x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Middle East's internet industry finally gets together in person

Fifteen years after the Middle East's first internet companies took to the Web, the industry is set to gather today for its inaugural conference that technology leaders are calling a landmark.

AMMAN // Fifteen years after the Middle East's first internet companies took to the Web, the industry is set to gather today for its inaugural conference that technology leaders are calling a landmark. Similar gatherings form a backbone for the internet community in the US, said Bassel Ojjeh, a former board member of Yahoo with 30 years of experience in Silicon Valley.

"This will be a really valuable part of the emergence of the Web industry here," Mr Ojjeh said. Since returning to the region last year, he has become an investor and adviser to a number of Web companies in Jordan, but he believed the lack of regular industry gatherings holds back the sector. "This promises to create a real voice for technologists in the region," he said. "I believe that coming out of this event entrepreneurs will get funded, venture capitalists will be connected with new opportunities - the whole industry can take a step forward."

More than 500 entrepreneurs, investors and technology professionals are expected to come together in Beirut for the ArabNet conference. "This is all about bringing all the different pieces of the puzzle together for the first time," said Omar Christidis, the event organiser. "It will be everything from the global internet brands who are expanding in the region to the major regional companies and investors, all the way down to the entrepreneurs and the guys with the big ideas." While the Middle East is home to a number of high-profile technology conferences, the presence of internet companies at such events is marginal, with most events aimed at the more profitable market of corporate-software providers and equipment vendors.

"It is a very different type of crowd to the accounting software people or the photocopier companies," said Ahmad Humeid, who founded the internet company Toot Corp and publishes 360 East, a blog on regional technology, media and design. "The Web companies are more like media companies much of the time and they have a different set of interests, which the big conferences don't normally cater to." A half-hour "ideathon" on the first morning will present delegates with "a fast-paced series of two-minute presentations from motivated entrepreneurs with fresh e-ideas".

ArabNet will feature the same moderated panel discussions familiar to conference attendees around the world. But it will also host demonstration sessions where internet start-ups pitch their new services to the audience, which will vote for the best companies. For Mr Christidis, who returned to Beirut last year after seven years in the US, the conference will try to paint a comprehensive picture of a fragmented Arab internet industry.

"There is a geographic disconnect, where the people in the Levant know of each other but maybe don't have a good awareness of the Gulf, and the same goes for North Africa," he said. "But there is also a knowledge disconnect; people don't know who each other are. They have never been in the same place with all the different players in the industry." @Email:tgara@thenational.a