The next frontier of the digital age is the Middle East and its evangelist is 28 year-old Omar Christidis. Tall, striking and dynamic, he's a Yale grad who resisted joining the tech scene of Silicon Valley to move back to his hometown of Beirut and lead a digital revolution in the Arab world. At its current pace, Internet penetration in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is expected to match if not exceed that of the United States at nearly 300 million by 2015. Christidis founded Arabnet as a way to bring together young tech dreamers with industry leaders and he's succeeding.
This week Arabnet puts a special spotlight on Cairo where over 600 people are registered to attend a two-day digital conference offering a window into the exploding Egyptian Internet market that played such a pivotal part in its revolution. Since the Arab Spring the number of Facebook users in Egypt has doubled to 8.9 million. China's largest search engine Baidu recently launched an Arabic language site targeting Egypt. While the tourism, construction and real estate sectors have been struggling since the revolution, the digital sector is booming.
Arabnet Cairo is drawing in first-time speakers to the region such as Sidar Sahin, CEO of Peak Games, one of the top 10 largest gaming companies in the world as well as Hossam Sokkari, Head of Audience at Yahoo! Middle East, Ahmed El-Alfi: Chairman and Co-founder of Sawari Ventures and Tom Erskine, Head of Smart Devices at NOKIA just to name a few. Just as its event in Beirut, Arabnet Cairo brings together entrepreneurs working in different areas from e-commerce to digital advertising linking them with venture capitalists and investors in the IT sector.
I first met Christidis last fall at a shisha café in the trendy Hamra district of Beirut a few months after the first Arabnet event was held. A smashing success, it drew the best and brightest in the tech world to Beirut from sponsors such as Google and Microsoft along with regional players like Maktoob and Aramex. While in Beirut I met the founders of Foo-Me, a Lebanese-based mobile app start up, that got a chance to pitch and were finalists at the event. Like dozens of other companies, the Foo-Me founders told me they credit the exposure from Arabnet in helping them receive funding and find mentors. This past year, the second annual Arabnet, also in Beirut, doubled in size turning into a 4-day event with over 1,000 attendees. In March, Chrisitidis plans to host full week event creating a South by Southwest like interactive festival in Beirut.
Realizing that not all young tech entrepreneurs in MENA can make it to conferences, he took Arabnet on the road last December reaching 1,600 participants on an 8 city, 7 country tour beginning in Lebanon and traveling to Syria, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Many young entrepreneurs traveled by bus for hours to attend the road show and its feedback was astonishing. Take for instance a young Jordanian woman saying the Arabnet event in Amman gave her the opportunity to meet a venture capitalist for the first time. A Saudi entrepreneur who emailed Christidis after attending an event in Jeddah to say she was now inspired to start her own business.
Aiming to create role models, the Arabnet road show organized local speakers who after each panel, joined a round table where entrepreneurs could sit with them to network, get feedback on ideas and ask specific questions Christidis worked with local partners such as the Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurs in Amman, Dubai Internet City, and the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) whose Governor and Chairman H.E. Mr. Amr Al-Dabbagh introduced the event to show support of Saudi's growing start up community. As Christidis points out to me, if you work at Microsoft for instance, the profits are actually going back to Seattle. If you start a company in MENA, the profits stay in the region.
To Christidis, the knowledge of digital, whether it's web or mobile, is especially important because it is moving the region towards a knowledge economy and it's giving people very valuable skills. Arabnet initially started out with two full-time employees and has now grown to 15 since launching in 2009. As the hub for Arab digital professionals and entrepreneurs to connect and learn, Arabnet unites the region both off and online. Take for instance it's online portal where start ups can add themselves to a regional profile of companies and read the latest tech news in the region from CEO interviews to profiles of companies that have been recently funded. Christidis tells me of start ups that have gone on to raise money thanking him saying the Arabnet site helped them find a developer. A few days ago he received an email from Libya wanting feedback on how to host a successful ICT Forum in Tripoli.
Christidis tells me that Foursquare recently hired its first international employee based in London. He adds that while that employee probably has to prioritize Europe right now the MENA region isn't one to be overlooked. He explains to me how it's his job to convince the global tech industry they need to be in MENA. It's growing so quickly and the people that are going to benefit the most are the people that come in and understand this market and invest in it today.