Alexander McNabb

An Inflection Point for Arab Entrepreneurialism

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I went to ArabNet in  Beirut last year with very low expectations indeed. Despite my deep fondness for Beirut, it’s not a city I have traditionally associated with effective regional conferences – this would have been the first I had ever attended. I suspect that attitude is at least a product of the creeping UAE-centricity that affects so many people living here, Dubai in particular.

I also had reasonably low expectations regarding the objectives of the event. Over twenty years of working in the media and communications business here, much of that focused on the technology and telecoms industries, I have long seen a lack of innovation and entrepreneurialism – and what there was all too frequently crushed by software piracy and the often remarkable inertia of decision makers who always seem to find ‘no’ so much easier than ‘what the hell, let’s go with it’.

We have so long been a retail market, too – we import everything from food and toys to ideas and software. We’re massively risk-averse, a condition that is exacerbated by the criminalisation of failure in much of the region. And education, particularly in the GCC, has all too often been seen as a formal process of learning fact to obtain qualification – rather than leading to centres of innovation, research and development.

There have, of course, been some notable exceptions. But they remain exceptions rather than the rule.

All of this doom and gloom were dispelled for me by ArabNet. I spent much time wandering around with a stupid grin on my face. Over a thousand smart people in a room, speakers who had something new and fresh to say (apart from the Lebanese Minister of ICT who just doled out flaccid, worn platitudes in a wasted opportunity, just one of many that I am sure he oversees) and a mixture of youth, optimism and energy together with older, wiser heads bearing cheque books – they were all there, funds, angel investors and venture capitalists.

Someone commented that this was the Middle East’s dot com boom, only ten years too late. And I have some sympathy with that characterisation.

ArabNet’s just around the corner – it’s taking place again this year, from the 22nd-24th March. This year it’s expanded to become a four day event, a two-day conference, a developer day and a ‘community day’. It’s billed as ‘the biggest digital gathering in the Middle East’ and I’d tend to support that billing, although Jordan’s ICT Forum probably contends for the title. The event features an ‘ideathon’, where startup ideas are pitched in two minute chunks – the top three voted by the audience winning seed capital grants and also a ‘startup demo’, five minute pitches by startup businesses to gain early stage investment. The activity has been supported by a 7-country roadshow held by the team from event organiser IBAG, which provided workshops, mentoring and consultation with over 1500 young entrepreneurs from around the Middle East.

ArabNet is a highly connected event supported by a phalanx of bloggers, Twitterers and the like. One highly amusing aspect of last year’s event was the ‘Twitter walls’ either side of the stage, which transformed the nature of presentation and debate on the stage. The smart young things at IBAG turned it off for the Minister’s address…

Seeing this level of digital entrepreneurialism in the Middle East is still a delight for me and, rightly or wrongly, I do see ArabNet as a sort of inflection point – there had been startups before and funds before, but the bringing together of so many last year in Beirut was a first. I have never had so many conversations with digital startups as I have over the past year, ranging from copycat websites derived from ideas that already work in Western markets through to innovations that are unique to the region. I do see this as a trend, and a strong one at that. And it’s exhilarating purely because there has been such a dearth of this kind of thinking in the region in the past.

You can find out more about ArabNet here.

My expectations for ArabNet this year are consequently set absurdly high. Let’s see…

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