Every great service starts with a story. So let us take you to the very beginning. A beginning when the web was just so new to Dubai. So pretty new that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the Dubai Internet City to say in LOUD BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS — it was time for the city to get internet savvy. Savvy at a time when the web bubble had just burst in the US and millions of people had lost their savings and livelihoods in the wake of the 1999 web meltdown. 2000 marked the year of the Internet in Dubai, we were there and as we recall it, everyone was ready to go online.
At least, that was the original plan. A plan that would take another two decades and a worldwide pandemic to literally wake everyone up. Before 2020, a few handful of massively rich companies were exploring delivering online shopping to their customers, that too reluctantly, because many of them had high-risk investments in retail infrastructure. The culture of the city called for going out, actually-in, during hot summer months and spending time not only shopping, but doing everything in-doors, in some of Dubai’s greatest malls. No one imagined what 2020 would bring about. No one imagined Indoors.
As the pandemic first hit the city and then the entire country, a couple of things happened. People stayed indoors for the first time in years. The entire country closed down for the national disinfection drive and for the first time ever, a considerable majority of retail shoppers went online shopping. In the grand scheme of things, this meant that anyone with a mom-and-pop store who relied heavily on walk-in customers were now wishing for a miracle. The malls came to the rescue immediately. Some of the most popular stores in the city and around shrank and wound down some of their stores. The very malls that were our second home remained deserted. Some people got really really sick and some faded away.
This was 2020, yet, what had happened on the Internet scene between 2000 and 2020? The first few years of the 2000s were a rally towards being online, having a presence and embracing the .AE domain. Everyone had email and everyone who could afford to pay from their noses for fancy Flash (now retired), Television advertising inspired websites, did just that. Absolutely no one was thinking online retail; the few who did saw themselves navigate through potholes. That often meant you could do some stuff and for the major part you couldn’t do other stuff. Say, for instance, that a mom-and-pop store could have an online shop designed, but they just couldn’t afford or acquire payment processing at reasonable mom-and-pop rates.
In all this “go to the Internet” movement, the government of Dubai and it’s various service providers were ahead of everyone in providing the infrastructure and facilities needed, to let people come to Dubai and explore the various opportunities that Web 2.0 offered. We saw early adoption of online payments across all government services, the advent of online travel bookings, a shift towards online banking and one ambitious online auction site: Souq.
As the world’s finance institutions toppled in 2007, we experienced stagnation; businesses went back to basics, people didn’t want to explore new ideas — they were keen to nurture what they had built, to keep things working. These were indeed the most testing years for everyone in the country. Everyone needed financial help and everyone needed a miracle. The Burj Khalifa changed everything.