SAILING THROUGH ICE AND FIRE: The Daring Journey of Yalla, Internet Unicorn of the Middle East

“2021has been a year of many achievements, despite the challenges,” says Saifi Ismail, president and director of Yalla Group. As the leading voice-centric social networking, entertainment and gaming platform in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), Yalla rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange on September 30, 2020, and was praised on social media by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai.

In the year after its September 2020 listing, Yalla’s monthly active users (MAUs) grew by 81.9%, and its third-quarter 2021 non-GAAP net income more than doubled. Yalla attracted considerable attention and exceeded many expectations, though Yalla’s journey in 2021 has not been all smooth sailing. “In May 2021, a short-selling report appeared on social media filled with baseless accusations against us,” says Saifi. “It called Yalla a fake company with fake users and suggested that Yalla did not provide true and accurate public disclosures regarding its financial performance. Since day one, we have explained to the public that the Yalla community is a pure UGC [user-generated content] platform and that we have never hired any KOLs [key opinion leaders] nor inflated our MAUs by engaging robots in chat rooms.” Saifi goes on to say, “some users have created alternative accounts in the system for their own reasons, including collecting rewards. Yalla implemented many measures to restrict such user behavior. Similar issues exist on many other online platforms. The short sellers did not explain how a so-called fake company could deliver revenue, profit and cash and achieve normal development and growth. Instead it merely claimed that ‘Yalla is too good to be true.’”

Saifi stresses that the company has always strictly abided by the information disclosure requirements of the New York Stock Exchange and fully guarantees the truthfulness of the disclosed information. Yalla, he notes, follows the same approach as the majority of internet companies when preparing its disclosures.

As the first internet company in the UAE listed in the U.S., Yalla was bound to encounter doubts and skepticism. Before Yalla, no other internet company had ever put down roots in the Arabian world. Guided by its mission of meeting the entertainment and socializing needs of the Arab people, Yalla has taken pains to develop a deep understanding of the local market and tailor its social entertainment products for Middle Eastern users. Yalla, says Saifi, is committed to this responsibility and vision.

Meanwhile, Yalla also hopes to gain recognition outside the Arab world. Five years ago, the company set its sights on voice-centric social networking. With its products operating in the Middle East market, Yalla has built a mature business model and a large and loyal user base. To neutral observers, the company’s authenticity is indisputable.

Saifi makes the point that compliance is crucial to the company. “We care more than anyone else about the company’s reputation and its path to sustainable development. In February 2018, only one and a half years after the company’s establishment, and when our team had just grown from the three founding members to 37 people, an investor in our company hired KPMG to conduct a financial due diligence process on the company. We also chose to list Yalla on the NYSE, which was a tremendous test of compliance on all fronts. We underwent comprehensive examination and scrutiny of our business, legal and financial compliance by various agents, including brokers, lawyers and auditors. The accusation that we are a fake company lacks all sense and logic,” Saifi asserts.

From universal applause to mixed reviews, Yalla is learning to deal with misapprehensions stemming from differing opinions of its business model, while also adapting to a changing environment. The company is doing this and at the same time remaining true to itself and its mission. Along with its two main products, Yalla and Yalla Ludo, which are widely popular among users in the Middle East, the company entered the casual games market segment with products such as 101 Okey Yalla and Yalla Parchis.

In the social networking market, Yalla is in the midst of developing the Middle East’s first metaverse product. In addition, the company recently released a new version of its instant messaging product, YallaChat. The company has been keeping a low profile while taking a step-by-step approach to executing its strategy and fulfilling its mission.

“Our business was not affected,” says Saifi. “We have maintained steady growth in our performance and an ample cash flow, which demonstrates that we have chosen the right market. We made products our users enjoy and can develop even further in this industry. To this end, our 595-member global team is poised to do what we really want to do – serve MENA’s users, develop more excellent products, and contribute to the growth of the digital economy in the region.”


Copyright of this article belongs to TIME Magazine. This article does not represent the viewpoint of Yalla, and Yalla has not independently verified the accuracy of the statements in this article.