Friday, 26 March 2010
Mum, What's An ArabNet?
ArabNet founder Omar Christidis together with Samer Karam, Sana Tawileh and with the others on their team, pulled off a major coup – the first event in the Middle East that aims to foster web-enabled businesses and put start-ups together with investors and the other ecosystem participants they need to thrive and flourish. Alongside this, the conference aimed to investigate the issues, opportunities and future of doing business in an increasingly Internet-dominated Arab World.
The ArabNet conference in Beirut takes place yesterday and today. I attended the first day and so I can only comment on that – but I’ll be watching the Twitter feed (The tag is #ArabNetME) with great interest.
I’m by no means overdoing it when I describe ArabNet as a triumph. It’s actually a number of triumphs rolled into one. First and foremost, it’s a minor miracle that this event was put together so brilliantly and in Beirut, to boot. Sorry, chaps, but Beirut has not exactly carved its name recently as the place for important regional conference events and yet ArabNet has clearly shown that Beirut is not just a viable but a brilliant venue for them.
The event was impeccably organised. Having headed up teams doing stuff on this scale, I am only too aware of what a huge and difficult job it is. The technical setup, the exhibition area and the management of the entire staging and flow of the event were world class – and so was the event itself. Great speakers included Aramex supremo Fadi Ghandour who was nothing less than inspirational in a mashed-up Anglo-Arabic after-lunch ‘graveyard slot’ address that had the audience standing, sitting, laughing and clapping – when they should by rights have been sleepily digesting. Some people had been whingeing on Twitter in the morning sessions that they thought the conference should have been held in Arabic – Fadi’s solution was to speak in both, with sentences that flew from East to West with brio and wit that must have had the poor old translator's head spinning.
Showing incredible wisdom for such a young team, the ArabNet guys masked the Twitter-feed displays to either side of the stage during the keynote session when a succession of important gentlemen spoke. The Lebanese Minister of Comms was indeed so incredibly important that he could only spare an audience of 1,000 highly online entrepreneurs and web-professionals from around the Middle East two minutes (and I do not exaggerate) out of his, we were told pointedly, busy schedule. He lost as many hearts and minds as Ghandour had previously won, his brief speech nestled cosily in a keynote session that, for me at least, resonated perfectly with a similar address I had heard given by Michel Murr at Termium over ten years ago - with nothing added and nothing taken away.
Twitter was not kind, and rightly so. ‘The Internet is important,’ was one of the many aphorisms that instructed us all. The howl of outrage was neatly masked by the ArabNet logo displays, but we could all see the feed on our screens. Which showed how totally disconnected the terrible old men up there were.
Lebanon has just about managed to cobble together one meg ADSL access – a somewhat pathetic achievement that was echoed in the conference room as more and more people snapped open their clamshells and tried to get online. Internet access slowed to a snail’s pace and yes, despite this, ArabNet trended Twitter globally for over an hour. Having said that (and being pleased for all concerned), I am increasingly worried at this new version of the Middle East’s old obsession with The Guiness Book of Records. People, it doesn’t have to trend to be important or relevant.
The day flew by – one session, the IdeaThon, had five new startup schemes sold to the audience by their progenitors in two minute pitches, while the afternoon Startup Demos session pitched ten up and running business schemes in need of investors (‘angel’ or otherwise). These pitch sessions provided great entertainment, were an inspiring display of innovation and gave a very clear indication that this region is now emerging, perhaps blinking a little, into an age of Web-enabled business.
The only part of the day that dented my enthusiasm and optimism more than the keynote session (note to Omar and team – you can ditch the suits next year and we’d none of us mind one jot) was the ecommerce panel. Badly led and therefore lacking inspiration or challenge to meet, it was as frustrating as watching someone wall-hanging yoghurt. Twitter was, once again, not kind and the general feeling in the room was up there for all to see – “please make this stop”.
And so on, via the Beirut-Amman joint Twestival, to the gala dinner – which was splendid. Tragically, the day having been incredibly long, I suspect a few hundred chocolate desserts (the end of a five-course menu) got trashed.
ArabNet was everything we had hoped for and more. Like the iPad, it’s not the end of the road but a first glimpse at where the future is headed. In well over 20 years of being involved with this region’s technology industry as a commentator and communicator, I can honestly tell you I have never seen such energy and hope for the future as I saw at ArabNet.
All they have to do now is brush aside the terrible old men and get the cost of broadband down, access speeds up and improve the availability and reliability of connectivity in the region. If anyone came away from ArabNet without the clear impression that this one single investment in infrastructure is vital to the future of the region as a viable economic force, then they were either daft as a brush or a Minister who was too important to be engaging with young entrpeneurs and innovators. Or both.
More fool them.
(A million thanks to ArabNet Conference Cartoonist Maya Zankoul, whose first pic of the day was an illustration for this post! Her cartoon above is licensed under a Creative Commons license. Another cool thing about ArabNet has been the assiduous support of a number of bloggers, Twitterers, a cartoonist and a smart live feed too!)
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