Emirati brothers Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib, founders of arts and culture magazine Brownbook, talk about bringing the Middle East’s ‘cool creativity’ to a Western audience
Reconciling customs and tradition with unique, unfettered ambition is a common juxtaposition in modern Arabia. Underlying the bravado of the emerging generation is the knowledge that entrepreneurship is the key to success. Recent findings from a United Nations Development Programme conservatively suggested that 50 million jobs need to be created in the Middle East by 2020 to curb unemployment figures, and this challenge falls predominantly to the private sector and to the aspiring entrepreneur.
Last November, Dubai hosted an outpouring of young Emirati ambition at the inaugural Celebration of Entrepreneurship event. At the epicentre of this gathering of more than 2,000 motivated moguls were the professionally formidable Bin Shabib brothers. Or, as described by patron of the arts Sultan Al Qassemi on Twitter, “Emirati entrepreneur rock star twins.”
Born in Dubai, Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib are perfect examples of the unification between convention and forward thinking. Their grandfather was the UAE’s first Minister for Telecommunication – a role that fused a traditional governmental career with an area of tremendous technological growth. Their father is a property developer, and, between the two male role models in their lives, the twins grew up amid a flurry of rapid national evolution. Rashid explains: “Our family has always been very committed to regional development on every front. From communication to industry to the role Dubai plays in the world, these have always been topics of discussion for us growing up.”
After obtaining Economics degrees from Suffolk University in Boston in 2004, the brothers undertook postgraduate study in London at the American College. Upon graduation, the brothers began working in banking and governmental roles, “essentially learning the basics of institutional business etiquette,” explains Ahmed. “We were constantly looking, learning, storing up information, knowledge and money in order to launch our own initiatives.”
The brothers’ first foray into the heady world of private enterprise started in 2006 with the launch of Brownbag, the UAE’s first around-the-clock online delivery service for everything from DVDs to cigarettes, and food to pharmaceuticals. At its peak it had 25,000 registered users, drawn by the site’s promise of delivering in-demand products within the hour.
“It was a very experimental business, quite ahead of its time,” says Rashid. “Dubai had yet to launch its major online sites, such as souq.com and dubizzle.com, so it was very new terrain. And while we had a great response from the public, it wasn’t the right time for it to succeed, but it did lead to our other ventures that have triumphed.”
Numerous brands spotted the potential in Brownbag and approached the brothers about advertising on the site. Ahmed explains: “That’s how Brownbook started. We came up with the idea of selling a little booklet with every order from Brownbag, and so we said to these interested brands, how about advertising in that instead? Essentially, what started off as a flyer with interesting anecdotes about the local art and culture scene evolved into an art, design and lifestyle magazine.”
Between 15-20,000 copies of Brownbook are now printed bi-monthly, with international distribution channels secured in London, New York and Asia. “Our success is down to having the initiative to be different; we focus on the essence of true unexplored topics of the region – the enigmas. We answer questions people fail to raise. We go deeper and find the right messages,” reveals Ahmed.
This is not to say the brothers are blinkered to the financial benefits such a product attracts. Rashid acknowledges: “Yes, it has a commercial objective, yes, we earn a lot of money from it, but it’s a very personal product for us. We want to maintain the home-grown, dedicated aspect of our business, handpicking the personalities that work with us to meet our editorial goals.”
Rashid’s precis of Brownbook’s editorial ethos is simple: no unnecessary embellishments, no expensive eye-catching graphic gimmicks – even turning the magazine’s pages is a reassuringly rustic experience, being printed on eco-friendly paper.
The brothers are gratifyingly quick to point to the hands of fate or simply the natural state of evolution for the success of their ventures; Brownbook was conceived through Brownbag, and their other initiative, “innovation campus” Shelter, was merely an accumulation of circumstances, the duo claim.
“We rented a huge warehouse in Al Quoz as our base for Brownbook and as a logistical storage space for Brownbag. Then, one by one, friends came asking if they could work there too as we had great coffee and it was a really fun, creative atmosphere, with the latest literature and magazines; we quickly went from one member to 40!”
Rashid recalls the sense of community prevalent on university campuses; a shared objective of graduating that inextricably binds everyone together. Ahmed and Rashid have unwittingly created a professional campus, a contemporary interpretation of the Arabic majlis, where ideas are discussed and connections made.
Ahmed elaborates: “We have graduates just starting out, needing space to sit, interact, engage; we have web developers, freelance journalists, designers, event planners - it’s a real mix. We have never curated the space, telling people where to sit or how to use it, we just left it for people to make it their own and it has evolved. Even with its popularity, it is not a revenue-generating venture; we never intended it to be, it is all about offering a supportive space, part of our social responsibility to the city.”
Rashid adds: “Whether we succeeded or failed was not our core mission, it was to develop something that was truly unique.” There is now a second Shelter in neighbouring emirate Sharjah, and the brothers are considering a third launch in Abu Dhabi.
At just 27 years old, the professional determination and unencumbered social responsibility the pair exude is driven predominantly by a desire to see the Middle East stand proud among its pan-global counterparts in the field of arts and media.
An interesting concept was raised in the latest issue of Brownbook by Saudi thinker Ahmed Al Shugairi, who presents the MBC programme, Khawater (Thoughts). He talks about the next generation of Arab Muslims having something called “Alfaza’ min Alfaragh” (Fear of Emptiness) – of space, of lives, of purpose, and glancing around the buzzing factory of ideas that is Shelter while leafing through the 140-page Brownbook, perhaps it is actually this that is subconsciously driving the brothers’ dedication to progress…