Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—ArabNet, a leading media and events company for the Arab digital industry, seeks to establish bridges between Middle East countries, stimulate the growth of a knowledge-based economy, and support the creation of employment opportunities for young people in the Arab world.
ArabNet’s CEO and founder, Omar Christidis, gave a revealing interview to Asharq Al-Awsat, sharing his belief that 2014 will witness a paradigm shift for a variety of digital technologies.
The Yale-educated entrepreneur told Asharq Al-Awsat that technological developments behind leading projects have provided women in particular with the opportunity to specialize and succeed in e-commerce, particularly through social networking platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.
Asharq Al-Awsat: It can be said that the dominant feature of technological advances can be summed up in the word “innovation.” What do you think 2014 holds for us with regards to technology?
Omar Christidis: I expect 2014 to carry many things for us, most notably the advancement of new types of e-commerce targeting specific groups of people, such as selling through the Instagram app. In addition, collaborative consumption sites will also flourish, especially those that allow users to rent products they want for a short time.
Smart devices will also continue to grow [in popularity], specifically devices that can be worn, such as glasses or smart watches, specific applications for mobile devices, and new accessories designed especially for these devices.
We should also expect to see a boom in applications that facilitate real-time conversations, and many will be integrated into other apps, for example WhatsApp and Barlingo, among others, even though interest in them has been steadily decreasing over time.
Q: Women today have taken huge strides with regards to small technological projects, e-commerce, e-marketing, the development of the web, and gaming. When do you think these advances will really mature? Is it through the development of the technological platforms they rely on—often social networking sites?
Currently, there are many women who have initiated specific projects of their own on the internet. The internet provides an ideal platform that allows them to build a successful business from home and overcome many obstacles. For example, there is the Saudi Arabian businesswoman Sarah Al-Dabbagh, the owner of Lace Events, who started her business as a wedding and events planner through Instagram. Her business has since expanded and she now has employees across the Arab region.
Women also have a palpable presence in the creative sector, and there are many digital marketing companies founded by women.
Q: The region has an abundance of technological projects, but they are still considered to be at the development stage. Do you think it will take a long time before companies become established in their respective industries, with multiple investment arms?
A study completed in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, found that in order for us to get just one [technology] company in the entire Arab world to be valued at 1 billion US dollars, we need more than 1,500 start-up companies competing to achieve this goal. In the whole Arab world, we have yet to reach 500 start-up companies working at the same time. We still have a long way to go. We need people to leave their jobs and establish new companies.
Q: What is your assessment of the development of the digital technology sector today?
The development of digital technology is closely tied to the budgets of large corporations. Today, new media or social media is on the agenda of company executives, which would have been unthinkable three years ago. Everyone now looks to digitization, social media and the development of smartphone apps. That’s the benefit of working in the digital industry, and this [demand] contributes to developing the industry on an ongoing basis.
Q: With respect to education, do you have any particular suggestions for educators and policymakers that would help nurture entrepreneurship?
Common perceptions about entrepreneurship reinforce the idea that launching a start-up is something that must be done in your twenties. Moreover, according to our industry monitoring team, there is a study of Silicon Valley businesses which indicates that the average age of a billion-dollar business owner there is 34.
Personally, I would not encourage someone to leave higher education in order to establish [business] initiatives. In addition, we can promote the idea of entrepreneurship through the education system, by encouraging summer employment and training in companies in order [for the youth] to learn about working culture and gain responsibilities. We could also make it compulsory for students to launch a business during an academic semester, with a specific deadline.
Q: Digitally, what is the current level of development in the market with respect to technological projects in Saudi Arabia, compared to the region as a whole?
In 2011, investment in this sector amounted to 18 million dollars. This figure multiplied by four in 2012 and became 75 million dollars. Consequently, I think there is huge progress in encouraging entrepreneurship behind the digital technology sector, especially following evident interest from both private and public entities.
One of these [entities] is the Raz group, which recently invested in the Octopus project. There is also ST Ventures, which initiated its investment six months ago, as well as Saudi Ventures and Endeavour, a global company that recently opened an office in Saudi Arabia.
In addition, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor has also demonstrated interest in this sector by launching the ‘Innovation’ initiative, which focuses on the creative digital sector. The National Commercial Bank [Al-Ahli Bank] similarly evidenced its interest through its social responsibility programs that pay attention to the pioneers of business.
With respect to ArabNet, a statistical study we conducted with companies that submitted their projects to us revealed that we have helped create more than 265 jobs. In addition, 40 percent [of participating companies] said ArabNet helped them to acquaint themselves with investors and 50 percent indicated that ArabNet helped them to identify new customers.
Q: You regularly create linkages between technical progress and digital entrepreneurship. What creates the correlative relationship between these two?
There are many digital projects that currently do not fall under the entrepreneurial category, but, in my opinion, they should be placed in this category. For example, YouTube channels in the Arab world, which we use as alternative media outlets, are in fact the most successful examples of entrepreneurship. Only three years ago they did not have a presence, but now they have a thriving business and create employment opportunities for many individuals.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.