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  • A Middle East online tutoring startup eyes Saudi Arabia’s market

    Mon, 2020-05-25 22:40

    DUBAI: Hunting for a tutor online? The web is a great place to explore for its dizzying number of options, but as you click and consider each option, their very abundance can at times be confounding.
    What should you choose and what should you ignore, especially when the outcome can affect your future?
    To take the stress out of this task, Audrey Nakad came up with the idea of Synkers, an app that helps parents and college students find experts for the extra coaching the latter require.
    The educational enterprise co-founded by Nakad, a Lebanese-Canadian national, provides information on qualified tutors after filtering for price, location or ratings.

    Synkers, an app that helps parents and college students find experts for the extra coaching the latter require. (Supplied)

    The tutors are screened and their qualifications verified — they can be professionals or senior students who have scored 95/100 on the courses or subjects they offer.
    A separate B2B business model gives educational institutions the option to adopt the entire platform for their own students and access detailed insights and reports.
    “Synkers was founded to ease a major pain point for parents: The ability to find qualified and experienced private teachers for their kids,” said Nakad, 28.
    The idea was born from personal experience. As an undergraduate in Montreal, she worked as a private tutor and teaching assistant but had a hard time finding students.
    At the same time, her sister Sibylle was struggling to find a qualified tutor to help her with her study material.

    That led the siblings and their friend Zeina Sultani to found Synkers in Lebanon in September 2017. They began with 40 tutoring hours and 80 tutors.
    Initial funding came from the Lebanese government, with Beirut-based technology accelerator Speed@BDD providing $30,000.
    “With $30,000, we were able to build our first prototype, go to market and acquire our first paying customers within three months,” said Nakad.
    “Soon after, we closed a seed round of $700,000 from Phoenician Fund I (a venture capital firm). This round allowed us to build a stronger product and team, reach product-market fit and, most importantly, expand to a new market, the UAE.”
    By the end of 2019, the educational technology startup had partnered with Lebanon’s Ministry of Education.



    Revenues generated by private tutoring by 2026. (Source: India-based Zion Market Research)

    Over the last four years, Synkers has gained more than 60,000 students, over 1,000
    vetted tutors, given 90,000 tutoring sessions, and achieved a 21 percent student improvement rate, according to Nakad.
    Worldwide, demand for private tutoring has been growing rapidly. Zion Market Research, an India-based firm, projects that global revenues in the sector will reach $177.6 billion by 2026, up from $96.2 billion in 2017.
    The Middle East currently accounts for $3.1 billion of total revenue, Synkers research shows. “With innovation and technology, our world is evolving so fast that our jobs and the skills needed to do them are constantly changing,” said Nakad.
    “This makes it very difficult for schools to continually adapt their curriculum and way of teaching to prepare their students for the future.”
    As the Gulf alone is expected to account for 15 million school students this year, Synkers hopes to scale up quickly to capitalize on the region’s market growth.

    Audrey Nakad came up with the idea of Synkers. (Supplied)

    In 2017, the company joined a Dubai Future Accelerators international program that paired innovators with government organizations to solve contemporary challenges.
    The resulting collaboration with Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) led to Synkers partnering with the American University in Dubai and Lebanese and French private schools in the UAE.
    The next steps for Synkers include expansion into Saudi Arabia, ideally by 2021. Egypt, the region’s largest market by population, will follow in 2022, with Jordan and Bahrain after that.
    “We are very excited to announce that we are closing a pre-series A round with strong VCs from the region and Europe in order to grow in the region and enter Saudi Arabia,” said Nakad.


    READ MORE: Startup sets the pace in Middle East’s virtual-currencies business


    “In the next five years, we are looking to grow our user base from 60,000 learners to 2 million across the region.
    “Our vision is to develop the largest community of knowledge exchange, and empower any knowledge holder to influence and teach the world.”
    What sets Synkers apart from other online tutoring companies? Beyond the personalized adaptive learning plans and a significant investment in its tutors, Nakad pointed to the academic and socioeconomic benefits of Synkers’ peer-to-peer system, inspired by Harvard University.
    “Students connect with people who are just like them,” she said. “They have the same background and experiences, which allows them to connect on an individual level and work together to mutually succeed.”

    • 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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  • Lufthansa: German fund approves $9.8 billion in aid

    Tue, 2020-05-26 01:12

    FRANKFURT: German airline Lufthansa said Monday it has received approval for a €9 billion ($9.8 billion) “stabilization package” from a government support fund to keep the company going through the turbulence from the coronavirus outbreak, but cautions the deal has not been approved by the EU’s executive commission.

    Lufthansa, which has lost most of its passenger business due to travel restrictions during the outbreak, said the government’s fund has agreed to take nonvoting holdings in return for €5.7 billion, plus a €3 billion credit line and €300 million in share purchases.

    That would leave the government fund with a 20-percent stake in the company and two seats on the board of directors. One of those seats would be on the audit committee. 

    The airline said however that the government agreed not to vote its shares at shareholder meetings unless there was a takeover of the company.

    The company’s trading statement said that the deal has not been approved by the European Commission, which could set conditions intended to preserve fair competition. 

    The aid package would also require approval by a shareholder meeting.

    German business publication Handelsblatt said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was resisting a push by the commission to make Lufthansa give up prized landing slots at its Frankfurt and Munich hubs.

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  • Oil steadies as demand uncertainty tempers supply cuts

    Tue, 2020-05-26 01:07

    LONDON: Oil prices, which have been driven higher for the past four weeks, were steady on Monday, with holidays in Singapore, London and New York dampening trade, as rising concerns over demand recovery offset supply cuts.

    Brent was flat at $35.13 a barrel, while US oil gained 10 cents, or 0.3 percent to $33.35 a barrel. Both are down around 45 percent so farthis year.

    “Uncertainty around the current travel patterns in the US is so great that the American Automobile Association did not release its Memorial Day travel forecast,” Bjornar Tonhaugen, head of oil markets at Rystad Energy, said.

    Rising tensions between the US and China, the world’s largest oil consumers, over moves by Beijing to impose security legislation on Hong Kong also fueled concerns about the outlook for demand.

    Relations between Washington and Beijing have soured since the coronavirus outbreak, with the two countries already at odds over Hong Kong, human rights, trade and US support for Chinese-claimed Taiwan.

    Prices are finding support from global supply cuts with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies, known as OPEC+, now nearly a month into a deal to voluntarily withhold 9.7 million barrel per day of production.

    And the US rig count, an early indicator of future output, fell by 21 to a record low 318 in the week to May 22, data from energy services firm Baker Hughes showed.

    “The huge decline in global oil production has doubtless been the key factor in the latest surge in oil prices,” Commerzbank said.

    Forex trading

    Meanwhile, the euro steadied around the $1.09 level on Monday in a potentially big week for European policymakers as they debate the outlines of a recovery fund aimed at helping member nations.

    Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden want loans from a time-limited fund for nations struggling to recover from the pandemic, rather than the grants proposed by France and Germany last week for the EU’s coronavirus recovery plan.

    The Franco-German plan sent the euro rallying above $1.10 last week before the much-expected counter proposal by the four countries pushed it back below $1.09.

    The rival proposals come before the European Commission’s own plans for the recovery fund on Wednesday and any watered down proposals from the original plan would be perceived as
    euro negative.

    On the other hand, “if the Franco-German debt proposal (miraculously) passes the test during the coming week, we reckon that it would be a major euro positive event,” Nordea strategists said.

    On Monday, the single currency steadied around $1.09 but remained about 5 percent below a 2020 high of near 1.15 hit in early March.

    Elsewhere, the US dollar erased earlier gains and edged lower on the day. The greenback, which tends to behave like a safe haven asset at times of market turmoil and political uncertainty, was steady near a one-week high at 99.74.

    The Australian dollar, by dint of its strong trade connections with China and the offshore yuan, led losers against the US dollar.

    More turbulence for US-China relations is prompting some investors such as UBS Wealth Management to hold a “defensive” position in Hong Kong. “(The) larger risk for global investors is what happens if it becomes further enmeshed in broader relations,” said Mark Haefele, its chief investment officer.

    With financial markets in Singapore, Britain and the US closed for public holidays on Monday, the weekend developments hit risk aversion in broader markets in early trade.

    Sterling was also on the back foot against both the dollar and the euro as political pressure grew on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fire senior adviser Dominic Cummings.

    Cummings, the architect of the 2016 campaign to leave the EU and widely considered to be Johnson’s most influential strategist, came under pressure after reports he traveled to northern England from London during a nationwide lockdown in March when his wife was ill with COVID-19 symptoms.

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  • Saudi economy can withstand pandemic: Finance minister

    Mon, 2020-05-25 01:20

    JEDDAH: The Saudi economy can withstand the coronavirus crisis despite the need to cut spending, Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan said on Saturday. 

    “The Saudi economy is able to absorb the decline in revenues and to deal with the budget deficit,” he said, adding that the government “firmly addressed this crisis with all determination, while prioritizing the safety and health of its citizens and residents.”

    Al-Jadaan said the government “also worked hard to provide people with their basic needs, secure the necessary resources for health care systems, financially and economically support those most affected by the pandemic, and re-prioritize spending under the current circumstances.”

    He thanked the Saudi leadership for “its unlimited support, and for the urgent decisions taken by the government to deal with the coronavirus crisis, including the initiatives it had launched to protect the Kingdom’s economy and support the private sector, its enterprises, low-income individuals and investors.”

    The Kingdom “also showed a great sense of responsibility and commitment by holding the extraordinary G20 Summit in the framework of its presidency of the group, and recommending an injection of $7 trillion into the global economy as part of the financial policies, economic measures and security schemes aimed at facing the social, economic and financial repercussions of the pandemic,” he said.

    “Saudi Arabia called for the bridging of the funding gap, estimated at $8 billion, to discover and develop new diagnostic tools, treatments and vaccines, while also providing $500 million of the required amount.”

    Al-Jadaan congratulated the Saudi leadership on the occasion of Eid, and asked God to bless the Kingdom, protect it from the pandemic, and maintain its security and stability.

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  • Startup sets the pace in Middle East’s virtual-currencies business

    Mon, 2020-05-25 22:16

    DUBAI: One of the hardest things after starting a company is to gain clients. But before Yehia Badawy and his three business partners could get down to it, they had a bigger hurdle to clear: Convincing financial regulators to endorse a new type of business in a non-existent industry.
    Their idea was Rain, the first licensed cryptocurrency exchange in the Middle East. Launched in 2017, the venture fills a gap in the region’s digital assets market by facilitating the trade and exchange of digital currencies for conventional money.
    Cryptocurrencies are a late-stage digital tender. Neither backed by physical assets nor guaranteed by central banks, they are nearly impossible to counterfeit.
    More than 2,000 decentralized virtual currencies exist today, largely outside the sphere of influence of traditional financial organizations.
    “Many people believe the internet should have its own currency,” said Badawy, 33, an Egyptian national. “Why should the euro or the US dollar or any other fiat currency be the default way to buy and sell goods and services online? That said, these transactions need to be safe, secure and properly regulated.”

    The most famous cryptocurrency is bitcoin. Created in 2008, it caught the public’s attention in late 2017 when investors drove the value of one unit to nearly $20,000, before sending it back down to around $3,000. Subsequently, bitcoin stabilized at around $10,000.
    Other cryptocurrencies have gone along similar trajectories. The fluctuations raised awareness of this fledgling business sector, while underscoring the importance of taking adequate safeguards.
    “The industry has (now) reached the next level of maturity,” said Badawy. “There’s definitely a change in tone following a better understanding of cryptocurrency trading and how it works.”
    This was not the case when he founded Rain with 29-year-old Abdullah Almoaiqel of Saudi Arabia and US nationals Joseph Dallago, 28, and A. J. Nelson, 27.

    Rain, the first licensed cryptocurrency exchange in the Middle East, and launched in 2017.

    With a shared enthusiasm for digital currencies, the four met online via social networks Twitter and Meetup.
    At the time, the Middle East was the only region without a licensed cryptocurrency exchange, and local interest in this domain was scant.
    “Despite our concerted efforts, regulators either didn’t understand cryptocurrencies or weren’t willing to engage with us,” Badawy said.



    Investors drove the value of one unit of bitcoin to nearly $20,000 in 2017, before sending it back down to around $3,000

    Regulatory approval was important to widen the buyer base for cryptocurrencies in what was then an untapped market.
    “We could’ve started in an offshore jurisdiction with a white-label solution,” said Badawy. “But we knew that for crypto to really become a key piece of daily life, it needed to be
    governed in a way that satisfies innovation but also existing regulation. That was the main driver.”


    READ MORE: A Middle East online tutoring startup eyes Saudi Arabia’s market


    When the Central Bank of Bahrain agreed to a cryptocurrency trial in 2017, Rain joined its sandbox program for new financial technology solutions.
    Two years later, the venture became the Middle East’s first company to be licensed by an onshore regulator, joining an exclusive international group.
    Last July, Rain closed a $2.5 million round of seed funding. Thousands of customers from over 50 countries now use its platform to buy, sell or store crypto assets and fiat currencies in an ecosystem with bank-grade security.
    Badawy drew parallels between Rain and early internet service providers (ISPs) such as America Online.
    “We look at ourselves as the ISPs of the crypto industry. This is where we are providing the initial liquidity to the region, as the ISPs did for the internet,” he said.

    “In the future, there will be other companies — and we hope this happens — that come and build on top of this foundation layer.”
    Entrepreneurs hoping to establish such new-wave financial institutions need more than deep pockets, according to Badawy.
    While these are essential, all startups also require discipline, perseverance and hard work. As Rain has shown, a good idea and persistence can help a new industry take root.
    “Anyone starting a business today should come to terms with the fact that unless they take steps that are beyond the average, they shouldn’t expect above-average results,” said Badawy.
    “That said, the startup ecosystem in the region has matured so much over the last few
    years that anyone with a good idea and the ambition to go after it won’t be struggling.”

    • 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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