Over the past five years, companies in the region have come to terms with the fact that they must build strong digital strategies and transform the way they do business, or stand to lose business.
This mounting interest can be seen across sectors — from the banks that are releasing mobile apps and rushing to create communities on social media to retailers that are building out strong e-commerce platforms to advertising agencies that are acquiring or establishing new digital divisions.
The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) digital market is also seeing increasing interest from international powerhouses, all looking to establish a foothold in the region.
In the past 12 months, we've seen PayPal, LinkedIn and Facebook set up offices in Dubai. We've also seen the entrance of other Asian players, such as Yemeksepeti, Turkey's leading online food delivery company, which recently raised US$44 million and opened in Dubai as FoodOnClick. Similarly, India's leading restaurant review website, Zomato, started operating in Doha and Dubai just a few months ago.
The e-commerce opportunity in Mena alone could be as large as $15 billion by 2015, with companies such as MarkaVIP, Namshi and Souq raising tens of millions of dollars in investment to scale their operations and take advantage of this massive market potential.
This rapid growth has, of course, stimulated interest in digital start-ups across the board, with everyone trying to capture a piece of the action. Successful businessmen, from traditional sectors such as finance and real estate development, are getting involved with angel investing. New angel investor networks are appearing, including Tenmou in Bahrain or Oqal and Serb in Saudi Arabia.
Successful start-up accelerators are expanding, among them is Cairo-based Flat6Labs, which recently established a presence in Jeddah in partnership with Qotuf.
Co-working spaces are popping up across Mena: Cloud 5 and BDD in Beirut, The District in Cairo, MAKE Business Hub in Dubai and Zee Launch Pad in Amman just to name a few.
We've also seen major telecom operators and media companies establish investment arms and take a stake in this rapidly growing sector: MBC Ventures, STC Ventures and Vodafone Egypt's Xone have all been actively making investments.
Finally, we're seeing established professionals, with five to 10 or more years of business experience, leaving their corporate careers to become internet entrepreneurs: ex-consultants and bankers, with the skills, relationships, and financial resources that give them a much better chance of building successful online businesses.
Given all of these rapid transformations, if you haven't figured out your transition to digital, now is the time.
Omar Christidis is the founder and chief executive of ArabNet, which organises conferences for the digital sector