The weather diary Mohammed al-Shaker kept as a child in Jordan was the start of a successful forecasting service, ArabiaWeather - good news for other young entrepreneurs in a country in economic crisis.
• Weather is a passion for Mohammed al-Shaker, 28. It dominates his life – and has become a highly successful business for this Jordanian entrepreneur. Forbes magazine called him “Weatherman” two years ago, when it chose him as the cover story for its Middle East issue. The title was well earned, because ArabiaWeather is the biggest weather business in the Arab world.
Some 70 million people use its services – from Morocco to Oman, the company says. Other companies pay for its forecasts. Shaker and his weather service are a success story in a country currently low on good news. They demonstrate what is possible in a region so often associated with misery and deadlock – and in which a success story like that of Shaker could provide a boost for others.
His firm’s headquarters are in the King Hussein Business Park in Amman, a gated compound that has little in common with the rest of the town. On the outside, cars honk on congested streets; inside, pedestrians stroll around what looks more like a university campus. ArabiaWeather is in building number 4, right next to Microsoft, Oracle and Samsung. There are young men and women everywhere, looking at laptops or relaxing in cool, grey seating areas. Shaker, the founder and CEO of ArabiaWeather, receives visitors in the conference room.
His very first memory, he says, was the sight of snow falling in Amman. He was two years old. As a child he would paint the weather at a table in his room and later he started to keep a weather diary. “Other children in my class had hobbies like football or computers or astronomy,” he says. “Nobody was interested in the weather.” But his mother appreciated her son’s hobby and did everything she could to help him, buying him books and organising trips to the Jordanian national weather service.
At 13, Shaker started his own blog, writing about the weather and explaining what causes it. That attracted the attention of Omar Dajani, who is now the chief meteorologist at ArabiaWeather. “I was sure that it must be a professor writing the blog,” says Dajani, laughing. “I couldn’t believe it was a teenager.”
In 2005, Shaker moved his blog to a website he called “JordanWeather”. He took some online courses in meteorology and developed his own methods of forecasting. The local media started to use his forecasts. “It was then that I realised that the weather is also a business,” he says.
The following year he registered JordanWeather as a company, with a friend, Osama Tarifi, who is ArabiaWeather’s national director for Jordan. Advertisements provided them with their first modest income, but for both of them it was still more of a hobby than a career.
As no Jordanian university offered courses in meteorology, Shaker enrolled for pharmacy, following in his father’s footsteps. Later, he went to Britain to do some courses at the Met Office College, the training centre of the British weather service. In 2010, he changed the name of his firm to ArabiaWeather to attract more users. The following year he attracted funding from his first investor, the Jabbar Internet Group. More followed, including major regional names such as Wamda Capital.
Client numbers rose steadily. The firm extended its operations, improved its forecasts and became more and more of a serious competitor for the Jordanian national weather service. In 2016 the government proposed a law to oblige private weather firms to apply for a state licence or face hefty fines. Shaker saw that as a warning shot. He entered into a partnership with the authorities.
Today, ArabiaWeather and Jordan’s national weather service exchange data, cooperate technically and agree on terminology for extreme weather events. “The proposed law was a turning point for us,” says Shaker. “In the end, it was to the benefit of the firm, because now we can service the whole public sector to which otherwise we would have not got any access.” ArabiaWeather is big enough and successful enough to be able to negotiate on equal terms with state agencies. “Our technical strength reduces the regulatory risk,” he says. He is well aware that government decisions and excessively tough regulation can be fatal for small startups.
Tips on weather wear
ArabiaWeather now has offices in Dubai and Saudi Arabia with a staff of 55, operates 200 weather stations and provides hourly forecasts for 5,000 locations in 22 Arab states. The company uses its own algorithms to constantly improve its forecasts. It sells services to airports, airlines, and firms in sectors such as agriculture, transport, electricity, oil, gas and the media, such as the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera. The user app provides revenue through adverts. Apart from weather forecasts, the app and the website also provide tips on clothes, background articles and messages when schools have to close due to the weather. “Jordanians are interested in the weather because they want to know what to wear,” says Dajani. “But in Saudi Arabia clothes are not an issue, because most people there wear their traditional dress anyway. And in the Emirates, people want to know all about the wind conditions, because many go out fishing in boats as a hobby.”
ArabiaWeather is a bright spot for Jordan. The country is poor in resources and the economy has been stagnating in recent years as the population increases, due to a high birth rate and the influx of refugees from Syria In the . In June, thousands of people demonstrated in the capital, Amman, and other cities against planned tax rises. King Abdullah then appointed a new prime minister, who promptly scrapped the reforms and the protests died down.
But the structural problems of the Jordanian economy cannot be solved so easily. Although the country receives financial aid from abroad, mainly Europe and the USA, Jordan’s national debt has risen to 95% of its gross domestic product. A bloated public sector employs one worker in three in the country, while the underdeveloped private sector does not create enough jobs. Nearly 40% of young Jordanians cannot find work. For many of them startups may be one way – perhaps the only way – of building a future for themselves.
The Jordanian royal house shares this hope. For some years King Abdullah has been trying to establish his country as a hi-tech location, promoting startups and training programmes in the IT sector, and wooing international investors. Last year a royal foundation formed a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to set up a “digital manufacturing laboratory” in Amman. A new town planned east of Amman is already being advertised as a future hi-tech metropolis.
Nonetheless, many hurdles remain higher in Jordan than elsewhere. For example, young founders have difficulty in finding seed capital. “A lot of business ideas just die because funding is lacking,” says Shaker. According to a report by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the lack of access to financing is the biggest problem for Jordanian firms. Little help is to be expected from foreign investors. “Many venture capital funds do not look at this region,” says Shaker. “I often talk to investors in Europe. They say the Middle East is not stable.”
What is more, the Jordanian education system does not prepare young people for the modern economy. The Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum states that “inadequately trained manpower” is the second most important factor putting the brakes on Jordan’s economy. Curricula are seen as hopelessly outdated, and universities emphasise quantity rather than quality. “We need more people but we cannot find them – not because of a lack of applicants with a university degree but because of a lack of quality,” says Shaker. “The reform of the education system is top priority.”
But those with drive and talent can still get top qualifications in Jordan, especially in this age of unlimited learning: Shaker and most of his staff attended local universities; many of them also did online courses. His firm did not take part in any of the numerous, often western-financed, sponsoring programmes for startups. It is a Jordanian project through and through – “organically grown,” as Shaker puts it.
Setting an example
Many startups in Jordan and the Middle East seek to break into the international market. But ArabiaWeather tailored its service to the region from the outset. The website and app are available in Arabic and English, but the content is tailored to the Arab world. “Some 400 million people live in the Arab world and internet distribution is very wide,” says Shaker. “Yet the share of content in Arabic is very low. For us, that is a competitive advantage.”
In his Twitter profile he has written: “I believe in the power of Arab youth.” The statement sounds as if it was written in the year 2011. That was when a wave of protest shook the Middle East, leading many to predict the coming of the Arab Spring. But the hopes of millions of young demonstrators have long been buried under the rubble of war or smothered by state repression. Can people like Mohammed al-Shaker give the young new hope? Show that even in adverse conditions you can achieve something with good ideas, hard work and a bit of luck?
For some years Shaker has been identifying new optimism in the young men and women of the region, along with self-confidence and drive. “Thanks to social media, the success stories of startups have spread throughout the Arab world,” he says. “That encourages young people to put their own ideas into practice. Arab youth has a lot of energy and passion. You only have to give them the right kind of support.”
ArabiaWeather does that by regularly inviting school classes to its headquarters; staff members show pupils round, and explain the technology and science behind the forecasts. Shaker has a further dream: to set up a college of meteorology. He is currently engaged in consultations with an educational society willing to cooperate with developing the institute. He hopes to be able to get the project launched by 2020.
“If we invested more money in educating our young people,” he says, “that would not only help them. It would also strengthen the whole economy, create jobs, bring more international firms to Jordan and help create more startups. And ultimately that would benefit the whole country.”