This article was published on Forbes on March 7, 2016.
Last week in Beirut a large group of disparate people gathered to find out what the future held in store. This, however, was not an assembly of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but more than 1,000 decisionmakers in the digital space who were attending the ArabNet 2016 conference.
According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, there were than one million refugees in Lebanon at the end of January 2016. The exodus from Syria, and any accompanying political situation, shows no sign of being resolved and the future looks grim and forlorn.
The Middle-East seems like a kind of hell where everybody is displaced, misplaced or replaced. The future looks worse than grim and forlorn, it looks stuck in a gravitational wave from the edges of the universe.
At ArabNet, those attendees, speakers and panellists showed no sign of depression or helplessness. While politicians differ and bicker in the Old World of the Great Game of Great Powers, it is technologists who are likely to determine the future of the region; not the warriors or schemers.
In many respects, the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) region is booming, not with the sounds of war, but with investors and startups finally realising that the only way to stability in MENA is to have a tech ecosystem and infrastructure that entice entrepreneurs, not soldiers.
ArabNet is now in its seventh year and also holds conferences in Riyadh and Dubai and has been at the forefront of entrepreneurial support by mixing its conferences, website and startup database to create a serious product for those in the ecosystem.
But MENA-man cannot live by one conference alone and the upcoming STEP 2016 conference in Dubai offers MENA entrepreneurs and investors, as well as people outside the region, another opportunity to discover that MENA is a place to do very good business.
Describing itself as the ‘Middle East’s most disruptive event for technology, design, and gaming’, last year more than 2,000 digerati and 100 startups watched more than 50 global speakers at STEP 2015. This year, the organisers expect the event to double in size. Hussam Hammo is CEO of Jordanian-based games company Tamatem and attended the event last year.
“In MENA we need experience and exposure to new technologies and access to investors. Attending global conferences such as last year’s STEP help those in the local region to understand what is happening around the world,” he said.
The total value of the investment funds that will be present at STEP 2016 is estimated at nearly $1 billion, representing a healthy, competitive VC and investment landscape. The emphasis at this year’s event will be on attracting the best VCs and angel investors to share their knowledge with organisers predicting the conference will double in size this year.
The two Co-Founders of the event are Nizar Fakih and RayDargham, local entrepreneurs who have built up the event to the place of influence it has now reached. Fakih is especially charismatic and enthusiastic about the future of MENA as of the world’s most emerging markets.
“Aspiring founders and innovators need to see great stories of successful investments, incredible growth and fruitful exits to be encouraged to undertake the life of entrepreneurs, and until VCs and investors are willing to take risks, the highly expected boom will not materialise,” he said.
Conferences such as STEP and ArabNet are undoubtedly key to bringing attention to the MENA region. Fakih, however, is right when he says that is up to the so-called risk-takers in the VC world, not just turn on at conferences giving advice and meeting startups, but also to put their money on the table.
Even so, when the Arab world is, as previously said, displaced, misplaced or replaced, there will come a time when the region will not be about war and oil, but a place where entrepreneurs will prosper with a tech ecosystem and various local tech hubs that will rival any of those in the world. Anything that helps this process is to be highly welcomed and supported.