Arab IT start-ups, entrepreneurs meet at Beirut conference

Beirut–If you believed Arab internet-based companies were invisible, the ArabNet Conference that began in Beirut on Thursday may just prove you wrong. The two-day event will feature over 500 participants, including major firms from both inside and outside the region, online entrepreneurs, social media professionals, trainers, financiers and businesspeople.

Its emphasis on start-ups is the event’s strong point, and what makes it unique. It has succeeded in bringing leading names in the tech industry–such as Yahoo!, Google, Cisco, Aramex and Intel, among others–together with young entrepreneurs, future businesspeople and internet professionals. The fast paced event will be structured around eight panels of speakers, a start-up demo and an “Ideathon,” during which innovative participants will have two minutes to pitch their ideas to the audience.

The excitement is palpable. The conference is, after all, a long-awaited precedent.

"It’s a great event," Aramex CEO Fadi Ghandour told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “We support entrepreneurship–it’s what we do. We believe in entrepreneurship and we’re acting on what we believe in."

ArabNet conference founder Omar Christidis described the event as "a meeting place for executives and a platform for launching startups.”

“The multi-faceted aspect of the conference is definitely by design. We wanted everyone involved; to get people excited and get them to participate," said Christidis. "Every participant is part of a puzzle, trying to connect with the other pieces. Startups may be seeking financing and mentors, while bloggers want to connect with industry leaders."

As the event’s opening sessions unfolded, the role of the government in developing–or, according to some critics, impeding–internet businesses became a recurrent theme.

Lebanese Minister of Communications Charbel Nahhas confirmed his government’s commitment to “provide the physical and technical requirements to take advantage of the internet, such as connectivity, bandwidth and communications innovations." He summarized the Lebanese government’s mission as “providing the conditions necessary for fertile soil."

Samih Toukan, founder of–recently bought out by Yahoo!–and CEO of the Jabbar Group, attempted to find a silver lining in the lack of support provided by some governments of the region.

“Governments aren’t promoting the internet as they should," he said, while pointing out that such complications can be turned into opportunities. “local knowledge is one of the things that makes our companies interesting" to would-be investors and potential buyers, he added.
Only Nizar Zakka, secretary-general of Arab ICT organization Ijma3, broached the issue of state control of the internet. “Technology is halted because of security," he declared in the opening session.

But rather than lobby for the abolition of state control of information, Zakka believes that “monitoring is okay. If there’s a risk, they should protect the community," he told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "The problem is that security organizations don’t have the technology to monitor, so they just shut you down preemptively."

Zakka went on to call for an acceptable middle ground. “We’re in favor of security, but it has to be done in a discreet way, in a proper way, in order to safeguard personal information."

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