Exploring the digital world

After the tremendous success of this year’s ArabNet Digital Summit, Capital business caught up with Omar Christidis, Founder & CEO, ArabNet to bring you the main highlights from this event and the latest trends in the digital sector.

 

What was the main focus of The Arabnet Digital Summit this year?

This year, ArabNet Digital Summit focused on the latest trends in digital business and entrepreneurship. We had multiple tracks within the event, one of which was focused on business. We have discussed global e-commerce and commerce across borders. We have also touched on the latest trends in payment like Bitcons, which is tacking the payment landscape by storm.

In terms of digital media and marketing, which is a major topic of the event, we discussed the transformations that are taking place in online video. Major players are getting involved in this place, like MBC which is pushing its Shahed platform. ICFlix, launched in Dubai, along the Netflix model. As well as Yahoo that recently started making a big push in video, and signed a contract with U-turn in Saudi Arabia. We discussed the rise of the multichannel network in the Middle East, which is becoming a global trend. Disney acquired Maker studios, one of the largest YouTube multichannel networks for 500 million dollars. We’re seeing the successes in the multichannel networks across the region like Qsoft videos which does the Bassem Youssef show in Egypt. Kharabeesh in Jordan and a number of channels like U-turn, Telfaz 11, and others in Saudi Arabia. The future of the agency is a topic we are interested in. The lines between creative advertising agencies, media agencies, and publishers continue to blur, which will transform the landscape of agencies in the Middle East. We have explored that with some of the CEO’s and regional Md’s of these businesses.

From a technology perspective, we were really excited to talk about 3d printers, wearable technology, and smart hardware. Things that are the revolution in hardware technology, partly that been inspired by cheaper technology. Today we can buy 3D printers for a couple of hundred dollars. Cheap computers like Raspberry Pi which will cost 30 dollars. Kick-starting and crowd-funding more broadly which has open up an avenue for funding smart and new hardware innovation.

 

Could you please tell us more about the Arabnet Developer tournament?

The ArabNet Developer tournament is a regional competition to identify the best web and mobile programmers in the Middle East. The competition this year visited 3 countries, Jordan, UAE, and Lebanon. In each country we held a full day competition. Putting the developers through one-on-one elimination challenges, and we picked the best 4 developers in each country, who competed in the championship round, in the Dubai digital summit for the title of the top coder. We feel that the developers are the unsung heroes and builders of the internet. The competition is a way to shed light on the great technical talent we have in the Middle East. The winners of this year’s tournament are all from Lebanon, Andre Abi Haidar (1st place), Ahmad Moussawi (2nd place) and George Zakhour (3rd place).

 

What are the latest trends in your industry?

This and the topics that ArabNet focused on are very similar. We are talking about rapid growth of the digital media and advertising. Today the market for online ads in the Middle East is more than 300 million dollars. It is going by 35% a year, expected to hit a billion dollars by 2017. One of the key things we are seeing today is the interest of big corporations in digital media, and entrepreneurship. Telecom operators, all are hiring new heads of innovation, and looking closely at engaging the startup and digital media ecosystem, whether that’s through acceleration, so someone like STC and Integro, which has launched Afkar as an accelerator. Corporate venture capital, which is being done by STC and Mobily. More recently we are seeing developer platforms that are being launched by operators like Touch in Lebanon. There’s an overall interest by the operator community in engaging with digital media companies and startups. We are also seeing the increasing interest in e-commerce, and e-retail. A lot of the region’s biggest retailers are transitioning and building out e-commerce offerings. Supermarkets in the UAE like Carrefour, or IKEA has recently launched e-commerce. Beyond that, the pure e-commerce websites like souq.com which has raised 75 million dollars for growth, at an evaluation of 400 million dollars, which potentially could be the first billion dollar Arab dot com company.

 

Which country in the Middle East is at the forefront of the digital space?

Different countries within the Middle East have different strength that would allow them to excel in different things. I certainly see the Levant, and Egypt more focused on production. We have a lot of talent, affordable labor, so we can have things like content creation, development, and design all focused at this part of the Arab region. Saudi Arabia is a key market for Arabic digital content. We are seeing the rise of many YouTube channels which are a massive growth story in Saudi Arabia, as well as gaming, and mobile app development companies. A lot of the very successful ones are coming from Saudi Arabia. The UAE is really the shock front of the Middle East. This is where a lot of the global corporations are head countered, as well as where advertising budgets are centralized. Therefore, we see a lot of synergy in having operations in multiple markets. We are already seeing this with businesses setting up their store fronts in the UAE or Saudi Arabia, and having their core production take place in Lebanon, Jordan, or Egypt.

 

According to you, how is social media affecting the way of doing business nowadays?

It’s really interesting to see social media today used for corporations beyond marketing. I think initially the first thing people did was establish social media as part of their communication strategy. But, today especially the big corporates are looking at how they can integrate social media across departments, including investing in social media as a customer service channel, HR and recruiting channel, especially using LinkedIn, as well as product feedback, and development. It is very important to be able to talk to your consumers, understand your product better, and deliver what suits their needs better.

 

What is your opinion about the UAE smart government initiative, launched by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice president and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai?

I think it is a very exciting initiative launched by HH Sheik Mohammed. It is really visionary. It opens a tremendous amount of opportunities for government departments to create innovations. Departments like DEWA can launch apps that allow home owners, and real estate developers to monitor energy consumption, and come up with ways to improve their energy efficiency. The bigger potential for innovation is around opening the data from a lot of these government divisions, allowing developers to build applications that leverage these data, and improve the lives of citizens. It could be as simple as applications were people can take pictures of traffic violations and report them to the traffic authorities, or take picture of potholes and share them with the municipality. There’s an infinite number of apps that developers can come up with that leverage the data to improve the lives of citizens.

 

About Omar Christidis

Omar Christidis is the Founder & CEO of ArabNet, the leading events and Media Company focused on the Arab web and mobile industry. ArabNet organizes the leading conferences for the digital sector in MENA including the ArabNet Digital Summit, the premier international gathering for Arab digital professionals and entrepreneurs. The Summit was held for the fourth time in Dubai in June 2014 and brought together more than 800 attendees from 35 countries and received more than 9,100 tweets and 42,800 hits on the live-steam. Omar is a graduate of Yale University and the Co-Founder of the Yale Arab Alumni Association.

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