The biggest service of its kind in the Middle East, Careem was acquired by Uber for $3.1 billion in 2020. Pandemic lockdowns left its cars empty, with ride-hailing down more than 80%, but the company already had plans to diversify its range of services across the region.

“Covid-19 has really been a booster,” says Mudassir Sheikha, the CEO and co-founder of Dubai-based Careem. “Our customers were locked down, so they started asking, ‘you have drivers, can you deliver my food?'”

Careem now offers restaurant and grocery delivery, online shopping, e-bike booking and digital payments through a single app that launched in June. This move elevated the company to an exclusive club of applications providing multiple, integrated services: the super apps.

In China, WeChat is considered a prime example of a super app. Established as a messaging service like WhatsApp, its 1.2 billion users can now book hotel or flight tickets, play video games, pay for utilities or public services and make digital transactions. It also allows third-party companies to develop services known as “mini-programs” on its app.

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Alongside WeChat, giants like China’s Alipay and Singapore’s Grab are already dominating the mature Asian market, offering mobile-based services that include car-sharing, digital banking, telecommunications and health appointments.

Super apps are projected to reach $500 billion in combined revenues by 2025, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, with major growth in Asia and emerging markets like Indonesia and Brazil.

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“Super apps are built around payment solutions, making transactions much easier,” explains Thomas Schumacher, a partner at McKinsey.

“We are seeing a generation of people who are growing up with a smartphone in their hands and want to use it,” Schumacher says, “and in Asia and the emerging markets, smartphones are much more at the center of everyday life.”

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It’s in densely populated, metropolitan areas where they are gaining most momentum; with more services getting integrated and moving online, it’s easier for urban customers to have them in a single digital go-to place.

Schumacher says in the future, more super apps will emerge around the world, but more widespread adoption could face regulatory challenges, especially in Western countries where they are still struggling to catch on.

WeChat has faced problems in the United States, where former president Donald Trump tried to ban it, citing national security concerns. However, the Biden administration has asked two federal appeals courts to pause litigation.

“Super apps have a lot of market power and this is such an unregulated territory today,” Schumacher says. “If super apps want to grow in the US or Europe, they will eventually need to adapt to data security and privacy policies.”

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Careem has now amassed 48 million users, up 900% since the launch of its super app.

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“But more than trying to increase that number, the focus is to get these existing users to do more and more with Careem,” Sheikha explains.

The company has opened its ecosystem to third-party providers and will shortly launch “home services” such as bill payments to customers across the UAE.

Strengthening its dominant market position in the region might be key for Careem’s success, as analysts believe this market will consolidate around a handful of big players.

“Super apps won’t be present everywhere,” Schumacher says. “We will see a couple of very powerful super apps that are massively growing as they enable so many more use cases, especially in urban and metropolitan areas.”

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