Photos stolen from Andfaraway
With a ballroom full of participants during all sessions, buzzing networking activity during coffee breaks, inspiring talks from both older web hands and young ones, startup demos from all over the region, not to mention very active tweeting and live blogging, we can say that day 1 of the ArabNet conference was a success.
Yes, in true Arab style, we had to endure an “opening ceremony” that was full of stodgy talk about the “importance of internet” and “the youth are our future” and a series of uninspiring “official speeches” that were only rescued by the more animated talk by Talal Abu Ghazaleh..
But the rest of the day was great. The diversity of sessions and speakers, the energy and the discussions all were a good inauguration for a new wave of web business in the region.
Even the last session on e-Commerce which suffered from sub-par moderation, became “virtually” engaging as the Twitter feed, displayed on two huge screens, took over.
Of course I am still puzzled about why we need the aforementioned official opening ceremonies in the region. Maybe government still needs to feel in control or maybe we just want to hang on to the last appearances of conservatism. I don’t know. One thing I know is that the Global Entrepreneurship Week held in Jordan last year was actually devoid of Official BS and full of great content. So at least in Jordan we’re breaking out of the mold.
Speaking in Jordan, it is amazing how Jordanian this conference is. We all heard today that 40% of the attendants are Jordanian (is that true?). The demo sessions where dominated by Jordanian startups (of varying quality, I might add). It was another affirmation of Jordan’s “great for startups” reputation.
The issues emerging form ArabNet 2010 were: the need for more aggressive pushing on all aspects of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the need for a business cultural change.
Role models, mentoring, more aggressive and proactive VCs, more exit options and many other “ecosystem” aspects where raised with a lot of passion and real life examples from the likes of Maktoob, Bayt, Aramex and others.
Cultural change was also discussed. Embracing failure as part of the road to success and shifting Arab societies back to a more entrepreneurial and self reliant culture (as opposed to the prevalent culture of wanting to work for big corporations) were some of the points raised in the sessions.
Investor conservatism, in particular, is choking innovation and change in the Arab world. In a region where money is so abundant that it goes to buying foreign football clubs and to developing crazy luxury real estate projects, it is alarming how little ends up being invested in the future of Arab economies, namely innovative web and tech startups. The blunt messages of Arab American tech investors, some of whom where on the panels, like Basel Ojjeh and George Harik, people who come from the culture of Silicon Valley, need to be heard by a wider investor audience.
Intel Capital’s Feroz Sunuallah description of Arab economies as “consumption oriented, me-too economies” was another blunt reminder of how much still needs to be done to start a real business culture shift in this region.
Fadi Ghandour’s motivational message about the emergence of the Arab web wave and the need for everyone, both government and private sector, to get on board, pretty much summed up the spirit of the day.
So now, finally, we can say that there is an Arab web industry. Yes we are at least 10 years behind the global discussion (where the talk is about what kinds of business models Twitter will enable!). And yes, this is still a region where the net has many enemies. But ArabNet is definitely a clear marker in the evolution of Arabia’ web business.