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Omar Christidis: The Middle East certainly has the resources and talents to be able to compete on a global scale

Omar Christidis is the Founder and CEO of ArabNet, the leading events and media company focused on the Arab web and mobile industry. ArabNet organizes the leading conferences for the digital sector in the MENA region, including the ArabNet Digital Summit, the premier international gathering for Arab digital professionals and entrepreneurs. The Summit was held for the fourth time in Dubai in June 2013 and brought together more than 800 attendees from 35 countries and received more than 9,100 tweets and 42,800 hits on the live-steam. In 2012, Omar was selected by GulfNews Magazine as one of its “30 under 30" list. He is a graduate of Yale University and the Co-Founder of the Yale Arab Alumni Association.  

At the last ArabNet Beirut, the issue of language of the conference was raised. Why do you think it is better for the conference to be conducted in English in both Dubai and Beirut?

ArabNet Beirut and the Digital Summit are held in English because of the significant number of speakers and attendees coming in from abroad. This allows both the speakers and attendees to converse with each other smoothly. English today is the global language of business. As this is a business-focused conference. It makes sense for us to keep that platform open for people from outside the Middle East, so that we raise interest in our market.

In your experience, what are the challenges facing digital entrepreneurs in the Middle East? How do these challenges differ between Beirut and Dubai?

There is a number of challenges facing digital entrepreneurs today. The first would be launching, and by launching I mean taking the leap of faith from their jobs that they are in to launching their own company, a team and get a product out there. The key challenge around this is that people have a lot of financial responsibilities which makes it harder for them to be able to leave their job and start something. It is also difficult for people to find a co-founder who has a complimentary skill set, believes, and is willing to take the risk with them. Beyond that, if they are able to come up with a product, and raise money, I think the second biggest thing is around scaling and finding customers, and brining in revenue. Today we have seen companies go out and build a product and get financing, but what’s left to be determined is: can those companies scale across multiple and different markets. That’s a key challenge in the Middle East because of the cultural differences and the borders between different markets. Being able to actually do high-level partnerships and sales to big corporations especially as so much decision making is concentrated within the hands of very senior people, the CEO or a small group of decision makers within most of these corporations and it is difficult to access them as a young entrepreneur.

I think what’s more important is the difference in the type of entrepreneurs we’re seeing between Beirut and Dubai. In Dubai, we tend to see entrepreneurs that are a little bit older, have more experience, and tend to be mid-career professionals who are leaving an established career to start a company. Oftentimes, that company is in a similar space to where they were working, so they’ve already built experience and relationships. I think this gives them a leg-up in terms of their opportunities and possibility for success.

In your opinion, what are the newest digital trends and what can we be expecting in the near future?

ArabNet Digital Summit will focus on the latest trends in digital business and entrepreneurship. We have multiple tracks within the event, one of which is focused on business. We’ll discuss global e-commerce and commerce across borders. We’ll also be touching on the latest trends in payment like Bitcons, which is taking the payment landscape by storm.

In terms of digital media and marketing, which is a major topic of the event, we’ll be discussing the transformations that are taking place in online video. Major players are getting involved in this place, like MBC which is pushing its Shahed platform. ICFlix, launched in Dubai, along the Netflix model. As well as Yahoo who recently started making a big push in video, and signed a contract with U-turn in Saudi Arabia. We’ll be discussing the rise of the multichannel network in the Middle East, which is becoming a global trend. Disney acquired Maker Studios, one of the largest YouTube multichannel networks for 500 million dollars. We’re seeing the successes in the multichannel networks across the region like Qsoft videos which does the Bassem Youssef show in Egypt. Kharabeesh in Jordan and a number of channels like U-turn, Telfaz 11, and others in Saudi Arabia. The future of the agency is a topic we’re interested in. The lines between creative advertising agencies, media agencies, and publishers continue to blur, which will transform the landscape of agencies in the Middle East. We’ll be exploring that with some of the CEO’s and regional Md’s of these businesses.

From a technology perspective, we’re really excited to talk about 3D printers, wearable technology, and smart hardware. Things that are the revolution in hardware technology, partly that been inspired by cheaper technology. Today we can buy 3D printers for a couple of hundred dollars. Cheap computers like Raspberry Pi which will cost 30 dollars. Kick-starting and crowd-funding more broadly which has opened up an avenue for funding smart and new hardware innovation.

Do you think that the Middle East will catch up to the Western digital wave any time soon? What is needed to catch up?

The dynamics of the global economy are shifting and certainly shifting east. I think that Dubai is making a bid to become not only the capital for business in the Arab World, but also the capital for business in emerging markets. I believe that the Middle East certainly has the resources and talents to be able to compete on a global scale. I think we’re starting to see this anyway. As we’ve mentioned in terms of hardware we’re already seeing Arab companies compete on an innovative level globally. Especially when it comes to new platforms like mobile and social, the Arab World is not behind in terms of usage of these platforms.

What are your personal favorite established start-up’s and start-up ideas that you have come across during ArabNet events so far?

There are tons of amazing ideas. One startup that I think has a really great opportunity is Anghami. Globally, people are interested in investing in the business model of streaming music and so they are very much on a global trend. They signed deals with some of the biggest content owners in the Middle East. They have strategic partnerships with Choueiri Group, MBC, and others. They are well funded with good investors, and have a strong team of founders. They’ve also built a strong team within the company, and I think that all of those things set them up to have high a potential for success.

Beyond that, I think some of the most interesting entrepreneurs most likely to succeed in the Arab World are the Youtube entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia. Most people don’t usually think about the Youtube channels in Saudi Arabia as entrepreneurs, but I think they are the most successful ones. They have built massive followings. Each of their episodes has views in millions. They are working with brands directly and building revenues, they have credibility. They’re being approached by regional and global players in term of partnerships. We’re going to see a lot of disruptions in the media industry caused by these Youtube entrepreneurs.

The last one is a space that I am really interested in, which is around children. Whether it’s from the side of content, edutainment, apps and games that help teach kids. This is a space that a lot of parents would be willing to pay for. Content around this is underserved in the Arab market. We don’t have any clear winners in this space, and no one has grown a scale properly in it.

What makes the UAE the regional digital hub right now? Should Lebanese—and Arab—entrepreneurs pack up their bags and move to Dubai?

The key thing the UAE has going for it is infrastructure. They’ve got amazing connectivity, accessibility, reliable and reasonably priced internet. A stable market, so people can plan their work which is an advantage for doing business in Dubai. This is certainly an advantage, as other Arab countries are unstable today. The lead that Dubai has on other Arab markets was less five years ago than today.

The other thing that Dubai has, as it has built itself into a regional business hub, is that today a lot of the big global and regional corporations have their headquarters there. That makes access to decision-makers and budgets much easier in Dubai.

No, I don’t think that entrepreneurs should pack up their stuff and go, because talent is at a premium in Dubai. By hiring people, you’re going to be competing with some of the biggest companies that are able to pay bigger salaries. You will be unable to compete for talents in that market. In addition, life in Dubai is significantly more expensive, so trying to bootstrap your startup in an expensive city like Dubai is much more challenging. While the UAE market is maturing rapidly, I think there are more support organizations in Lebanon that are active in working with entrepreneurs. Maybe as the country is smaller, there are more support communities that exist here.

Which industry in the Middle East is benefiting the most from the digital advances? How do you see the digital/social impact in the next ten years on the commerce, healthcare and political sectors?

I believe that all industries today are facing rapid digital transformations. Digital has become a key item on the CEO agenda across sectors. E-commerce is booming, stores of all the major retailers that are moving into this space. We have super markets that are transitioning into e-commerce, so you will be able to order your groceries online. There are tons of products out there in the market. I think the successful companies are those that will help us find the best and the right product for our interest.

In term of healthcare, we’ll be wearing devices that will let us know in advance if we are going to have a stroke, and monitor our insulin levels. I was sitting with an investor who invests in healthcare, he said, “Today the internet has replaced general practitioners as a doctor; people go into the doctor’s clinic having thoroughly researched their own diseases and illness.” So, I think there’s going be a shift of power to the customer in the healthcare space and they’re going to be able to access their data in a better way.

Politics, we’re going to see more and more of a dialogue between citizens and governments. We’re seeing the trend of open data that is allowing developers to leverage government data and create apps that improve the life of citizens (apps that allow citizens to take photos of traffic violations or pot-holes on the roads and report them to authorities and municipalities.) It will allow government to share data with home owners and real estate developers around their energy use and how to optimize the consumption. I believe we will see as well a lot of transparency in term of governments. There is an opportunity for these governments to be more transparent when we see what western markets are doing; we see that the UK government already puts online the ministerial minutes for meeting that are taking place, expenditures that are above 25K pounds are all documented online so citizens are able to see what their governments are doing.

How is the digital sector different in Saudi Arabia? Do you notice any major difference elsewhere in the Middle East as well?

I think Saudi Arabia is one of the most under-appreciated markets and the key reason is that most people outside the kingdom see it as a consumer market only. They underestimate the amount of innovation and production that’s happening in that market. Particularly in Saudi Arabia, innovation takes place at the edge of limitation. We’ve seen the Youtube channels that have emerged and become extremely successful come out of the lack of relevant local content available on local channels. We’ve also seen Saudi women who have challenges in term of mobility and employment create stores for themselves on Instagram, to be able to sell products that they make at their own homes. The entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia have an advantage, because they know the market better than anyone else. They are able to create apps, content and games that are really successful in the Saudi market. People like Ibtikar Technologies who’ve created Ibalout which is a very big game in Saudi Arabia, that we don’t play at all in the Levant area, and that is doing six figure revenues. I think we will see a lot of great successful startups coming out of Saudi Arabia, serving both the Saudi market and the overall regional market.

A version of this article appeared in the 11th issue of Cloud961 Magazine. Click here to download it for free (16.6 MB)