LeWeb'09: Why The Middle-East? (Joi Ito, Rabea Ataya, Habib Haddad) [en]

Live notes from LeWeb’09. They could be inaccurate, although I do my best. You might want to read other posts by official bloggers, in various languages!

Joi moved to Dubai in December. Why the Middle-East? Panelists: Rabea Ataya and Habib Haddad.

At one point Joi figured out he’d never understand that world unless he moved there. Everything is a bit harder than he expected but the opportunities are more exciting than he thought.

Habib, based in Boston, entrepreneur. Arab-speaking world is a huge market.

Rabea co-founded a business in June 2000. Why start an internet business for somewhere that doesn’t use the internet? One of the fastest-growing places in the world.

300 mio in the Middle-East who all speak the same language. Europe is a linguistic nightmare in comparison! Lots of young people, compared to Japan which has an ageing population.

Joi: before being in the Middle-East, it didn’t show up on his map. Now he can’t understand why nobody is marketing to it. Like China before. Middle-East = very interesting market.

Habib says 21% internet penetration. Obstacles: online advertising space is tiny. European gaming site arabized their site, 10% users from Saudi Arabia, but 50% revenue from there! Tipping point in terms of web consuming.

Rabea: common language but no commonality of market (opposite of Europe: one market but lots of languages). Challenge but also competitive advantage. They focused on setting up operations throughout the Middle-East early on. Advertising model? doesn’t survive. Have stayed ahead of the curve. A lot of misunderstanding about what the region is. Strategic investor who visited them, and his perception of the UAE was like the USA, when it’s a tiny country.

Joi sensed racial stereotypes very strongly. Was disowned by some of his good human rights friends for moving there. Country built upon slaves. Lots of Dubai bashing. Didn’t notice it until he moved to the region.

People think of Dubai as Las Vegas. Each country is very different. Jordan is very USA-ized.

Habib: racial stereotypes exist all over the world. But there is also willingness to learn and change. He got his seed investors from the Silicon Valley. Now looking to move back, in 3-6 months.

Joi: Everybody is worried about him being in Dubai. Land prices have gone down. Now all his favorite restaurants are packed with people, lots of white-collar immigrants. Very vibrant everyday life. What’s the impact of all this?

Rabea: Dubai = interesting experiment. Went from small town to a world-renowned city, victim of its own success. At one point became very difficult to get things done when it used to be one of the easiest places in the world to do business. Right now this is being recalibrated, we’re going back to a business-friendly environment. Government focused on winning back entrepreneurs and small business owners. Overwhelmingly the infrastructure and mindset is so good that things look very rosy.

Lots of restrictions and requirements change from city to city, some of them which would seem inappropriate to us: based on nationality, gender, language capacity, etc… Stereotypes don’t really apply because very little ties the region together. To “tackle” this huge region, you need to go small region by small region and understand their specific requirements.

Joi: everybody seems to always talk about the gender issue in muslim cultures. But a lot of it is superficial. Many of the smart powerful people he knows are women. In Japan, women have little power in the workplace but a lot in the home. Americans who say to his arab friends “I hate the way you treat women”. Cliché.

Rabea: 3 highly-educated and smart sisters. Almost all the women he knows are educated and working. Great misconception: women are forced into ways of life that they would not choose. Not a majority, it exists in the fringes. Women play a very active role in the community. Queen Rania, very representative of what women in the Middle-East are capable of.

Habib: encourages companies to move to the region, translate. Facebook missed the boat when it comes to translation.

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