A year ago in Beirut, the then general manager of PayPal Middle East Elias Ghanem stood up at the Lebanese branch of the tech festival ArabNet and made an announcement that brought the conference to life.
Egypt, he said, would have PayPal within months. Lebanon would have it before the end of 2013. The crowd was excited, and the Middle Eastern blogosphere went wild over a declaration that had the potential to give a huge boost to Middle Eastern e-commerce.
Next week, the conference is due to start again. A year on, Egypt is now over six months into its PayPal experience — one that the company’s Middle East business development head Francis Barel describes as a “major success.”
The Lebanese launch, however, is not just stuck in the pipeline – it has been taken out of it altogether. Currently, Barel says, there are no specific plans to launch in Lebanon at all. “We are trying to expand to new territories and to other countries, but right now we don’t have specific targets for Lebanon,” he says.
PayPal, the world’s leading service managing online payments, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Owned by eBay, it is rapidly exploring new markets, with Barel saying they are currently present in 193 countries worldwide.
Yet Lebanon is not among them. Anyone in Lebanon wanting to buy goods or services via PayPal are not permitted to do so, and even those based in Lebanon with foreign bank accounts face problems. This is one of the reasons
e-commerce has been so slow to catch on — according to a 2013 Ipsos poll , only 1.44 percent of Lebanon’s internet users (who make up 60 percent of the population) shop online.
Last year’s announcement raised hopes that the market would move forward but Barel insists it was a misunderstanding when Ghanem spoke. “There was a miscommunication — he mentioned that they were going to launch in Egypt soon and then someone asked him about Lebanon. He said that they were planning to come to Lebanon too, but didn’t give a specific timeline,” Barel says. “Because Egypt then launched so fast afterwards, people in Lebanon misunderstood the comments.”
For those in the room at the conference, Barel’s comments seemed somewhat strange. The video of the event appears fairly unequivocal, with Ghanem (starting at 0:59) saying, “PayPal today is across all the GCC; PayPal as well is across Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. PayPal within 2013 will come to Egypt, will come to Lebanon.”
Indeed, even in a clarification email with Executive at the time, Barel stressed that there were plans afoot, but that Ghanem had perhaps overstated the speed. “We have said we’re planning to come to Lebanon in 2013 — so we’re hoping it will be by the end of the year, but it’s a long process,” he said at the time. Now even these plans appear to have been shelved.
Speaking to Executive yesterday, Barel refused to be drawn on specific reasons for this change in policy, stating merely that the company had other priorities right now but that they did still ultimately intend to open up to the Lebanese market.
Lebanese companies will be hoping they shift plans sooner rather than later. Cyril Hadji-Thomas, co-founder of Cedar Books — a leading book distribution company focusing on less common books — fears that the PayPal deal may, like many things in the country currently, have fallen victim to the political and security turmoil.
“The fact that PayPal is not here has a negative effect on our business and has for the last ten years,” he says, pointing to two main ways in which it undermines their work. “Firstly, those customers purchasing from abroad would have better secured transactions through PayPal and they don’t know or trust local payment gateways. Somehow it affects our ability to sell to them,” he says. “Sellers in China use PayPal. A lot of users trust it and they know that if there is something wrong with the payment they can do something about it.”
“The second drawback is the fact that PayPal works both ways — people can both buy and sell on it. [The lack of this] is maybe why there are so few successful [online] marketplaces in Lebanon.”
As Cedar Books has offices in the United States and Europe, they can use PayPal for many parts of the company, but for those products sold from Lebanon they use Bank Audi’s online payment gateway. While generally positive about the service, Hadji-Thomas says there are particular markets that Audi’s service suffers with. “We sell books in Arabic and French, so North Africa is a good potential market for us. But Bank Audi sometimes has issues with North Africa.”
The need for new online payment services in Lebanon (and the wider) Middle East is therefore great. Omar Christidis, founder of ArabNet, points out that among the talks at the 2014 conference next week will be a panel on new platforms in the region. Perhaps ironically, among the speakers will be Elias Ghanem — whose potential misspeak started the confusion over PayPal. Ghanem has since left the company to form Telr.com. It has not yet been launched, but indications are that it seeks to make online payments in the region easier.