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I'm a Palestinian startup founder. I wanted to do my part for my home country, but now we have to leave.

Charissa Cheong   

I'm a Palestinian startup founder. I wanted to do my part for my home country, but now we have to leave.
  • Mohammad Alnobani co-founded a tech startup in the West Bank in 2022.
  • Six months into the Israeli-Hamas war in nearby Gaza, Alnobani and his cofounder are relocating to escape the conflict.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Mohammad Alnobani, 34, who cofounded "The Middle Frame," a tech startup based in Ramallah, a city in the Palestinian Territories. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

At around 1 a.m. on October 7, I arrived in Amman, Jordan, on the way back to my home in Jerusalem from a trip to Belfast, where I attended the One Young World Summit.

I met my CTO at the airport; they were traveling to Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. We'd decided to travel together to the borders, which opened at 8 a.m.

We got into a bus that was supposed to move between Jordan and Israel at around 8.30 a.m. Then, we were told they were closing the borders. We started checking the news. I read that Hamas got through a fence surrounding Gaza.

I was nervous as hell — whether you're pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, once you hear a major event is happening in the region, you know what's coming next is not going to be good.

We got off the bus and went back to Amman. We didn't know what to do.

I founded a tech startup in Ramallah in 2022

I was born in Saudi Arabia but grew up in Jordan. My mom is from Nablus, a city in the West Bank, and my dad grew up in Jerusalem. I moved to Jerusalem at 16 and went to university in Ramallah. After living in Qatar and London, I moved back to Jerusalem in 2019 and set up an advertising agency with my brother in 2020, which I was a part of until January 2022.

In February 2022, I set up "The Middle Frame," a stock image platform, with my business partner Raya, a photographer I met in Boston during an entrepreneurship fellowship in 2021.

Raya told me she wanted to build a platform for authentic stock images from the Middle East and North Africa.

I knew where Raya was coming from. Back when I worked in advertising, creatives always struggled to find images that accurately represented local cultures from Arab regions on international platforms like Shutterstock and Getty Images.

Over 1,800 contributors are signed up on our platform. Photographers upload their own images, which we moderate.

The Palestinian startup scene

Our business is based in Ramallah, where Raya lives. We're both familiar with the city; it's where I went to university, and half of my family lives there. It made sense cost-wise for us to work locally and set up our business there.

The Palestinian startup community is very small. I think a lot of people around the world don't know it exists. It's very easy to get into and it felt like a good environment to find our feet.

I knew there was almost no political and economic stability in the area, but as it was my home country, I felt like I had to try and do my part. If starting a company in Ramallah could benefit the community by creating jobs and further building on the small startup scene there, we wanted to try.

We wanted to onboard Palestinian team members to give them experience in a tech startup, but we had been struggling to recruit people due to the ongoing conflict.

Myself and Raya are the only two working full-time for "The Middle Frame," but we have a part-time CTO and web developer who are both Palestinian, as well as six part-timers in Egypt.

As a stock image platform, we wanted to provide local photographers with passive income from sharing their images.

We're targeting advertising agencies and media outlets that can download our images, but since the Palestinian population and market are small, we felt there was a limitation on our growth and scalability. Only a handful of companies and publications would be using the images.

Since the startup community is also small, there aren't as many opportunities to collaborate with other startups or gain knowledge from them. There's only one VC, and there aren't any mature startup accelerators.

We planned to expand into a bigger market eventually.

We were determined to keep working despite the uncertainties caused by the conflict

During the first week after the events of October 7, I was checking the news every day. Waking up was a struggle. People living in Europe and the US invited me to healing circles, but I wasn't ready to talk about the situation yet.

On October 9, I got on a call with Raya, who was with her family in Ramallah, and our CTO, who was with me in Jordan, to discuss the next steps. We had been running small testing advertising campaigns for "The Middle Frame" and were supposed to start larger campaigns in October, but we decided that, ethically speaking, it didn't feel right. We stopped our advertising efforts until February.

We took a screenshot of the call as a statement that we will keep working even in the toughest times. When "The Middle Frame" goes through a hard time in the future, we can look back at that screenshot.

Raya and I talked about the possibility of her moving to Jordan, but she said it wouldn't be easy — her kids and husband have their lives in Ramallah — and the conversation didn't go anywhere at the time.

We're thinking about the people dying and the struggles that our people are facing. Being in the media industry, we're documenting life in the region. It's not easy for us to ignore what's happening.

We know other startup cofounders from Gaza whose office buildings were bombed and who have officially stopped working. A cofounder who I met in Jordan just last year was killed — it was the toughest news I'd ever received in my life.

We're now planning to relocate to the UAE

During Israel's war on Gaza that followed the October 7 attack, the whole Palestinian economy faced the consequences. Middle Frame sales had halted completely in the area.

Due to the situation, I've been on the road travelling. Since October, I've been in Egypt, Dubai, Jerusalem and Ramallah. I was in Jordan until the end of January, and we initially decided to focus our efforts on the Jordanian market. I met with potential clients, like advertising and news agencies, and pitched to potential investors.

We don't know what the future holds. We took a risk by operating in Ramallah for nearly two years, but we knew we should acknowledge that there was no more room for growth and no longer risk our investors' money in a market filled with uncertainty.

Recently, Israeli settler attacks in the West Bank have been very frequent. In mid-April, I was returning from a wedding and got stuck in a village for hours because the settlers were blocking the road. That was the same night Iran fired on Israel; it really hit me that we can't stay here.

We've been discussing whether we're willing to relocate. We know that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are bigger markets, and we think the UAE — where I believe there's a very diverse business market — would be the best place for us to go.

We're waiting on news from a local investor, but Raya, our CTO, and I hope to relocate at the end of this year. Luckily, Raya's husband is understanding and open to moving.

We hope to return in the future

If I had started "The Middle Frame" anywhere else, we might have been able to grow faster and raise more investments, but I don't regret what we did.

In the future, when our business is stable in a different market, we could maybe have a smaller operation in the Palestinian market.

The Palestinian startup ecosystem needs more examples of successful startups in the wider region to support the startups in Palestine and more investment bodies to support the early-stage startups.

Because the Palestinian startup community is so small, we've had to get on calls with investors and startup founders from other countries to get support and advice; it's pushed us to make connections internationally and it's made us more resilient.

However, taking a minute to zoom out and look at the big picture is important. Some days, you wake up to a news story that is painful to see and hear, making your day 10 times harder to work through.

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