Meet Abdallah Of Arabia: Abdallah Abu-Sheikh, The Serial Entrepreneur Behind UAE-Based Barq And Rizek
Abdallah Abu-Sheikh is the co-founder and CEO of Barq, the first-of-its-kind tech-driven network of electric vehicles built to serve the MENA region's last mile delivery sector.
Have you watched Lawrence of Arabia? The titular hero of this 1962 British film came up quite a few times in the conversation I had in April with Jordanian serial entrepreneur Abdallah Abu-Sheikh at the Dubai outpost of his latest venture, Barq.
For those of you who are not familiar with this movie, I’d urge you to watch this Academy Award-winning epic, but for the time being, let me tell you that it’s a depiction of the role a British army officer -Thomas Edward Lawrence- purportedly played in the Great Arab Revolt of 1916, the military uprising led by Arab forces against the Ottoman Empire amid the First World War. Now, there’s lots of debate and discussion about how much of this tale is rooted in fact, but Abu-Sheikh points to the premise of Lawrence of Arabia, which is that an outsider from the West, who essentially parachuted into the Middle East, was needed to come up with solutions to the Arab world’s problems, as a narrative that plagues the minds of (most) people in the region today.
“Everybody’s waiting for some kind of Lawrence of Arabia to show up- we’re waiting for a guy with blue eyes and blond hair to come and say, ‘Do this, do that,’” Abu-Sheikh says. “But Lawrence of Arabia was actually only a catalyst that made things happen- everything the Arabs did, they could have done without him. So, my idea is that the region today needs a Lawrence of Arabia, if you will, but from Arabia.” I found myself agreeing with Abu-Sheikh as he said this, and after chatting with the entrepreneur for nearly an hour, I believe that he’s putting in the hard yards to become the hero the Arab world needs today- Abdallah of Arabia does have a nice ring to it, after all.
Abu-Sheikh is only 25 years old, and his ambitions match the fervor with which he’s chasing after them- that offers a clue into how Barq, the UAE-based electric mobility venture that he launched earlier this year, is his third entrepreneurial outing. Before Barq, he had Rizek, which has, since its launch in 2019, grown to become a super app dedicated to home services in the MENA region, and prior to that, he was the co-founder of Lux Development Partners, a renewable energy and power development company focused on projects in sub-Saharan Africa that he launched in 2014, and then exited four years later. Now, do the math, and you’ll come to the realization that Abu-Sheikh must have become an entrepreneur when he was only a teenager- but that, he reveals, was a role that was essentially thrust on him.
“I come from a family business background,” Abu-Sheikh explains. “I was born in Jordan, then moved to the UK, and then back to Jordan again, and I spent almost most of my childhood between China and London, because our family business was mainly based in Beijing. Then, in 2000, my father launched one of the biggest private charter aviation businesses in the region. But when he passed away in 2013, the business collapsed owing to family feuds- I was still in my second year of university then, but that’s when I had to start experiencing what business is, or what work is. Before that, I was completely sheltered by my father and my family, and I had no idea what money-making was, or why it even mattered.”
Abdallah Abu-Sheikh with his Barq team in Dubai. Source: Barq
That is how Abu-Sheikh, at the age of 17, became the de-facto breadwinner for his family, which, besides his mother, included seven younger siblings. And this is what led him to embark on a trip to the African continent then- his father’s aviation business had a strong base there, and he was hopeful that he’d be able to sell some of its assets in that region. But once there, Abu-Sheikh had a chance meeting that would lead him to launch his first company, Lux, and thereby changing his life as he knew it. “It was by sheer luck that I was introduced to renewable energy,” he recalls. “It literally was a conversation with the then President of The Gambia [Yahya Jemmeh] who asked me, ‘Can you build a renewable energy project?’ And I was like, ‘Sure, I can do this.’ I had no idea how I was going to do this, but I needed to start building something.”
Now, when Abu-Sheikh told me this part of his story, I admit that I found it quite difficult to process- sure, his background could have definitely facilitated such an occurrence, but my mind was blown by the idea that an Arab teen could have, at one point in the recent past, be leading energy projects in sub- Saharan Africa. But when one considers how much of the continent has, until very lately, been disregarded by most of the dominant global players in the energy domain, one can perhaps see why Abu-Sheikh was invited into this arena. Looking at it from Abu- Sheikh’s perspective, the absence of competitors in the space allowed him to launch Lux, and work on making it a success. But, perhaps more crucially, Abu-Sheikh had very personal drivers for what he set out to do- and sometimes, that’s the only fire one needs to accomplish one’s goals.
“For me, it was a matter of do or die,” Abu-Sheikh recalls. “I could either rise to the occasion and build something, or else, everybody’s going to suffer. And this is where it was not by choice at all- it was not at all something I chose. I didn’t wake up one day, and say, ‘I want to be successful, I want to be an entrepreneur, I want to build a business.’ Not really. And to be completely honest, it was none of the fairytale stuff that you hear in the news. I was desperate. It was disgusting. It was very tiring, and very dreadful."
Abdallah Abu-Sheikh with his Rizek team in Egypt.
"Because you’re 17 years old, running around trying to build projects for governments, right? The number of times you get bounced off, the number of times that you get told, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ plus the sheer amount of doubt that you have in yourself. You’re asking yourself, every day, ‘Am I good enough? Can I do this? Do I just go get a job? What do I do?’ And on the other side of all of this is that faint light, saying, ‘I think I can pull it off. I think I can make it happen.’ However, success breeds success; it becomes more of a need, and it moves into becoming a habit. It becomes like, say, going to the gym; it becomes like your diet. You can’t stop, because you discover that it’s not a destination, it’s just the way you live- you are a person that builds things, and impacts people’s lives.”
Lux thus got off the ground with its work in The Gambia, and over the next four years, Abu-Sheikh proudly notes that the company went on to build power projects totaling 1.2GW in different countries across sub-Saharan Africa. By 2018, Abu-Sheikh remembers global players making inroads into the space his company operated in, and that’s when he decided to exit the venture. Once he sold his enterprise to Chinese companies in the domain, Abu-Sheikh then moved to the UAE. “I came here with the mentality that I’m retired,” he says. “I thought, ‘I don’t need to work anymore. I have made enough money to sit back and relax.’”
However, as someone who had been bitten by the entrepreneurship bug, Abu-Sheikh soon found himself with dealing with the itch to start something from scratch again. But why, I ask Abu-Sheikh- why didn’t he decide to, well, just rest, and enjoy the fruits of his labor? “One reason is my personal urge and addiction to be productive,” he replies. “I can’t just sit idly. Because you discover that once you get on an entrepreneurial path, it’s not about the end goals. Money is just part of the process, becoming popular is part of the process, but it’s a process. You just tell yourself that this is what you need to do every day. This is not something I do for an amount of time, and then I stop. It becomes a need- it’s like, I need to be productive; I need to build something.”
It is this need that led Abu-Sheikh to launch Rizek in 2019, after spotting a gap in the UAE’s on-demand home services market. While the domain did already have other players operating in it, the localized digital marketplace that Rizek offered made it a hit with the masses, and, yes, investors as well. Having launched with a total investment of $5 million from Abu Dhabi Investment Office, E-Tech Investments, Rozana Investments, and others, the company went on to secure $10 million from Peak Investments, ADQ, and regional family offices in a Series A round with the aim to expand from its home base in the UAE to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. When asked to list the reasons for the success Rizek has seen so far, Abu- Sheikh points toward its differentiating factor when compared to competitors in the market.
“There was a need for a local product that spoke the local language, and that had local market intelligence behind it to make it all happen,” he explains. “And this is where we came in, with our sheer ability to execute very fast. In fact, we were executing things overnight. We launched our full healthcare vertical in 24 hours- when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the next day, we were on the market. It took other people a year.” However, this is not to say all of what Rizek achieved happened in one clean sweep either- Abu-Sheikh is clear that he had to navigate plenty of twists and turns along the way of building his second venture. But then again, Abu-Sheikh believes them to be a part and parcel of the entrepreneurial journey.
“Hurdles are just a part of the process, just as much as benefits are part of it,” Abu-Sheikh says. “If you are expecting to make money in the process, you should also expect to have sleepless nights and a lot of problems that come with it. But you should also be excited about facing problems, because every problem you solve is a money-maker, if you’re solving the right problems. So, every time you solve a problem, you’re, like, ah, bingo, bank! That’s what most people don’t understand- they say, ‘Oh, I want to start a business, but, ah, but this is a problem, and so, I’m not going to start it.’ Great, then, you’re never going to make any money, because everybody thinks of the problems first. Instead, think of the opportunity- look at the situation, and think of it not as a problem, but how you can solve it.”
Barq co-founders Ahmed Al Mazroui and Abdallah Abu-Sheikh
This is a mindset that Abu-Sheikh clearly feels very strongly about, and it is something that he has carried with him to his latest venture, Barq. And I know this to be true because of the words that were etched onto the Barq-branded t-shirt that Abu-Sheikh was wearing during this interview. You see, on its sleeve were written the words per aspera ad astra, a Latin phrase that can be translated as “through hardships, to the stars.” Not only does it indicate the manner in which Abu-Sheikh approaches all of the obstacles that might come his way as an entrepreneur, it is also a showcase of the scale of the ambition he has for Barq, which he has billed as “the MENA’s first provider of smart and sustainable mobility solutions.”
With a mission to revolutionize the region’s logistics sector by building electric vehicles that are customized for the MENA, improve operational efficiencies, and reduce carbon emissions, Barq currently has three key products in its portfolio: the Rena Lite bicycle, the Rena Max scooter, and the Yas 1 drone. The idea for Barq came to Abu-Sheikh after he saw the need (and demand) for sustainable, smaller vehicles in emerging economies, especially in the logistics and delivery domains- but the Middle East wasn’t clued into this scene. “If you’re talking about the demographic of the market size, this is how it looks,” he explains.
“You have Chinese manufacturers and Indian manufacturers, and both of them are not fulfilling the demand of their own home markets. For instance, Indian multinational Ola said that it is going to build the biggest two-wheeler factory globally, with a capacity to manufacture 10 million vehicles a year. Today, they are at 20,000 vehicles a month, and the Indian market demand is almost 200 million vehicles. So, if you supply 10 million vehicles for 20 years, you’ve still not reached 10% of the target. With that in mind, after you’ve spent billions of dollars building facilities in India, would you be looking to expand into other markets? I highly doubt it… It’s the same with [manufacturers in] China. They have a market of two billion people, and they have Southeast Asia right next door. So, when they expand, they are going to start looking at Southeast Asia- they are not going to go look at the Middle East… And that leaves a vacancy in our region.”
Abdallah Abu-Sheikh, co-founder and CEO, Barq
And that’s the vacuum that Abu-Sheikh is swooping in to fill with Barq. Now, much like in the case of Rizek, there are other companies attempting to take a slice out of the MENA’s electric vehicle market, but Abu-Sheikh points out that his startup’s competitors are merely importing technology and products to the region- none of them are creating something for the region, from the region, as Barq is. “Today, we are in a place where we’re the first to launch electric mobility out of the region,” Abu-Sheikh says. “We are already embedded with the biggest food delivery aggregators within the region like Americana and Kitopi, and we’re talking to everybody else as well. What’s next for us is to start rapidly expanding and commercializing within the GCC, MENA, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and anywhere we find that there’s no competitor to us. And all the way from here to The Gambia, we are seeing no competitors within this space- and that’s what we’re on about.”
Abu-Sheikh reveals here that Barq already has plans for manufacturing facilities to be built all across the region. “We’re underway with a facility here in the UAE,” he says. “We’re also underway with a facility in Egypt, and we’re probably going to have a third facility in Saudi Arabia. So, yes, we’re starting from here- our intellectual property is here, our engineers are here, because, well, this makes for the best laboratory in the world. You have a regulator that’s willing to talk to you. You have buyers that are willing to buy, and suppliers who are willing to supply. So, you don’t have to worry about a lot of noise while you’re experimenting. And then when you scale, you simply have to consider the new markets at your disposal, and grow from there.”
Given everything that Abu-Sheikh is attempting to do with Barq, I’d now like to bring your attention back to the “Abdallah of Arabia” title that I believe he is working toward- and it’s something his close associates can vouch for as well. For instance, Rizek co-founder and Chief Experience Officer Layan Barghouthi, who has known Abu-Sheikh since they were at university together, declares him to be “one of the most passionate, ambitious people” she has ever met. “His vision, integrity, and honesty are what I believe make us, the whole team, proud to be working with him,” she adds. “He is someone who leads by positive direction, always pushing and motivating us to be the absolute best versions of ourselves.” This is a sentiment that is shared by another of Abu-Sheikh’s colleagues, Rizek Chief Technology Officer Muhammed Shabreen. “He's a transformational leader who can inspire the team with a vision,” Shabreen says. “Abdallah's trajectory indicates a very successful entrepreneurial portfolio with a demonstrable success history in scaling businesses.” Such statements from his compatriots also offer a glimpse into the manner in which Abu-Sheikh conducts himself in front of those he interacts with on a day-to-day basis- and that only adds on to his persona as someone who is keen making his impact felt on the world at large. All of this also serves to explain his answer to my question about the endgame he has imagined for himself and the Arab world at large- it’s very much what you’d expect to hear from an Abdallah of Arabia.
“I feel like I have the energy and the means to keep impacting more people, and so, I'll keep trying to create more impact,” Abu-Sheikh declares. “If I’m able to incentivize other people to start building locally, then, we will have people growing up with the mentality that they can build from the region, and we will no longer be waiting for a Lawrence of Arabia to come ‘save’ us. We have our own people… We have our own innovators, entrepreneurs, people that we can look up to. And as long as I can keep spreading that kind of impact, I think there's no stopping.”