Growing up in Amman, Jordan, Mohammed Al-Shaker was so captivated by the weather, that he launched a website called JordanWeather at age 15, in 2005. Reliable or not, he posted his own forecasts drawn from meteorological models and algorithms he developed.
“At that time it was really just a hobbyist thing,” says Al-Shaker, now 26. Not for long.
On a holiday in February 2006, he issued a warning of heavy rains and flash floods in areas of Petra. The ancient city is an especially popular destination with the public. Al-Shaker contacted the Petra News Agency with his bulletin. “Of course they ignored me, because they were talking to a 15-year-old,” he says.
That weekend, 15 people died around Petra from flash floods, according to Al-Shaker. He says the only local weather service, a government meteorological agency, didn’t include a warning in its forecast. The incident convinced the weather-obsessed teenager that there was room in Jordan for a company that delivered forecasting technology and services. He formally launched ArabiaWeather four years later.
Ten years ago, in Jordan and other Arab countries, weather forecasting was the sole domain of government-run national weather services. “There were no existing private weather companies, and national weather services are generally weak,” says Al-Shaker.
From humble beginnings in his parents’ home, ArabiaWeather now has offices in Amman, Dubai, and Riyadh, and provides hourly weather forecasts for 5,000 locations in 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Its closest privately-held competitor is Egypt’s wildly popular Clear Day by Vimov, a cleverly designed weather app with more than 10 million downloads.
Buoyed by global players such as MeteoGroup, Weather News International, AccuWeather, and IBM’s Weather Company, the private weather forecasting business is expected to grow to $2 billion by 2020, up from an estimated $1.5 billion in 2015, according to Indian research firm Markets and Markets.
Although Al-Shaker did not share revenues, ArabiaWeather’s website attracted 45 million unique viewers in 2015, with the majority coming from Saudi Arabia. The service is now the official mobile weather app for all Samsung devices in the Middle East, and offers hourly forecasts for 5,000 locations across the region.
More importantly, ArabiaWeather now generates revenue from enterprise customers—a more lucrative market; it sells its customized climate data to companies in the media, aviation, agriculture, oil and gas, and maritime sectors.
Some 30 businesses subscribe to ArabiaWeather’s service, paying a monthly fee on one to two-year contracts. They include Jordan’s Ro’ya TV, nine airports in GCC countries, the Riyadh Municipality, Iraq’s Ministry of Agriculture, the maritime shipping company Maersk, Abu Dhabi’s National Petroleum Construction Company, and Air Arabia.
ArabiaWeather has encountered turbulence. As recently as January 2016, the Jordanian government introduced legislation to regulate weather forecasting, which could intimidate private weather companies. Under the proposed law, they would need a license to operate. Failure to do so can result in penalties: jail and fines up to $28,000. Jordan’s parliament rejected legislation in February.
The Jordan Meteorological Department will not comment, but the law was reportedly in response to the emergence of non-governmental forecasters.
Regulatory ambiguity can sink a company, and in this case, it is compounded by the fact that regulators are also competitors. The legislative proposal was enough perhaps to spook one of ArabiaWeather’s major clients, Royal Jordanian causing it to drop the service this past spring. The company declined to give the reason.
Moving forward, ArabiaWeather and the national weather services will need to cooperate, or continue clashing. “We’re really proactive with working with the regulators and the national weather services. The question is, will they extend the same hand?” says Namek Zu’bi, a managing partner at Silicon Badia, a Amman-based investor in ArabiaWeather. “It’s important for the public sector to work with us to create a better situation for everyone.”
“Wherever you go in the world, private and public weather companies are collaborating for the betterment of businesses and communities,” adds Ehab Alshurafa, ArabiaWeather’s senior vice president in charge of the company’s enterprise business.
So far, Al-Shaker says the U.A.E. is the only country that required ArabiaWeather to have a license.
One thing is certain: the company is shaking things up. These days, there are running speculations on social media in Jordan on who will get weather predictions right: ArabiaWeather or the government.
Not bad for someone who trained as a pharmacist, since meteorology wasn’t offered in Jordanian universities. While at Al-Ahliyya Amman University, Al-Shaker managed JordanWeather in his free time, often telling clients that he was in meetings until 4 P.M. everyday, when in reality he was in class. He used his personal savings to fund the website, and teamed up with Osama Tarifi, who now heads weather operations and is a co-founder.
Following his call on flash floods in Petra, Al-Shaker’s JordanWeather began to go viral as he continued to accurately forecast the weather. According to press reports and bloggers at the time, he also predicted a snowstorm in 2007, before the national weather service.
ArabiaWeather uses its own portable weather equipment to gather data, including this sensor which picks up wind speed and direction, and humidity. (Photo Courtesy of Arabiaweather)
By 2008, Al-Shaker was appearing on local television stations, and eventually on Al Jazeera and the BBC, to personally deliver his forecasts. His clients consisted of about 10 Jordanian radio and TV stations that bought basic weather forecasts, and most of his revenue came from ads on the website.
To sharpen his knowledge of weather, Al-Shaker enrolled at Met Office College, the training arm of the U.K. national weather service, where he obtained certificates in Advanced Forecasting and Aeronautical Aviation Meteorology in 2010. (He earned a pharmacy degree from Al-Ahliyya in 2011).
He set his sights on the region and rebranded his startup ArabiaWeather in 2010, hoping to replicate the success of global companies. Al-Shaker turned to Samih Toukan, the successful founder of web portal Maktoob. In 2011, Toukan’s investment vehicle, Jabbar Internet Group, injected an undisclosed amount in ArabiaWeather. Al-Shaker used the funds to invest in forecasting equipment.
“We convinced Mohammed to work with us to take the site to a regional level,” says Toukan. “There was no company in the region that specialized in weather technology and the market resorted to government meteorological services and to foreign companies. There was clearly an opportunity to create a regional weather company.”
To distinguish ArabiaWeather from national weather services, Al-Shaker focused on creating a service that could provide hourly hyper-local weather reports, instead of the general “hot and sunny” predictions that were the norm.
For example, ArabiaWeather doesn’t produce one all-encompassing forecast for Amman, a city spread out over 19 hills separated by deep ravines, creating microclimates. “We produce forecasts for West Amman and East Amman, something we call downscaling,” says Al-Shaker.
In comparison, the national weather service releases a forecast only three times a day, and treats all of Amman as a single location.
Predicting the weather is a challenging task, with forecasts beyond 72 hours getting progressively unreliable. ArabiaWeather has 200 of its own portable weather stations, about the size of a shoebox, located throughout Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Palestine, as well as other locations Al-Shaker prefers not to mention. It also buttresses its meteorological data by combining it with other sources. They include airports, other weather stations, and images licensed from EUMETSTAT meteorological satellites.
(Photo Courtesy of Arabiaweather)
The company collects between one and two terabytes per hour. (By comparison, The Weather Company collects about 40 terabytes per day). ArabiaWeather rents out supercomputers in Slovenia and Finland to crunch the data, running it through proprietary models and algorithms, from which forecasts emerge. It also created prediction tools for sandstorms.
With its sophisticated technology, ArabiaWeather looked for ways to generate revenue beyond advertising. The solution came in 2012. According to Al-Shaker, Royal Jordanian approached ArabiaWeather about purchasing customized weather reports and forecasts. That became ArabiaWeather’s entry into the enterprise business.
The company created reports for pilots. They featured information, such as wind speed, direction, and visibility—all tailored to the flight plan and aircraft type.
In 2014, the venture capital firm Silicon Badia led a $2 million seed round in the company; they followed up in 2015, leading a $5 million series A round. Jabbar Internet Group, along with Wamda Capital and DASH Ventures, also invested.
“If you look at the different regions in the world, there are one or two really big weather companies doing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue selling weather-related products,” says Silicon Badia’s Zu’bi. “There isn’t really a dominant weather brand and weather company in the region, whether it’s on the consumer side or the business side. We thought ArabiaWeather could fill that gap.”
ArabiaWeather opened an office in Dubai in 2014, with Al-Shaker moving there, to establish a presence in the Gulf. The team responsible for data gathering and forecasting, led by Tarifi, remained in Amman.
The company pushed ahead with enterprise. It introduced services, marketing these products as SkyWatch, LandWatch, and SeaWatch. And currently, it is exploring opportunities to develop products for governments and weather insurance.
In 2015, it brought in Alshurafa, a former National Director of Cloud and IT Services for Telus Communications, a Canadian telecommunications company. He delivered solutions to help companies avoid losses and operational inefficiencies caused by weather, like delayed flights. “Companies don’t really care about the forecast as much as they care about how [the weather] impacts their operation,” says Alshurafa.
At the moment, he says revenue distribution between advertising and enterprise is evenly split, but he expects it to shift to B2B in the next couple of years. Media is still the most popular product, featuring a suite of video clips and graphics tools for TV broadcasts, websites, and mobile devices. According to him, the loss of Royal Jordanian hasn’t put a big dent in revenues.
When he was 4-years-old, Al-Shaker used to sit by the window and watch the weather for hours. On a little chalkboard, he sketched conditions. “When it got sunny I would erase the clouds and draw the sun,” he says. It’s still early to draw ArabiaWeather’s long-term forecast, but the company has first-mover advantage.