Inside the Middle East digital ecosystem: interview with ArabNet
The Middle East is one of the most interesting areas covered by Digital In The Round. In order to really understand what are the trends coming from this area – which extends from North Africa to the Persian Gulf – we thought it was a nice idea to have a talk with Omar Christidis.
After graduating from Yale, he’s now CEO and founder of ArabNet, an hub of digital marketing an tech professionals based in the Middle East. ArabNet will be holding a three-days conference in Beirut on March 4th to 6th.
During the interview, our aim was to understand what are the social media and digital trends in the MENA region; here’s what Christidis told us.
– Hi Omar. First of all: what led you to start the ArabNet project?
Hi guys. I started ArabNet in 2010 because I felt that professionals in across the Middle East didn’t have a forum to meet and share experiences, and the entrepreneurs didn’t have very good access to the investors. So we decided to a create a platform to fulfill those needs, bringing together the industry stakeholders, and giving entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their ideas and startups.
Since then, we’ve grown our portfolio of activities to three major conferences annually in Dubai, Riyadh and Beirut. We also organize the ArabNet Developer Tournament, a regional competition to identify the best web & mobile programmers in the Middle East.
– What are the cultural and linguistic boundaries defining the Arab digital ecosystem?
The Arab digital ecosystem spans from the Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, etc), to the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, etc), to North Africa (Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, etc). While the region speaks the same language formally, the colloquial dialects used by the different regions and even by the different countries can vary significantly. There are also strong cultural differences between them that make operating at the regional level more complex than it initially appears.
Today I believe that the Gulf, Levant and Egypt have become tight-knit. However, the countries in North Africa are still somewhat disconnected from the rest of the ecosystem, party because of their geographic distance and also partly because they of their use of the French language, which sets them apart from the rest of the region.
– What do you think will be the most relevant Internet trends in 2014 in the Middle East and North Africa?
E-commerce platforms are pulling in the biggest investments in MENA, with the leading players – Souq.com, MarkaVIP, and Namshi – each raising more than $20M in funding. Online shopping in the region is estimated at $1B, and online transactions more broadly have reached $15B.
In Saudi Arabia, we’re seeing digital video companies flourish – a little known fact is that Saudi Arabia is the largest consumer of YouTube video per capita in the world. Local Youtube production companies like UTurn and Telfaz11 are creating high-quality, extremely popular series with a few million views per episode (we dealt with the subject on our recent report about Youtube stars in the Middle East, editor’s note).
Online advertising is also on the rise – with digital ad budgets reaching $300M in 2013, and growing at around 35% per year.
– Facebook, Linkedin and Youtube are huge in the area; are there any locally-based social media platforms showing big numbers?
There aren’t any locally-based social media platforms that are showing big numbers, but global social networks are flourishing in the region – in particular platforms like Twitter and Instagram are seeing very rapid user adoption in the Gulf region. However, global social networks are being used in innovative ways in the region.
An interesting example is Instagram e-commerce: in the Gulf countries, we’ve seen the emergence of very popular Instagram stores, either curating products available in the market or selling home-made products (especially food and fashion), often run by ladies from home, reaching tens and hundreds of thousands of followers.
– You also work with digital startups: what kind of new businesses have now the best opportunities to succeed?
The startups that have the best opportunities to succeed in the Middle East are those with transactional business models – including e-commerce companies, subscription based businesses, etc. We are also seeing increasing interest from investors in B2B businesses. These models start to generate revenues quickly, which gives the company a better chance of success.
– Last question: next March will hold ArabNet Beirut – we will be there as Young Digitals, and we’re pretty excited about it! What can we expect from this event?
ArabNet Beirut is the largest gathering for digital creatives in the Arab region, and will take place on March 4-6.
The event kicks off with the Design+Code Day – a full day of workshops to help developers and designers develop their skills and build better web & mobile products. That is followed by two Forum days, focused on digital business and entrepreneurship, which will gather more than 600 attendees and 60 speakers, and cover a diverse set of topics, including e-commerce, digital media & advertising, social media, mobile, and entrepreneurship / investing.
Some of the exciting sessions include panels on luxury/fashion e-commerce and e-marketing, a series of case studies on social media marketing, two panels on startup and investment trends, and much more. The conference will also include our signature competitions – the Ideathon and the Startup Demo – which will feature entrepreneurs pitching their innovative ideas and promising startups to the full audience of executives, investors and media.
– Thanks Omar!