Thursday, 27 June 2013

That Was The ArabNet That Was

Arpanet Interface Message Processor
(Photo credit: carrierdetect)
It's been a hectic week, hence the lack of posts. The ArabNet Dubai Digital Summit sucked down more time than I'd ever have thought it was going to - but what a time it's been. The week's flown by in a whirlwind of panels, chatting, eager startups and blethering about all things online.

Not even HSBC's decision to mount an insane war against their SME customers, reported upon excellently by the Al Arabiya English website, tempted me to post. Truth be told, there just wasn't the time and anyway, what could be possibly said that would make any sort of sense of a bank unilaterally shutting down business accounts in the United Arab Emirates with just 60 days' notice - just before the summer and Ramadan coincide to ensure 60 days' notice is insufficient?

Even HSBC's assertion that it 'remains committed to the SME market' wasn't enough to break the ArabNet spell. Although now looking back on the story that comment still provokes wide-eyed astonishment. We've wiped out the Marsh Arabs but remain committed to all indigenous peoples. Right.

I got to have a little gentle fun with banks myself at the ArabNet banking solutions panel, when Graham from Radical outlined some of the cool stuff his company had been doing with banks internationally and the very brave Pedtro from Emirates NBD took to the stage to speak for the Middle East's own banks. Perhaps starting the panel with the assertion that all Middle East banks are rubbish wasn't terribly PC of me (I realised my introduction to the topic had turned into a spittle-flecked rant only when the audience started to turn into a mob hefting burning brands and demanding to march on the monster), but I thought if we could all agree that basic principle, we could then move on and not spend an hour throwing custard tarts at Pedro.

And that's the way it worked out, generally - but I came away from the session with the feeling that people like Pedro are fighting against legacy systems and legacy-minded management, while banks in other parts of the world - leaner, meaner and generally more competitive - are providing some really smart digital services. You wonder what's holding us back and then something like HSBC vs SME happens and you realise that yes, it is pretty nigh hopeless.

I enjoyed many of the talks and panels I attended at ArabNet, there were few 'duffers' in the mix which was a blessing - and with three tracks on the go, rare was the moment when something interesting wasn't happening somewhere. Skills marketplace Nabbesh was raising money on startup crowd investing platform Eureeca, Wally got Dhs 1.5 million funding for its blisteringly smart expenses tracking app (it scans receipts and lets you track locations, venues, expenditures and the like), Restronaut took everyone out for dinner (the latest brain-child of Make Business Hub founder Leith Matthews) and private car booking service Careem offered everyone a free ride. There was a lot of stuff going on, I can tell you.

I had the dubious honour of being the last speaker at ArabNet Dubai and so was surprised to find a packed room in front of me - that's a testament to the engagement and commitment of the audience at the event. There were a few grumbles of 'three days is too long' but I'm not so sure, myself. It wasn't a stretched out agenda by any means. Anyway, I spent fifteen minutes gibbering and railing at the audience in tongues, the usual shamanistic display of erratic behaviour. And then I got to lead a panel on women's content and branded content. 

With one client and three publishers on the panel, it was always going to be hard to get a good challenging debate moving - and the publishers were determined not to have the fight I was so keen to goad them into, so the panel was a tad tamer than I'm used to. Tragically, we didn't have the Twitterfall displayed on the stage monitors, so couldn't see the howls of outrage taking place on the projected screen behind us. As the panelists talked about why marketing managers didn't understand women in the region and why women's content was Chanel and handbags, a furious cry rose from the significant female element in the audience who felt women were, well, worth more than that. I couldn't see it and so the opportunity to square the circle between audience and panel was lost.

And then, in a trice, it was over. The developers' awards saw Lebanon taking the trophy and a couple of hours later, the Atlantis conference centre was back to being a vast expanse of strange nautical primary colours and Dubai was filled with little pockets of partying geeks and, no doubt, a very relieved and exhausted ArabNet team.

See you there next year!

Confession: Spot On was an ArabNet partner
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