Omar Christidis is the founder and chief executive officer of ArabNet, the leading space for debating digital growth in the Middle East. The organization’s annual Beirut conference on 20-22 March is expected to be the largest gathering of digital professionals in the region, with over 1,200 expected attendees. Christidis spoke to Executive about Lebanon’s answer to Silicon Valley, Windows 8 and why there may be too many digital entrepreneurs.
What should we look out for at ArabNet 2013?
The event this year is more focused on the digital creative sectors and on Lebanon and the Levant more broadly as hubs for production in the digital sector. What I mean by production is development, design and creation — this is where we have a tremendous amount of talent and relatively affordable labor. [The Levant] is where we see a lot of companies are locating their production hub — whether it is advertising agencies, mobile development hubs, or even content portals that are targeting Saudi Arabia — they have their staff in Lebanon, Egypt or Jordan.
So we are focusing more on production of creative talent. We have held development days focused purely on technical workshops — this year we have expanded that. We are bringing in designers as well to do workshops focused on building better mobile products ranging from really specific design-focused workshops on branding and typography… to building computer games.
There seems to be a heavy focus on Windows 8 at the conference. What is your assessment of it and how might it change the market?
What we want to give people is both technical sessions about building better products and more functional sessions about user interface. When we were talking with Microsoft they wanted more of a technical session around building for their platform.
Right now this is a big problem for them. Today the main platforms that you see people building for are certainly [Apple’s[ i0S and [Google’s] Android. Windows, with Nokia, are trying to push their platform as a way to grab a bigger share of the market.
The end game is not clear yet. They are up against tough competition but they have done some interesting things with constituency across multiple screens and that is really important in terms of being able to develop. People today expect to be able to use their computer, their tablet and their phone and have seamless web experiences.
In the past two years we have seen really encouraging signs in the development of the digital sector in Lebanon, with the creation of the Beirut Digital District (BDD) and Cloud 5 providing space for developers. Are we beginning to see a ‘Lebanese Silicon Valley?’
I don’t like the phrase but certainly there is a boom and the boom is driven by the big players that are moving online and stimulating the growth of the digital sector. I think that both Cloud 5 and BDD moving into the sector aggressively is an indication of a commitment by big companies toward the sector. Also it gives options to entrepreneurs and options to companies and that is always good. So if we have two competing places that are looking to foster digital and providing infrastructure and giving good indications of growth then it is a strong sign for the sector in Lebanon.
The Minister of Telecommunications Nicolas Sehnaoui is seen to have helped push through some improvements in infrastructure in the past two years. What further steps are necessary for the development of the sector?
I am a big fan of Sehnaoui. I have to say that he has won over a lot of people in the digital sector and part of it is his personal commitment to actually engaging in grass roots events, which is something that you don’t often see from a minister… So from that respect I highly commend him.
What do we still need now? I think Lebanon’s problem has always been and will continue to be its stability. It is very difficult to build a hub of activity and be able to attract clients and investors to a market where there is instability.
Infrastructure is certainly still a problem. I pay an absurd amount of money for internet connectivity; I could hire a full-time staff member for the amount of money that I pay and I don’t even have great internet. We recently ran an event in Riyadh, we came back and wanted to upload our content. Some of our partners also shot videos and all of their content was up before we could even upload our first couple of videos! I appreciate efforts have been made but I think there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Also [I would like to see] tax breaks for entrepreneurs and for digital companies. This is something they have been cooking for a long time and I would like to see this happen. But I don’t think the biggest problems are policy-related.
You left Lebanon at 17 to go to America and returned a decade later. One of the biggest issues facing the sector is that many talented Lebanese in digital leave the country young. With the positive signs in the sector, can we keep people in Lebanon?
Everybody today wants to be an entrepreneur and nobody today wants to work for anybody. It is almost like we have created too much hype around entrepreneurship and maybe there is need for a bit of realism around what it takes to not just build a product but run a business. The kind of experience in hiring and firing and building organizational structure and selling to clients and developing your growth strategy — all of these things that are really challenging for someone with little experience to do. There needs to be a dose of realism.
A lot of Lebanese talents are not here — they are gone, they leave very quickly, and the ones that are here want to start their own gig after five or six years. The problem is hiring that middle management to be able to take your company and grow it.
I did a session with a bunch of established Lebanese [digital] entrepreneurs … and everyone was moaning about the fact that there are no developers. The first tranche of developers get sucked up by the Googles and the Microsofts of the world, the second tranche get sucked up by Murex and what’s left is slim pickings. I can say the same about business people – the first tranche are sucked up by Booz and Co. etcetera so as a company here you are not only competing for local talent, [but also] agencies in Dubai are coming to source talent here.
One of the unique features of Lebanon is as a talent hub. We are doing a lot of activities to try to promote Lebanese talent but it is a challenge as a lot of Lebanese talent is quickly whisked away by bigger companies offering Gulf wages; which are very difficult to compete with within the Lebanese framework. So you end up searching a lot, interviewing a lot of people, finding someone who is disillusioned with life in the Gulf or doesn’t want to leave here or working with fresh graduates.
With regards to Arabic language online, what are the trends and how fast is growth?
Good question. How do we even measure this 1 percent of Internet content that is in Arabic? There is huge variation between the numbers that people give out — no two statistics agree on anything — whether it is online ad spend in the MENA or the percentage of Arabic content online.
But it is not Lebanon or Dubai that is going to grow Arabic content online; it is going to be driven by countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They have the biggest suppliers of Arabic content and demand for Arabic content.
What I see is a move to video. We are moving away from the text web to the picture and video web. One of the biggest media for online consumption in Saudi Arabia is video, that is the hot thing. It is among the top countries globally in terms of Youtube consumption per capita. You have these amazing comedy shows that are created by young Saudis. These guys are commenting on everything from arranged marriages to driving. They are young Saudi celebrities, they are huge media hits and their videos get over a million views.