What The Tech is Going On with Lebanese Startups?

Credits: Executive Magazine

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

Confucius

Technology has evolved from a mere tool or product that performs a certain task to a service that is reshaping the way we communicate, work, and live. Leading companies on the global stage continue to make this increasingly evident. DeepMind, an organization within Google that focuses on Artificial Intelligence (AI), developed the AlphaGo deep learning algorithm to play the game Go. In order to compete in one of the most ancient and sophisticated board games ever developed by humans, Google’s team brought the AI system to South Korea in an effort to face one of the world’s top players. Millions of people around Asia, where this game is very popular, watched this epic showdown of man vs. machine, and to everyone’s surprise, the algorithm won easily.

This was considered a famous “Sputnik” moment in tech history to the extent that the Chinese government decided to reshape the structure of its economy from a country that attracts big corporations for its cheap labour to one that aggressively invests in its technology infrastructure. Now considered to be a leader in tech research, development, and investment, China is destined to overtake the United States soon.

In the shifting dynamics of global innovation, where do the Middle East and specifically Lebanon come into play?

Credits: Reuters

Let’s start with the most successful story in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Despite being a latecomer to the digital revolution, the Emirati nation has quickly adopted a strategy where both the government and the private sector are taking on cutting-edge technology projects. The most recent example is the Emirati Mars mission, which secured their position in the history books as the fifth nation to touch down on the red planet.

The infrastructure investment that the UAE is making includes attracting people and companies, not only from its neighboring Arab countries but also from across the globe, bringing together talents in software/web development, blockchain applications, and AI. Moreover, the UAE is working on a Smart Cities initiative led by the Crown Prince of Dubai. His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is encouraging both the government and private sector to explore ways to tackle future opportunities through technology, and how these smart solutions are going to help in solving day-to-day challenges.

The design of these smart cities is based on 3D simulations that predict the future with the aim of reducing the likelihood of unexpected problems. In a country like the Emirates, the economy is still driven by finite resources such as oil, gas, and others, which are essential to ensure sustainable social and economic growth. However, similar to China, the UAE is also aware that future-proofing the country relies on investment in technology and digital innovation. More and more sections of society are heading towards the “Singularity” – a concept that tries to predict the future of intelligence in the universe, and how humans will eventually evolve to transcend their biological nature. Thus, it becomes critical for countries to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds, leveraging technology to improve all aspects of the lives of people such as transport, health, and education.

One of the most recent examples of this is the relocation of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)-based music streaming company Anghami’s headquarters to Abu Dhabi, a move that was supported by the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO), the government’s investment attraction and development hub. ADIO partnered with Anghami as part of its innovation program to develop its global headquarters, technology, and research and development (R&D) center in Abu Dhabi. This support and their position in the UAE enabled Anghami to be the first Arab technology company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, yet another great achievement for the government and the private sector in the UAE in recent months.

Anghami might be a great success story for the UAE, but the shift of its headquarters from Beirut was a great disappointment for Lebanon, one of many at least. The media streaming company has more than 70 million registered users, offers more than 57 million songs, and generates more than 56 million user data points per day which Anghami utilizes via machine learning and AI to improve its user experience.

Many companies such as Anghami are being left with no choice but to leave Lebanon, not to mention the talent and expertise the country is losing on a daily basis due to emigration.

Another bitter tech story from Lebanon is a start-up company called Fly-Foot. It started as an online platform selling standardized and tailored football experiences to fans from the Middle East, connecting them with their favorite teams around the world. The emerging company has made watching live football games at a stadium an accessible experience for everyone.

Years later, Fly-Foot managed to further advance itself in the sports tech industry, offering an array of services from mobile applications for football pitches reservations to Virtual Reality (VR) sporting experiences.

After the Beirut Port disaster, the company was forced to relocate its head office to Paris, and was granted an innovation visa through Station F, the world largest start-up hub.

Rayan Ismail, the CEO and Founder of Fly-Foot, shared his thoughts on the move with Al Rawiya. “After a very difficult year, not only for Fly Foot, but for the entire Lebanese startup ecosystem, we got the opportunity to move to Paris and join Station F. Of course, we have kept our office in Beirut, and our team is still reporting there, nevertheless our move to France allowed us to alleviate the restrictions imposed by local banks and infrastructure. This move also helped us to work on reimagining the way people will be watching football, and we managed to launch the first VR solution targeting the football fans community in the Middle East.”

Anghami and Fly-Foot are two of many unfortunate cases taking place in Lebanon in recent years, further depriving the country of its talents, innovative businesses, and hope.

Lebanon’s government and political parties have proven to be unfit to take on public offices as self-interest continues to prevail over all else. Divisive, ineffective sectarian speech has made it impossible for the country to cultivate infrastructure to support private sector growth. In addition, this political class along with the banking establishment have plunged the country into financial collapse by engineering Ponzi schemes that steal public and private funds without setting up any plan to support local businesses.

The World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index (NRI) 2020, also referred to as Technology Readiness, ranked Lebanon 90th out of 134 countries on the basis of the following criteria:

  • The environment for information and communication technologies (ICT) offered by a given country or community (market, political, regulatory, and infrastructure environment).
  • The readiness and usage of the country’s key stakeholders (individuals, businesses, and governments) to use ICT.

Taking into consideration the current state of political leadership and infrastructural affairs in Lebanon, we can only predict that our progress in the field of technology will continue to regress. As such, we can comfortably say that bridging the gap and keeping up with the pace of technology will take a turn for the worse and one day it may truly feel like we live on another planet. 

That being said, we shouldn’t be surprised if we see more of these talents and tech companies pack up their bags and head to greener pastures like the UAE and France that offer them vital resources in terms of funding, laws, and stability to innovate and invent. 

We refuse to believe that we are bound to this despair. We should know that no matter the challenges we face, whether they are political, economic, technological, or social, the power of change starts with a vision. This vision or idea should begin with the admission that we are wrong and that the system we built will not suffice. We must stop this self-proclaiming speech that we are the “Switzerland of the Middle East” or a melting pot of cultures, and sit down together as a society to decide what kind of future we want. Is it one where Lebanon contributes to the history of mankind in any way, shape, or form or just another broken society torn apart by corruption and social biases?  

Written by

Ziad Mroueh
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Ziad, born and raised in Beirut moved to Barcelona, Spain at the age of 25 is a political and social activist with more than 15 years of experience working in liberal and progressive organizations in Lebanon and Spain. Ziad is an industrial engineer that works as a business & solution consultant at a technology company, he is passionate for philosophy, sociology, psychology, technology and politics. He enjoys writing for a wide range of topics.