April has the connotation of pulling people’s legs. On April 1, for example, Israel’s naval commander Major General Ram Rotenberg’s ordering of three vessels to prepare an overnight sail to Naples to commence a 10 day exercise. Reports on Israel Radio said officers and crew were not amused when they found out on Sunday morning, after working through the night, that the whole thing was their commander’s idea of a wholesome joke. April Fools! One hopes it was not meant as such a cruel jest when it was suggested that Lebanon could get a new techno park for entrepreneurs — a locale where startup companies and small enterprises with a high-tech edge could avail themselves of broadband connectivity and hard and soft business infrastructure. Yet when two highly positioned voices in the Lebanese socioeconomic fabric said, in a curious coincidence of timings just ahead of April 1, that they could provide the country with a techno park, more than one person asked me if I thought they were serious.
The economic heavyweights who announced techno park project ideas were Mounir Douaidy, the general manager of Lebanon’s urban developer, Solidere, on March 29, and Nicolas Sehnaoui, the minister of telecommunications, on March 30. Doueidy positioned his projected park in Solidere’s Waterfront District while Sehnaoui pointed to a government property in the municipality of Dekwaneh.
The idea of a techno park is neither bad nor new. Clustering of businesses is a good way to enhance competitiveness and generate synergies. The concept rose to global acceptance in the 1990s through the mother of all information and communications technology (ICT) clusters, Silicon Valley. The datedness of the techno park concept, however, casts the first doubt over the seriousness of these latest Lebanese projects. There have been at least three major aborted ICT park projects in this country among the many victims of Lebanon’s chronic disease of unrealized projects. The latest attempt was called the Beirut Emerging Technology Zone (BETZ). Researched from the late 1990s, this tech zone project was finally shipwrecked about five years ago in Damour, the sleepy coastal town south of Beirut selected as “perfect” for locating the zone.
Why would a new Lebanese techno park succeed, more than a decade after other countries in the Middle East established their ICT clusters, such as Smart Villages in Egypt and Dubai Internet City in the United Arab Emirates? On the other hand, the absence of first-mover and big-size advantages doesn’t predicate failure of a good concept. Also, the success of other clusters in the Middle East (and some will argue, of Lebanon’s Berytech technopole) demonstrates the potential of new techno parks. The next question is why did Lebanon’s ICT zones never get off the ground at the time when they were avant-garde projects? Dumb question, sad answer: politics, of course. BETZ ran into petty political cliffs even on the municipal level. Looking at Damour in hindsight, it seems it was much easier to build beach resorts than create ICT clusters. This notwithstanding, there is no disputing Lebanon’s comparative advantages vis-à-vis other locations in the Middle East in human capital, entrepreneurial spirit, and even private sector business dynamism.
The ingredients are there, but are the consensus and will strong enough to overcome political inertia and clusters of administrative incompetence? This crucial question returns us to the issue of insincere projects and reputation management. Douaidy was sincere on the company’s agenda by saying that Solidere was thinking about making Waterfront lots available for the project on a temporary basis as, “it could be a few years before we start selling these lots for development.”
Even before his presentation at the ArabNet entrepreneurship summit in March, members of his team emphasized that Solidere is “only thinking about a techno park in the Waterfront.” Asked almost a month later if there was any progress on the idea, they said, no, not really.
It is true that temporary projects in Lebanon mysteriously instill more confidence than big master plans. But will a consultation with entrepreneurs and a presentation of a good idea be enough to start us on an ICT cluster in Beirut, where budding Lebanese entrepreneurs can gear up in the next few years toward serving the growing markets of countries such as Iraq and, hopefully, Syria?
Methinks not. Kindly, Lebanon, prove me wrong