These longtime residents of Doha and Dubai explain how they’re building a market for emerging Arab and Iranian artists.

Staff Writer

Part of our “How I Did It” series, featured in the January 2017 issue of Inc. Arabia. Insider stories from from some of the Middle East & North Africa’s most innovative companies; and the grit and wisdom from their founders.

In 2014, Dima Abdul Kader and Nikki Meftah launched EMERGEAST, the Middle East’s first online art gallery. The longtime residents of Doha and Dubai explain how they’re building a market for emerging Arab and Iranian artists by targeting first-time buyers, educatiing them on the emotional and financial value of buying art.

Across geographies and time zones, EMERGEAST co-founders Dima Abdul Kader and Nikki Meftah talk to Inc. Arabia about how they are expanding the scope for Middle Eastern art, connecting the region’s emerging young artists to collectors in the MENA region and around the world.

Meftah: This all started the way it does for so many other businesses. Dima and I met through a mutual friend while we were both studying at SOAS, University of London. And we hit it off right away. We like to joke that fate brought us together—we first met one night at a dinner, and then the next day, I heard a familiar voice in the hall at school and turned to see Dima. The rest, as they say, is history. Our startup story is a lot like other entrepreneurial teams’—two friends with a lot of drive, a shared passion, and an idea. After SOAS, I went on to work for an Iranian charitable foundation that partnered with established and emerging Iranian artists to raise money and support for the arts.

Abdul Kader: And I took on a job with HSBC in London, where I found myself going to galleries and museums as often as I could. Then I applied to the Contemporary Art Society of London. I had no formal art experience, just the thousands of hours I’d logged on my own. I worked in their consulting arm for a few months and learned a lot that I later used to lay the groundwork for EMERGEAST.

Meftah: Which brings us back to how we got EMERGEAST off the ground three and a half years into our friendship. Dima had moved back to Doha, and we were catching up over lunch during one of her visits to London, swapping stories about how we both wanted to leave our day jobs and branch out on our own. I wanted to buy art, and Dima was saying she too was always fielding questions from friends about buying attainable art. That pivotal lunch was where our idea for EMERGEAST took shape. At the time, there were a few US-based online galleries, like Artspace and Rise Art, but there was nothing like them for the Middle East. There was no platform for people to buy art from this region apart from the traditional galleries, which can be quite intimidating. Moreover, Arab and Iranian artists didn’t have online representation that could connect them with potential collectors from around the world.

“But we were taking a lot of risks starting up in the Middle East. It was tough to set up shop in Dubai.”

Abdul Kader: It’s important to note that people, like our friends who asked for our help in buying art, think that art is for the 1% of society. But people need to know that art is for all. I broke into the art world through my passion and we wanted to reflect that on to our target audience–the young urban professionals who are first-time collectors. This region is becoming increasingly culturally inclined, and there is a significant clientele that wants to be a part of the fast-growing global art scene. Part of our goal with EMERGEAST is to give those first-time art buyers the educational building blocks needed to build the confidence to invest directly in the art they love.

Meftah: We went about finding artists who speak about regional and societal issues that connect with people. That’s also part of the reason we wanted to do this online—with a single click, clients get the price and comprehensive information about an artist and his piece while feeling “safe” behind a screen. There’s no intimidation factor of asking a gallerist. We also made the deliberate choice to be as transparent as possible, so that we don’t scare off first-time buyers. Even so, it’s been great to see even established collectors come to us intrigued with our business, and interested in understanding how people make these choices online. We’re undergoing a massive cultural shift right now with regards to online purchasing.

Abdul Kader: But we were taking a lot of risks starting up in the Middle East. It was tough to set up shop in Dubai.

Meftah: So difficult. In London, we incorporated in seconds. In Dubai, there were so many barriers to break through—licensing, banks, etc. It was quite daunting, to say the least. We were a startup, not knowing how much to invest and not knowing the projections right off the bat. So we figured it was best to stay in London until we could thoroughly investigate the market, and then bring the company to Dubai. Which we did when we were incubated with In5 (backed by Dubai’s TECOM Group).

Abdul Kader: We heard about In5 through another entrepreneur. We applied, and they picked us—that was our first pitch! We’ve been fortunate to start an online cultural business from the heart of a tech incubator. It was ideal.

Meftah: Going back to the risk—you have to keep in mind that with EMERGEAST, we were creating a market all on our own. I don’t want to say there was never any appetite, but the demand for Middle Eastern art online just wasn’t there yet. We had to educate a whole new market, raising awareness into why buying such art matters, and how the investment pays off financially and emotionally. 

Abdul Kader: There was also the risk that maybe the market here wasn’t ready to buy online! But take a look at the fashion industry—it took a huge risk going online. We are confident that the same could happen with art over here. 

Meftah: Even online, we want to give clients the boutique experience. We speak with them directly, with lots of follow-ups. We have a steady base of returning customers—about 80% of them have been with us since we started. Maybe the first time they buy art, they feel like it’s risky, but I think the quality of our work brings them back again to buy for themselves and for others as gifts.

Abdul Kader: Gifts are a part of our growth strategy. We’re going to launch a wedding registry in early 2017. We’ve also started live auctions, couple of times a year, as a fun way to build our clientele. Bidders can lift their paddles without breaking a sweat because our increments are consistent with our ethos— $50 and $100 rather than thousands. We’ve been overwhelmed at our auctions with the number of art enthusiasts who have turned up just to experience an auction without
any intimidation.

Meftah: It’s working. Our sales have gone up 200% online since we officially launched in 2014, and we’ve just partnered with Artsy.net for six months.

Abdul Kader: Demand is growing fast in the US and the UK for affordable emerging art, and Artsy has a huge US market. They were very happy to see our price points, and our refreshing artist roster. We’ve already seen more traffic directed to us from the US market due to the partnership.

Meftah: When we started EMERGEAST, it was just the two of us, and we’re both under 30. We’ve also grown from two to almost ten employees around the region. We are growing!

Abdul Kader: And most of all, we’re still having fun.