March 20, 2013

Arabnet kicks off in Beirut

Arabnet kicks off in Beirut, showcases Lebanon’s creative sectors
By Brooke Anderson

BEIRUT: As Beirut evolves as a place for innovation, so too does Arabnet. Now holding its fifth conference in the region, it has become a center for IT professionals to network and showcase their businesses as well as an opportunity to highlight the key business sectors of the host city.

“To reflect Beirut, we’re focusing on the creative sectors: music, entertainment, food and beverages,” says Arabnet founder Omar Christidis, during a coffee break on the first day of the three-day conference that ends Friday. “Lebanon is a hub for creative industries. As we’ve expanded, we’ve had to rethink the identity of each event and what it takes to operate in a different market.”

This year’s agenda features presentations by digital music distribution startups, food companies showing the importance of online orders and reservations, and a range of publications discussing the challenges of shifting from print to online. Attendees will also be offered a tour of design studios in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district as well as a sampling of food from some of Lebanon’s top restaurants.

In contrast, the Arabnet conference in Riyadh last year was conducted entirely in Arabic (as opposed to almost entirely in English for the Beirut events) and focused on the boom in Arabic-language content. There, Christidis says he wore the traditional thawb (robe) and (ghutra) head covering, which he says was well received.

Arabnet’s renowned technology competitions – the Ideathon and the Startup Demo – are being held as usual on the second day. Previous years’ winners have gone on to further success in their businesses, including the Dubai-based translation company Qordoba which won the Startup Demo last year and the San Francisco-based mobile payment company Cashbury which won the previous year.

The focus of the final day will be on social impact with presentations by representatives of the Egyptian website and mobile application Harassmap, which helps users report sexual harassment, and Morsi Meter, which monitors the performance of the Egyptian president. Lebanese social media activists will also be presenting.

For some attendees the conference location in Beirut shows the confidence of organizers in the city’s potential for technological creativity.

“Lebanon is a good place to launch a startup. If it works here, then it will work in the rest of the Middle East,” said Bob Debbas, a Lebanese technology entrepreneur who spent nearly his entire life in Washington D.C., returning two years ago to teach marketing at the American University of Science and Technology. He decided to bring with him all of his students – over 100 of them – to give them a taste of their country’s tech scene.

Darine Sabbagh, a Beirut-based social media consultant who has attended all the Arabnets, says that when the conference first started it was a niche event for IT professionals, and she is happy to see it now encompassing a wider range of participants.

Marc Malkoun, who won second place in last-year’s Ideathon for his mobile phone app, says he is glad to see the expansion of Arabnet into the region and into other sectors, and would like them to continue to go to more countries – but not too many.

He says, “They shouldn’t do a lot of them [Arabnet conferences] so that they can keep their quality.”