BEIRUT, LEBANON – Since my last two entries on visiting the Middle East in the midst of the “Arab Spring,” I've been posed many questions about our trip. So today, I feature Ziad Haddara, founder of My Middle East, the online travel consultancy company that Mohan and I used to plan our eye-opening honeymoon in Egypt and Syria. While normally not one to opt for a middleman to arrange my travels, being neck-deep in planning a large-scale, weekend-long wedding while wrapping up my final month in grad school, I needed help and asked Ziad and his team to step up.
“It’s not your average tourist-bussed traveller or overly cautious type who comes to us,” says Ziad. “It’s the sort of people who typically would be very comfortable designing their own trips but either don’t have time to plan it or want someone from the region to enhance their experience by giving them that local flavor. We approach this business like you are going to a new country and you have a friend in town.”
Born and raised in Lebanon during the 15-year civil war, Ziad now calls Egypt home after relocating to Cairo in 2006 for a position with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Despite switching from development work to the tourism business, Ziad’s belief in incorporating social responsibility and community building into his profession remains intact. I chatted with Ziad via Skype from his company’s headquarter in Beirut and ask him about his vision for My Middle East, thoughts on tourism in the region, and analysis of current events in the Arab world.
Holiday: You launched My Middle East last June and are currently in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon – with plans to expand to Turkey this June. Congratulations. So where did you come up with the concept for this business?
Ziad: Thanks. I see My Middle East as a bunch of things coming together. I have a personal passion for traveling, which I’ve been doing my whole life. Since I was five, my parents have gotten us into the habit of moving around and visiting places. I have probably visited more than 60 countries by now. Over the years, I’ve found amazing value in how much traveling brings people together and opens us up to new ideas and other cultures. It brings you closer to understanding different perspectives. It is a major source of eliminating conflict between people. When you are exposed and have direct interaction with others, you stop being afraid of them. We all know how many stereotypes and misunderstanding there are that surround the Middle East. When I was creating my company, one of my personal missions was to bring the Middle East as a region closer to the rest of the world.
Holiday: You also talk about sustainable tourism development. Was that shaped by your past life at the UNDP?
Ziad: At the UNDP, I managed many programs that dealt with helping youths across the Arab region learn about their rights, social responsibilities, citizenship, and being active in their societies. My team and I would arrange workshop after workshop in different Arab countries promoting these ideas. My personal fetish was this idea of building socially responsible businesses. We were working with a lot of underprivileged communities and societies, so these people needed a lot of skills development and capacity building to help improve both their social and economic situations. Instead of relying all the time on charity or foreign aid or someone from the outside to come in and inject money for a certain project, we wanted to push this idea to them of creating a business that was self-sustaining and that had a socially responsible aspect to it; a business that is obviously concerned with making money, but also concerned with the well-being of the community that it lives in. We trained these kids – by which I mean people in their early 20s – to think of ideas for businesses and they would come up with some great ones.
When it came time for me to create my own business, I said this was something that I really believed in. My Middle East has to be a great travel business, but it also has to be a socially responsible business. It has to give back to the community. We employ a lot of students who need extra pocket-money to make ends meet and continue with their education because they don’t come from affluent families – and because they aren’t able to travel much, being a guide exposes them to people from outside the Middle East. At the end of each fiscal year, we take 25 percent of the profit of the company and it goes directly toward training activities in the communities we work in. We get together a bunch of young people and women and give them language classes, entrepreneurial classes, whatever it is that they need.
Holiday: With the unrest and upheaval in the Middle East, how has My Middle East been impacted?
Ziad: We’ve had cancellations and some people have delayed their trips, which is understandable. I mean no one is going to Syria right now. But at the same time, I’m very optimistic that what’s going on in the Middle East has created a lot of interest in the region from people who I’d consider our target travelers – those interested in history in the making and who want to see it up-close and personal. I am confident that once things settle down, there’s going to be an upsurge in demand. It’s also created new business opportunities for us like our Post-Revolution Egypt tour. We now organize tours to show where the protests happened and guests can have meals with the people who were camped out on Tahrir Square.
Holiday: Let’s talk Syria now. What’s the word on the ground?
Ziad: It’s very confusing there in the sense that it’s not as clear-cut as it was in Egypt, where everybody just wanted to get the regime out. In Egypt, the enemy was the same for everyone. In Syria, it’s trickier. Let’s say that they topple [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad’s regime, it’s not clear who can fill the void or if it would be filled by the proper people. The reason I say that is mainly because of the army. In Egypt, there was the army and then the regime. Sure for 30 years they were working together and in bed, but they were different entities. So people relied on the army when the regime toppled to hold the country together during the transition period. But in Syria, the army and the regime are one and the same. If one goes, the other is going to go or is going to fight until death. The Syrian army is not going to side with the people, so there is a clear risk of increased bloodshed and civil fighting in Syria before things get better – and that’s what the average Syrian worries about. They want to see change, they want to see progress, and they want to see reform, but they are not necessarily as keen as the average Egyptian on getting this regime out of the way. They favor a slower pace of reform than the faster revolutionary version of it. That’s why not everyone is supportive of the revolution. So Syria is very confusing. There are a lot of different opinions.
Holiday: What are your personal feelings about the situation there?
Ziad: Personally, I don’t think Bashar is a terrible person. I know people who know him, and I’ve watched him over the years. He has genuinely tried to introduce reform in Syria in the ten years that he’s been in power, but he’s surrounded by really, really bad people. These people – including his direct family – are extremely corrupt. They are the ones responsible for the problems in Syria right now. So if Bashar can, with the help of the army, somehow get through to the people and promise that there will be a transition of power and change in policy, while staying in power personally, I think that would be the best scenario. Because if Bashar goes and there is too much of a vacuum, there will be real danger in Syria heading into civil war because of the different factions, religious groups, and sects. Personally I think Bashar is the entity that can guarantee some sort of stability, but everything around him needs to change.
Holiday: Now that Osama bin Laden – arguably the face of Islam and the Arab world in the West – has been killed, do you think there will be a shift in focus on the Middle East away from Muslim extremists and towards the young protestors facing bullets for democracy?
Ziad: Well one thing for sure is that the killing of Osama bin Laden has been much more of an event in the West than it has been in the Middle East. He’s almost a non-figure here. People know who he is, but he’s not at the forefront of their concerns. Certainly you didn’t have all the news shows talking about Osama bin Laden 24-7 like in the West. Here it’s just a passing thing and then there are other things to worry about. That said, I really think these revolutions that are happening on the streets are the biggest blow to Al Qaeda and extremism of any sorts because it has proven to people that there are other ways of asking for change. Typically the reason that Al Qaeda or any of these extremist groups gained popular support is because people agreed with their grievances even if they did not agree with their means. They agreed there had been a lot of abuses by the West or by the former colonial powers or by the people who are running after the oil or by people who are putting these puppet governments in place, they agree on all these things. They agree with the objectives, but they don’t agree with the tactics. But now people have seen that you can still change your way of life, but do it in other ways that are not violent. I think it’s a fantastic time for the Middle East. This region is in flux, it’s moving. But I’m the eternal optimist. Maybe a year from now it’ll be all in flames, but I hope not. [laughs]
[Ed Note: I was not paid in any way nor required to do a review of the travel services I received from My Middle East. All of my reviews are 100 percent my opinion.]