Zen and the Art of Mindfulness in the Middle East

By Sunita Rappai

Three years ago, unhappy and unfulfilled working a senior role at a multinational chemical engineering firm, Suna Zoabi-Othman embarked on a quest to transform her life.

Along the way, she discovered the joy of meditation. Today, the 39-year-old from Ramallah is the founder of Tawazon, the world’s first Arabic-language meditation app.  

The mother of three was inspired to develop the app after being impressed by the transformative power of meditation, which she credits for making positive impacts on her professional and personal lives.

But finding only English language meditation apps on the market, she started researching the potential audience for an Arabic meditation app—and found huge interest.

The Tawazon app has already notched thousands of downloads following its soft launch last October—mainly through word-of-mouth, according to Zoabi-Othman—with many turning to meditation to allay the added stresses of COVID-19 and lockdown.

“The Arab mindset is different from the Western one,” she says. “People here have suffered from wars and economic challenges, and there is also a significant amount of post-traumatic stress. That’s why we chose psychologists and meditation experts from the region to design the app, so we can offer something that’s tailored to the community.”

Business Hurdles

Zoabi-Othman’s journey from dreamer to successful entrepreneur is one being followed by many men and women across the Middle East and North Africa, which boasts a growing number of high potential start-ups.

However, founders in the region often face hurdles accessing capital,  knowledge, and advice, and battle bureaucracy to expand their young businesses. COVID-19 is compounding and complicating the already difficult economic climate in the region, forcing investors to change how they evaluate promising investees—and reevaluate what success looks like.

One investor inspired by—and committed to—the business potential in the region is the Ibtikar Fund, an IFC investee that is based in Ramallah.

Ibtikar—which means ‘innovation’ in Arabic—focuses on tech start-ups that are majority-owned by Palestinians and that either operate in the West Bank and Gaza, or where most of its investment support will be spent. It offers both funding and support to start-ups to help them grow.

Zoabi-Othman was supported with seed funding from Ibtikar, whose managing partner says he was impressed with her company and its potential:

“Tawazon is very suitable for an already stress-ridden region suffering even more during the lockdown. Ultimately, we invested because of the founders, the market and the product,” said Habib Hazzan. “Our research indicated an increase in market demand in MENA for a meditation app, because there are no available options in Arabic and people prefer to meditate in their mother tongue,” he added.  

Women a Strategic Focus

A main aim of IFC’s investment in Ibtikar was to help address the lack of funding and support for start-ups in the Middle East, especially in the local market.

A quarter of Ibtikar’s portfolio is comprised of investments in women-founded companies—above the MENA average—and women entrepreneurs are a strategic focus for IFC because they often struggle to access funding and other support.

“Our investment in Ibtikar is part of our broader work to support entrepreneurship and create new opportunities and jobs, especially for young people and women,” said Youssef Habesch, head of IFC’s office in the West Bank and Gaza. “The lack of funding for start-ups in MENA in general, and here in particular, is a major challenge and we want to be a part of the solution for the startups.”

IFC’s investment in Ibtikar is part of its $30 million Startup Catalyst initiative, which backs incubators, accelerators, and seed funds in emerging markets to deepen venture capital ecosystems and spur entrepreneurship. The aim is to build an ecosystem that can support entrepreneurs through the various stages of a start-up’s life cycle – from concept development right through to expansion. 

For entrepreneurs like Zoabi-Othman, this type of support can often mean the difference between success and failure.

“We needed a partner to help us invest in marketing and scaling up and Ibtikar has been the best possible partner for us,” she says. “They offer more than just funding – they’ve given me a lot of help and have a lot of connections I don’t have, which allows me to focus on the app.”

Her vision is now is nothing less than to build the first and leading platform for mindfulness, mental health, and emotional intelligence for the Arab world and to improve the quality of life for Arabic speakers globally.

“When you begin meditating, you start to understand what makes you happy, you learn how to breathe, and how to calm your mind,” she says. “It’s a long journey – it doesn’t happen overnight, but meditation gives you emotional intelligence. If we want liberty, it’s important to begin from the inside.”

Published October 2020