We Can Do It as Arabs

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  • Lack of successful entrepreneurs, especially in the technology space has been challenge faced by our region for a long time, despite abundance of human as well as financial resources
  • The main reason for this lack of self-belief in Arab Entrepreneurs in their ability to innovate or emulate the success of Western counterparts.
  • Another reason is that most Arab investors do not like to act as Venture Capitalists, but “play it safe”, which makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to get access to capital for growth.
  • If these problems can be addressed innovation and entrepreneurial success for Arabs should be easily achievable.

One thing that has always intrigued me whilst I was abroad, during the first half of my life, was why we as Arabs seemed not to be able to produce any measurable, perceivable success in the various facets of technology.

At the time (exactly 30 years ago) I was just embarking upon a prospective surge in my carrier, as a post-doctorate researcher at the former McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company and part-time Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, U.S.A.; I decided to return to my home country, Egypt, to try to do find out why we, as Arabs, were lagging behind and to try to do something that would make us stand out!

Over the years, I discovered a few problems that are holding us back from making positive steps forward in the advancement of technology; the most prominent problem is the inherent lack of the ability that we are able to achieve any progress, because of the lack of resources, such as money, human competency, amongst other ‘excuses’. However, I soon found out that the Arab nations possess a plethora from both these resources, which seemed to me to be very strange.

Upon further analysis, I discovered that the real reason was that we lacked the self-confidence to achieve success, as entrepreneurs; one very dear friend, with great honesty, once confessed that we have the “Khawaja’s (foreigner’s) hat embedded inside our hearts”! As such, we are incapable of achieving success to the level of the Western countries. This is where I strongly disagree with this falsity.

As a challenge, I decided to travel the road of entrepreneurship in order to experience it for myself and discover the realities. To do this, I changed my career to Arabic Computational Linguistics, as I believed it was fervently needed for our Arab nations; thirty years ago, I was labelled as mad, as the field was not known then. What made it worse was that I had the dream of developing an Arabic search engine that would someday be the “Google” of the Arab nation!

Here is when I started to meet the real problems that entrepreneurs suffered in the Arab world; in addition to the lack of aforementioned lack of self confidence amongst entrepreneurs, I also faced the lack of confidence, on the part of investors, in the capabilities of entrepreneurs. I believe that this is one of the main hindrances that is holding back the formation of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Arab nations. I spoke about this particular problem when I was invited as a panellist at the annual meeting of the World Bank Group in 2011.

Arab investors are “playing it safe” and are treating the financing of entrepreneurs as a bank which should guarantee a return on investment, only with a much higher rate than a bank. This redefines the term “venture capital” to “extremely safe capital”, which, in my opinion, defies the objective of the entrepreneurial exercise. I wish to mention something that a well-respected marketer once told me: The Chinese word for “Threat” is composed of the two words “Danger” and “Opportunity”.

This “Take the Safe Side” attitude, I believe, will never allow the Googles or Microsoft’s to emerge in the Arab world; what we really need is to produce real technology and not just a whole lot of applications, of which there are already a dime a dozen. What we really need are daring real risk takers who are willing to finance regional projects (“regional” meaning for the whole MENA region), that are capable of catapulting the Arab nation to the realm of real technology.

I also wish to stress that technology cannot be imported, but is created in its own environment; this is why I have embarked upon linguistic technologies for the Arabic language, as it is unique to the Arab world. Its applications are innumerable, as we have recently discovered in the areas of sentiment analysis, trending and various analytics, let alone search results that return meaningful and useful search results for the Arab user.

I believe that if we overcome the problems highlighted in this article, we can do it as Arabs!


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