Thirteen years ago, Slobodan Miloševic bowed to irresistible domestic pressure and stepped down as president of Serbia, ending an 11-year leadership marked by repression, war and international isolation.
The new Serbia takes centre stage at Gitex Technology Week in Dubai today, which runs until Thursday, as the event’s official country partner. Its transformation from darker times is extraordinary.
A member of the United Nations since a month after the fall of Milosevic, the country also belongs to a range of international bodies and is a candidate for accession to the European Union.
And the strides made in software development in recent years presents a shining illustration of Serbia’s international rehabilitation. Growth has been rapid; the country’s IT market value has risen from US$646 to US$681 million in one year alone, according to Serbia IT report this year produced by the Business Monitor International (BMI).
BMI still talks of a “difficult economic context”, with some rankings showing Serbia ahead of Bulgaria but behind Romania, Slovenia and Croatia. But the current forecast is for a compound annual growth rate of 8 per cent in the coming four years and the country’s status as an EU candidate is expected to fuel a new wave of information and communications technologies (ICT) investment.
Slobodan Markovic, the ICT adviser to the Serbian investment and export promotion agency, describes a dual mission for this year’s Gitex: the promotion of Serbia as an emerging European ICT hot spot; and using the event to showcase 14 companies that will be exhibiting products, solutions and services at the Serbian national pavilion at the expo.
Mr Markovic says Serbia’s ability to provide cost-effective, reliable alternatives to established markets is underlined by the country’s prime location on a historic route “that has for centuries connected Europe with the Middle East”.
Profiting from low-cost but highly skilled labour and backed by tax advantages and grants, businesses ranging from multinationals to local start-ups have proliferated.
“Serbian programmers have helped to develop handwriting recognition technology for seven languages and image analysis for improving online searches,” says Mr Markovic.
One Serbian company and Gitex exhibitor, Belgrade-based Nordeus, is hailed as Europe’s leading game developer. One product, Top Eleven, promoted by the Chelsea football coach Jose Mourinho, has become the world’s most played online sports game, with more than 11 million monthly and five million daily users on Web, Android and iOS devices.
Serbian exhibitors aim to offer a range of smart solutions in the areas of mobile technologies, semiconductor design, fibre optic communications and e-government, Mr Markovic says.
“Some of these companies have already established ties with their partners in the region of the [Arabian] Gulf,” he says.
“Now we want to build upon these experiences and expand our cooperation with the wider region of Middle East and Africa.”
Another Serbian exhibitor, Wireless Media, will show Gitex visitors the latest version of its WM App Builder service, described as “a Web-based tool for fast and simple creation and life-cycle management” for iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Wireless Media’s links with the region already include Qatar (the state-owned telecommunications provider now operating as Ooredoo) and Oman (Nawras, which is Ooredoo-owned as a joint venture with Omani and Danish partners).
Amid confident predictions this will be the most successful, comprehensive event in Gitex’s 33-year history, European companies are healthily represented among the exhibitors.
A glance at the country-by-country list of participants confirms the strong European presence, with 81 exhibitors from the UK alone.
The mix is typically of branches or subsidiaries of multinationals – “British” exhibitors, for example, include European arm of the giant Japanese business empires of Hitachi and Fujitsu – and domestically developed businesses. One from the latter category, Wireless Excellence, has evolved from 1995 origins as a design consultancy company for wireless communication and signal processing into an operation manufacturing its CableFree products for use in more than 60 countries, in sectors ranging from telecoms and finance to education and Formula One as well as military and CCTV security.
But many other flags of Europe will be flying at Gitex, from the strong contingents of France and Germany, each with more than 30 exhibitors, to the modest involvement of countries including Romania, Sweden, Slovenia and Denmark, with just one each.
For countries that do attend, trade potential is significant at an event styling itself “the ICT business gateway to the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia”.
In promotional publicity, the organisers seize gleefully on a soundbite from the United States rapper, investor and entrepreneur Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson: “Walking through Gitex is like walking through the future.”
If Jackson’s chequered past makes him at first sight an unlikely authority on conventional business, industry analysts also point to the event’s role in highlighting abundant opportunities for the development of investment relations with the Middle East and the UAE in particular.
John Peebles, chief executive officer of the Scottish company Administrate, which provides online training administration software, already numbers many Middle East buyers among clients. For his Edinburgh-based company, Gitex is the region’s principal trade event.
“We’re hoping to grow our existing Middle East customer base,” he says.
“The Dubai Knowledge Village has hundreds of potential customers — and some current customers – who could all benefit from using our training management software and being able to interact with them in person is something we’re looking forward to.”
Administrate will be displaying a newly launched learning management system (LMS) that has already earned a top 10 ranking from a specialist publication. The company says its LMS has been translated into Arabic and is already being used by thousands of students across the region.
“We’re also excited to be showing the latest enhancements we’ve made to our core training administration product,” Mr Peebles says.
“The Middle East has always been important to us and we remain committed to the region through events like Gitex, our reseller network in the region and via our existing customer base.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth in the last two years in the Gulf and broader Mena region and that’s only increasing.”
And the Dubai venue is welcomed by exhibitors such as Mr Peebles for one distinctly non-commercial attraction.
“Coming from Scotland,” he says, ”we also love visiting a warmer climate from time to time.”