500 Startups Backs First Middle Eastern Startup, Jeeran, A Yelp For The Arab World

Earlier this year, young venture capital fund and startup accelerator 500 Startups announced some changes that indicated its intent to move beyond adolescence into adulthood, and expand its scope beyond the U.S. The firm raised a new, bigger fund, added new partners, and increase its focus on identifying and investing in talented international entrepreneurs.

Dave McClure and company have already invested in startup incubators in Mexico City and Beijing, along with taking its “Geeks On A Plane” tour to India last December. This spring, partners McClure and Christine Tsai told us that 500 Startups is redoubling its effort to build ties and make investments in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East in particular. And today, beginning to walk the walk, we’ve learned that the fund has made its first investment in the Middle East — in a startup called Jeeran.

500 startups has invested in startups from over 20 companies, but Jeeran marks its first in the Arab World and what it hopes will be the first of many. And while it’s good to see the firm’s scope expanding, it wasn’t alone. Fadi Ghandour, the founder of Aramex, Rabie Ataya (founder of Middle Eastern recruitment platform Bayt.com, Accelerator Technology Holdings, Intel Capital and Seedcamp also joined as investors in Jeeran’s seed round.

Omar Koudsi, Jeeran’s co-founder (and a one-time contributor to TechCrunch) tells us that the round will be used to fuel Jeeran’s “aggressive expansion strategy,” as it looks to build a presence throughout the Middle East and Asia over the coming year.

For those unfamiliar, Jeeran is, in part, a Yelp hybrid for the Middle East. (A good short hit/review on Quora here.) The startup began with a mission to empower the Arab World by giving its people tools to generate their own local content, taking the shape as a quasi-blogging services.

It has since morphed into a local reviews site, which covers a handful of cities in the emerging world, with a current focus on Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The startup has attracted tens of thousands of reviews and hundreds of thousands of local listings in the hopes of giving local users and businesses a better way of interacting with (and promoting) destinations within their cities. Like so many others, its platform is a proponent of ye olde “social, local, mobile” approach.

Due to its context and the community-based, local nature of its core business, Jeeran also manages a sizable “offline” presence in these markets, leveraging hands-on engagement with local communities to help facilitate data and customer acquisition. In doing so, it is trying to merge offline and online communities, bringing a technique that’s become popular in the States to the emerging world and small and medium-sized businesses and public services.

For example, Koudsi tells us that the majority of the quarter of a million places now listed on Jeeran perviously had no online presence. The co-founders believe that applying the Yelp, Amazon model of online customer reviews is (and will continue to) drive consumer empowerment and engagement in the Middle East and finally give users a place to share their opinions on the local businesses they interact with daily.

Koudsi says that bringing on investors like 500 Startups and Seedcamp is huge for the startup because it will be able to leverage hundreds of international mentors to help it scale more efficiently, while improving and localizing services. In addition, Jeeran will be sending a few of its employees to train in Silicon Valley, bringing that knowledge back to MENA to share with local entrepreneurs.

For more, check out Jeeran at home here.