ArabNet shifts focus to Dubai as a ‘growing hub’ for digital business

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ArabNet, a prominent forum for high-tech startups, is shifting its focus to Dubai as a “growing hub for digital business”, according to its founder.

This year’s ArabNet Digital Summit will be held in the UAE rather than Beirut, signaling Dubai’s prominence in the online industries, said Omar Christidis, chief executive of ArabNet.


“It’s certainly a hub for the region and a growing hub for digital business in emerging markets more broadly,” Christidis told Al Arabiya.

“We’re seeing global companies establish their Middle East – and often their Middle East and Africa – headquarters in Dubai, sometimes even managing Turkey and India based out of Dubai,” he added.

Many of the region’s oldest digital businesses were established outside the UAE. Prominent web portals such as Maktoob and Jeeran, for example, were established in Jordan.

But a shift in the Arab world’s digital landscape has prompted ArabNet to move its key annual conference to Dubai.
“This year we decided to shift the Digital Summit, our biggest international event, from Beirut to Dubai, as Dubai is the hub for digital business in the Arab world,” said Christidis.

“Companies and agencies are shifting their development, copywriting, production staff or operations toward Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. But they keep their business development, sales, and partnership activities based in Dubai… People with the budgets are headquartered here.”

An ArabNet event will continue to take place in Beirut, but on a smaller, and more focused scale, Christidis said.

Another ArabNet conference started in Riyadh last November.

ArabNet defines itself as the hub for digital professionals and entrepreneurs to connect and learn. Since its establishment in 2010, it has grown to become a regional reference for digital businesses and entrepreneurship.

“Back when we started, Twitter and Facebook were not household names, and were more of an insider community. But the interest in digital has exploded since 2010, and the conference has grown rapidly alongside that increasing interest,” said Christidis.

ArabNet’s three-day Digital Summit in Dubai, set to begin on June 24, is expected to attract as many as 1,000 delegates and about 100 speakers.

Topics such as entrepreneurship, investment and recruitment are all on the agenda. “Once of the bottlenecks for the growth of the digital sector, for startups or big companies, is the ability to identify and hire great technical talent,” said Christidis.

The event will also see sixteen top developers compete for the honor of being named ‘Top Arab Coder’ as part of the ArabNet Developer Tournament, a regional competition for web programmers and digital developers.

While such competitions aim to help regional startups develop, local entrepreneurs point to underlying problems that may not be solved so easily.

“We have a continuity issue, especially in the Middle East,” said Mahmoud Ahmed, founder of ‘S3eedy Geeks’, a digital and technical entrepreneurship community in Southern Egypt.

“Teams that join these competitions exhaust everything during the rounds, but after winning, they tend to break up because many team members would want titles of ‘founder’ or ‘CEO’… Aside from very few exceptions, we mostly don’t have the culture of a team in this region.”

Ahmed joined Startup Weekend Alexandria in 2011, a 54-hour event where startup enthusiasts including developers, designers, and marketers launch startups in a set time.

Ahmed’s team won the competition by creating a mobile app to match patients in need of blood with potential donors. But problems within the team led him to pull out, he said.

The struggle to find funding and financial support continues to be another issue facing entrepreneurs in the sector, he added.

“Even if there was a 20 or 30 percent risk in the proposed pitch, investors would not take it. They want a completely risk-free idea. Even if they do invest, most of them set unrealistic conditions for the developers,” said Ahmed.

“Most investors are not very accessible once the event is done and the press releases are out,” he added.

Ahmed concluded that the main benefit of such conferences and competitions is to network and mingle, but long-term benefits are not guaranteed.

“ArabNet presents success stories, and that’s nice as it allows upcoming developers to learn from their setbacks and look up to them, however, that’s all,” said Ahmed.

ArabNet is currently conducting a large survey which includes all the previous conference participants, to get an insight their current businesses, and furthermore understand the aftermath of ArabNet.

“So when people ask me what’s our impact, I can hand them the document,” said Christidis.

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