technology start-ups, has joined them as an investor with an undisclosed stake. Mr. Ataya and his partners have just sold Gonabit.com, the coupon website, only a year after launch, to Living Social of the U.S., and in the process made the chief executive, a former teacher, a millionaire.
The company has been profitable since inception and foresees growth in revenues, currently in the “double-digit millions.” of more than 25 per cent this year. With 230 staff, it is still hiring “aggressively.”
Mr. Ataya says that he has no intention at present of selling. Indeed he devotes one slot a day to hosting an entrepreneur or aspiring executive. Between now and December he is looking at doing between three and six investments of up to $2-million.
Perhaps surprisingly, he says there is plenty more that young Arabs can do to find work. What is needed is a change in attitudes and a willingness to take on what are considered menial jobs.
“When you ask about people from the Mashreq being interested in being a construction worker or a sanitation worker, oftentimes unfortunately the answer is ‘No,’ ” he says.
“Most Middle Easterners and North Africans are interested in white-collar work. And there is a limited amount of white-collar work to go around. So it’s not that they are having difficulty. There are jobs of all kinds. It is whether or not people are interested in finding these jobs.”