Abu Dhabi: It is time for the Arab world to reimagine the digital landscape in this region, which has traditionally been a consumer rather than a creator of anything digital, Mohammad Alabbar, Chairman of Emaar Properties, the developer of the iconic Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall, said on Monday.

Alabbar told a packed house, at the majlis of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the internet is the future of trade, where websites now enjoy far more margins than traditional companies.

Booking sites charge 25 per cent of the bill’s value even though they don’t provide any of the actual services such as rooms, cleaning etc while the hotel’s return on investment is just about 7 per cent, he said.

“The reason is that these websites have the right information about customers,” he said. “The information they have about people is very accurate, our favourite movies, our favourite sports, which jokes we like even your financial situation.”

Shaikh Mohammad attended the lecture themed “Reimagining Digital in the Arab World — Who do we want to be?”

Shaikh Ammar Bin Humaid Bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, Crown Prince of Ajman, also attended the lecture, part of His Highness’s effort to spread the spirit of knowledge and learning in the UAE, by inviting renowned scholars, experts, officials and entrepreneurs to speak at his majlis at Al Bateen Palace in Abu Dhabi.

Alabbar said his interest in technology started about a year ago following a conversation with His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed.

He said the importance and relevance of technology is paramount for future generations in our region.

“A nephew of mine once told me that there are three things that I couldn’t live without: water, air and WiFi. But what about food, I asked him, he said I can order using an app,” he said referring to a conversation with his 10-year-old relative.

Alabbar, one of the UAE’s most respected business leaders whose activities span retail, luxury hospitality, banking, mining and commodities, added, “Whoever controls data controls the economy.”

“What’s the solution? Where are we headed to? I suggest that we invest at least 5 per cent of our investments in existing Arab institutions in the area of technology. Because in terms of profit they are better, they are the future?”

Alabbar, the founder and chairman of the Dubai Financial Market, as well as member of the Dubai World Expo 2020 Higher Committee, said the Arab world has great potential for online business.

“By 2018, we will have 200 million internet users in the Arab world. All of these are potential customers,” he said.

Alabbar, who holds a degree in finance and business administration from Seattle University in the United States, which also bestowed on him an honorary doctorate, added that the Arab world is already the biggest user globally of YouTube.

As things stand, he said, the Arab world still lags behind in terms of electronic trade. In 2015, electronic trade in the Arab world stood at $7 billion (Dh25.7 billion) while the figure is set to grow to $20 billion by 2020.

That compares with about $600 billion of regular trade in the Arab world, making digital trade less than 1 per cent of all trade while that figure is around 9 or 10 per cent in the United States.

Alabbar said food business is another area for growth in terms of digital trade.

“There are 11 million meals being ordered in the Arab world online,” he said.

He said social media will play a great role in electronic trade.

“Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, are all social media but, at the same time, they are commercials outlets. The future of social media is a purely commercial one,” he said.

“WhatsApp has 25 per cent more clients than Visa. WhatsApp is going to turn into a commercial trade.”

Electronic media is the future, he said, adding that people now get only 4 per cent of their information from newspapers.