Saudi Aramco World: May/June 2014 - page 28

In Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, fewer than
10 percent of the population have bank accounts, and among
the entire Arab world population of 350 million, fewer than
10 percent own credit cards.
Not surprisingly, many tech firms are looking to the Arabian
Peninsula, where salaries are higher and growing consumer mar-
kets are more lucrative.
Plans by Jordan’s Oasis500 to expand into both the
UAE
and
Saudi Arabia this year will enable it to “serve a much larger
market,” according to investment manager Katkhuda. ArabNet
has also begun targeting the Gulf with new annual conferences
in both Dubai and Riyadh.
Meanwhile, Flat6Labs has already graduated six firms from
its recently established accelerator program in Jiddah, Saudi
Arabia, and it has five firms enrolled in a new cycle. Flat6Labs
Director Ramez Mohamed is bullish on the Gulf region. “Our
main focus will be in the Gulf over the next year,” he says, dis-
closing plans to open yet another accelerator program in the
UAE
as well as a branch in North Africa.
“Our perceptions about the Saudi market were wrong,” he
admits. “We thought they wouldn’t be able to start successful
companies or lack passion or qualifications, but these were all
proven false. When we went there, we found entrepreneurs
very eager to succeed and they had something really present-
able on demonstration day.”
Alfi concurs. “Saudi youth are coming up with good ideas,
more importantly, a desire to succeed,” the Flat6Labs chief says.
Indeed, Saudi talent has gone internationally viral with the suc-
cess of media startups like Telfaz11, which produced a satirical
spoof of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” late last year that
earned 11 million YouTube views. It has also produced dozens
more high-production-value videos, animations and short films,
with many on the site garnering up to three million views and
hundreds of thousands of subscribers for its webisodes.
Prominent Saudi investor Rachid Al Balla says he is proud
of young Saudi creatives and the “geek societies” that have
emerged, such as Riyadh Geeks, Jiddah Geeks and Banat [Girl]
Geeks. The challenge, he says, is to harness and mature their
skills to help build an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Some of the
groups have up to 2000 members, he explains, but they often
lack the grassroots organizing or funding to meet and create
networking opportunities to form a more solid community.
“There is no venue large enough for them to meet,” he explains.
“They are free organizations.”
While governments in the region are spending billions on
transportation infrastructure such as railways and financial cit-
ies, Al Balla argues that many of these projects target established
business that can afford high rents, and thus they are not often
suited for young entrepreneurs. He suggests a need for more
community spaces, perhaps subsidized by sponsorships.
Al Balla says too often there is skittishness about spending
and waste and a fear that government programs will overlap.
“When you invest billions, there will be waste and repetition,
but that’s okay,” he notes. “In Korea, for example, you’ll find
hundreds of programs competing with each other for the same
objective. Over-irrigating is less risky than under-irrigating.”
Another challenge is the high salaries paid in Saudi Arabia
30-year-old Yale graduate Omar Christidis is the founder and director of five-year-old, Beirut-based ArabNet, which has brought together
hundreds of
IT
professionals, venture-capital investors and young entrepreneurs in conferences and events across the region.
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