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Crowdfunding Proving Popular in the Middle East

11/07/2014 15:44 BST | Updated 09/09/2014 10:59 BST

Since its success in the West, crowdfunding is beginning to make an impact in the Middle East.

The internet-based concept of fundraising owes its fast growing popularity to the virility of social media and the attractiveness in providing equal opportunities for entrepreneurs in a post-recession age, where capital investments for the everyday person are hard to find.

In the Middle East, a handful of Lebanese entrepreneurs are leading the charge, using crowdfunding to create and sustain social initiatives throughout the country, many of which have a strong focus on disadvantaged youth.

Zeina Saab, a Lebanese-American and MIT graduate now living in Beirut is one such person. She used Zoomaal, the Middle East's first crowdfunding platform, to help set up her Nawaya Network, an NGO. She now oversees a number of social projects in the city.

"Zoomaal came along at just the right time for us at Nawaya; we were able to raise $7,000 in just two days, which helped us establish our network," Saab explains. She and her team work with youths who are at a disadvantage in Lebanon, teaching them core social principles while nurturing their specific talents for the creative arts. "Individually tailoring each project helps us make each person a success story," she beams.

One of these success stories is Reine, a 13 year-old Lebanese girl from a low-income neighborhood of Beirut, whose love of ballet caught Saab's eye. With the help of the Nawaya Network and the popular American crowdfunding platform, Gofundme, Reine has now been flown to New York with her family, to participate in a summer ballet course. "It will help her on her journey to become a professional dance teacher," Saab explained, "our aim is to support sustainable projects like these, which will benefit Lebanese society in the future." In a testament to the network's growing support, British Airways have paid for Reine and her family's flights.

Meanwhile in Jordan, people are realizing the potential of crowdfunding too. There are currently 11 Jordanian projects registered on the Zoomaal site, five of which have hit their funding targets. Many ideas focus on the need to explore niche, yet evolving, markets - like that of Arabic study apps for young children.

The Founder and CEO of Zoomaal, Abdallah Absi, outlines the concept behind crowdfunding; "It really makes sense. These young Arab entrepreneurs have some great ideas, but it's hard for them to gain the trust of investors."

"We're establishing relationships with a number of companies to support the platform and its users - people get excited when they see big companies matching donations, and it encourages others to get involved." In Jordan, the telecoms giant Zain has already chipped in, contributing $4,250 to one project.

"But the most fascinating thing is the statistics," Absi continues, "45% of donors are Arab expats, and 70% of contributions are cross-country transactions as well; people want to give back to their communities."

And so the rise of crowdfunding in the Middle East looks to continue to gain support. It's capitalizing on the growth of social media and creating a pan-Arab platform to facilitate new, original and sustainable projects, whose contributors aren't necessarily looking for immediate returns on their money.

But a number of limiting factors still exist. Zoomaal, unlike its American counterpart Gofundme, only accepts projects deemed to be sustainable and not one-off charity drives. In a region where many are in need of humanitarian aid, some users are finding this frustrating. Zeina Saab reiterates this point, calling for new crowdfunding platforms that would accept charity fundraising projects.

Additionally, crowdfunding has been met with skepticism from banks and local government. "They see it as a threat," claims Absi, "they fear it because it could be a way of laundering money or funding terrorism; it's not a comfortable zone for them."

For Jordan, however, a country that must find ways to deal with a rapidly increasing population, crowdfunding can offer a solution on many fronts. It can finance startup companies that inject fresh ideas into the country's economy, provide jobs opportunities and will pave the way for a new generation of Arab entrepreneurs, regardless of age or economic background.