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Hicham Ben Massaoud, left, a web designer at Expat Echo Dubai, works with his colleagues at the office in Dubai.
Hicham Ben Massaoud, left, a web designer at Expat Echo Dubai, works with his colleagues at the office in Dubai.

Nation plugs into home-grown sites

More people are using community websites in the Emirates to connect them with everything from job opportunities to groceries.

DUBAI // Rashmi Vijayan is like many Dubai-based residents and often visits a community website to access an array of information.

Ms Vijayan, 23, of India, has used a popular online portal to seek job opportunities in event management and post production for the past month, ever since a friend recommended the site to her.

"I have been using Dubizzle to find jobs," said Ms Vijayan, who recently completed her postgraduate studies.

"The website is one step ahead as they have more updated job opportunities. A lot more companies are using Dubizzle to update vacancies everyday.

"I get to know about the most recent opportunities, unlike other websites, which is great."

Ms Vijayan is part of a growing trend in the Emirates. People say it's practical to scout for deals, find employment and look up restaurant reviews on local websites.

Hassan Ali, an Emirati banker, uses souq.com extensively to shop online.

"I bought some items which I couldn't find easily in the market like Arabic keyboard stickers and a specific laser pointer. I also bought luxury products like pens and cufflinks to electronics like mobile phones, iPods and video games," he said.

Roger Haidar, a Lebanese expatriate, also visits GoNabit, Dubizzle and souq.com for good buys.

"I use these websites mainly for the discounts, which you cannot find or negotiate in the market because the prices are fixed.

"You always get the best deals online; like 50 per cent off on fishing trips, movies and spas."

Website founders agree that more people are going online to search for a variety of goods and services.

"I think the popularity of online resources in its entirety has increased, because maybe 10 years ago it was geeky to look online," said Jane Drury, the founder and managing director of expatwoman.com, which was launched eight years ago.

"When we were moving to this region, we didn't do a 'www' search because that was not how it worked then," she said.

"The first thing we did was buy the Lonely Planet guide to the Middle East. This had a small paragraph on Dubai, which did not say much. Now, whatever one is looking to find out, they start on the web."

Expatwoman.com averages about 200,000 hits each month and showed a marked increase in traffic in March.

"So the number of people relying on community websites for guidance has increased," she said.

"You cannot even compare this to looking at a physical guide or magazine that can only give you a snapshot in time. It's a totally different thing."

The Dubizzle co-founder J C Butler agreed.

"We have seen a large increase in new users," he said.

One of the most popular classifieds portals, Dubizzle gets at least 55 million page views each month, as people use it to buy and sell a range of items, from cars to baby clothes to sports equipment. Users can also find apartments to rent and list events.

The portal also has an Arabic home page to attract local users from across the Emirates and the region.

"There are sites that are popular among the local community. There is a huge opportunity to become popular among locals. It is important to include the local community," he said.

However, with only a small number of local websites, there is space for more players.

"There is a lot of opportunity not just in the UAE, but specifically in the region. There is a lot of broad content in the UAE. There are not many home-grown websites," Mr Butler said. "Dubizzle has a specific genre of community content. When it comes to Dubai, there is scope for original content. A lot of websites are saying the same thing. There is a lot of space for unique services," he said.

One such community portal attempting to exploit that space is expatechodubai.com, which was launched this January.

It seeks to help expatriates who are relocating to Dubai or already living in the emirate to access useful information.

"Community websites are very important in Dubai," said Luanna Bicknell, the team head of Expat Echo Dubai, which saw 8,000 hits in its first month.

"Our goal is to provide valuable information to our readers already residing in Dubai as well as to new residents," she said. "We want to educate and inform people about these communities they live in."

Expat Echo posts interviews with expats from different countries on life in Dubai, information on health and wellness, art and culture, pets, children and clubs. It features an events guide and information on banking, immigration, cost of living and transportation for new expats.

Even as the portals vie with each other to garner hits, some residents said they would only use them if information was updated and easy to find.

"I am kind of old-fashioned and tend to use magazines," said Muriel Landais, a long-term French resident in Dubai.

"However, if a website has comprehensive information on a range of subjects, I would definitely use it."


* With additional reporting by Amna al Haddad and Afshan Ahmed



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