What’s up with Big Data in the Middle-East? Thoughts from Big Data Forum in Dubai

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I was delighted to participate in the first independent Big Data Forum in Dubai on Sunday the 28th of April 2013. I coordinated a fruitful panel and discussed several big data topics with leading executives and experts from various industries in UAE and the region. The conference was a closed private boutique event with high caliber speakers and professionals from the Banking, Telecoms, Hospitality and IT industry as well as from Consulting Companies locally and abroad.

The forum started at the Fairmont hotel which is one of the unique venues with a great view outside the executive meeting center. I should also mention that it was raining heavily in Dubai! That does not happen frequently in April so let’s blame the boom of big data!



The keynote started with Ahmed Aamer, Executive Director of SkyComputing Consortium in Saudi Arabia. He gave a big picture about big data and what’s going on in the world with internet connected devices.

Mark Madsen, my friend and fellow Boulder BI Brain Trust member, came all the way from Oregon, US to share his insights about big data and the nature of business decisions. He noted that data volume is the oldest, easiest problem which we tackled since 1986. He said that we are in an architectural configuration, just like Web 2.0 movement. To illustrate, we are moving from recording important data to recording all the data, and from data integration before usage to integration at the time of usage and many more… He emphasized that it is not about big neither about data, yet it is about the process of applying information in a specific and useful context. He also showed an interesting study that 40% of reviews in hotel booking websites are fake. Natural language processing will be a key to solve these issues in the future. To conclude, he discussed how big data applications should be actionable in order to capture a continuous stream of events coming from sensors everywhere.


Dmitri Etimov, Assistant Professor of the American University of Sharjah, presented a great case study about understanding airline customers and loyalty programs by the use of next-generation algorithms and predictive analytics.

After these inspiring talks, we went for a 10 minutes coffee-break to get ready for a second round of big data buzz in Dubai. 

I was happy to coordinate the 2nd panel which is titled as ” Best Practices in Business Analytics by Industry Leaders”. I introduced the panel to the audience and the very first talk was presented by Muhammad Altaf, EDW Lead at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi. Muhammad showed that the number of decisions we need to take daily has increased , on contrary, the time available for us to take a decision has decreased. Altaf tackled an interesting angle in which banks need to enrich data with customer behavioral analysis in order to get targeted and new tailored products. He said that banks are transitioning to a proactive strategy by using analytics to reduce attrition and improve cross-selling. 


From Left to Right: Ali Rebaie, Muhamad Altaf, Adil Belhouari, Victoria Zagorski

Moreover, I introduced Adil Belhouari, VP of Analytics & Data Mining at Riyadh Bank, who traveled from Saudi Arabia to discuss banking intelligence and the link between big data and the decision making process. Adil discussed the challenges facing banks like limited BI and data science skills, silo-ed BI environments, and infrastructural limitations. He viewed big data as a business revolution and a technology revolution. He illustrated some areas of real-world applications like text-mining and customer’s feedback analytics and customer experience enhancement. Adil shared with us how Riyadh bank developed an internal BI & analytics community and competency center. This center ensures a higher ROI from technology investment as knowledge sharing becomes a corporate practice across the Bank. They also design and implement an Incubation Program to ensure the availability and readiness of BI & Analytics Champions within the Business Units. Adil finally shared success stories at Riyadh bank like “ATM cash stocking optimization” which reduced dormant cash in machines by 35 %- , thus, tying up assets. He also shared with us how retail banking increased the Cross-Sell ratio by 31% in 18 months.

Moving to the last speaker in my panel, Victoria Zagorsky, Customer Insight Manager at CitiBank UAE. Victoria shared great case studies about the usage of data analytics at Citibank. She started the talk by showing that the volume of data is not sufficient unless we develop a new ” holistic synthesis”  mindset of viewing our customers.  This mindset should be a replacement to the traditional data collection mindset. She divided the holistic synthesis to 3 sections which are primary research, enterprise behavioral data, and social media data. Moreover, she emphasized on building data literacy skills and creating a data-driven culture in banks. The case study she presented showed how Citibank analyzed Net Promoter survey scores and then matched the response of promoters against transactional data to identify loyal customers. Then, Citibank used social media analytics to link the social data with the data analyzed in step 1 & 2 to find “influencers” among those loyal customers. Finally, they engage these influencers with exclusive events and opportunities. This case study presents how big data can be used to maximize customer lifetime value and to drive growth through referrals.

I then invited the speakers to the panel discussion where we shared our thoughts with the audience. One of my question was focused on the adoption of new big data technologies in the MENA region. It was so exciting that one of the banks in my panel shared their plan to adopt Hadoop as part of their upcoming project in few months.

And yes, we had a delicious lunch in a beautiful venue and enjoyed networking with the conference attendees.

The last panel “Apply Analytics to Improve Business Performance” was also interesting. It was coordinated by Rahman Abdul Latif. The speakers included Tsiptsis Kostantinos, CRM & Customer Intelligence Head at Eurobank who opened the session with the topic “Customer segmentation & advanced social network analysis for getting the maximum of your customer base”.  Samara Mohannad, Group Strategy Director – Business Development of Etisalat Group, continued with the topic “Telecom providers’ perspective of Big Data” while the forum closed with the topic “Technology, Social CRM and BIG Data: How Tourism benefits” from Ahlemeyer-Stubbe Andrea, Director Strategic Analytics at Draftfcb München. 

I can see tremendous opportunities for big data in Dubai and the region. Let’s keep in mind that data protection laws in Dubai are flexible just like the US. Dubai is also leading in technology adoption and its moving fast towards the Internet of Things. For example, drivers are automatically charged at toll gates via RFID. UAE maintain an open data portal as well. Dubai is well-known in its gigantic malls and vibrant retail industry, thus, I perceive a great future for “Retail Analytics” in Dubai. Let us think about product placement analysis where stores can track anonymously the movement and engagement of customers with their products. This will help retailers in improving store layouts and marketing displays. These analytics applications will also help in providing targeting messages and real-time price optimizations. 

A lot of discussions can be started when it comes to big data opportunities and challenges in the MENA region. I will make sure to blog about Dubai and MENA region and its potential to become a hub for all things Big Data. If you wish to continue the discussion, you can find me on Twitter @AliRebaie. If you want me to speak at your event or discuss the opportunities of big data in your firm, you can check my services here and drop me a linehere.

Thanks for all who made this event possible. Special thanks for my teammate Bahia Halawi and Rebaie Analytics Group crew for the coverage during the event.


Ali Rebaie.