WHERE WAS ALL THE ARAB TECH TALENT?
Matt Butterworth reports from SXSW
T his year was the 10th anniversary of Twitter’s breaking out at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. This lifted the conference from a small-time tech event to the media darling for what would become Web 2.0.
Ever since, marketeers, digital natives and technology inventors have attended each year to chase the latest tech and innovation breakthroughs, and this was my 10th year in attendance. Everyone in the Middle East seems to do the Cannes thing, but for me SXSW is far more important. It is a real opportunity to look forward. While it is good to take a retrospective look at the year gone by, which is what I feel Cannes does, I personally much prefer understanding creative and technology trends. These can give our clients a real insight into the future of our world and how it will affect them. However, there was a tinge of disappointment and sadness that I couldn’t remove from my brain during the week.
2017 was the first time I looked at the event through my new Middle Eastern lens. Having now resided in the region for nearly a year, the first thing I noticed about this year’s SXSW was the lack of presence and visibility from the Middle East among attendees and speakers.
The one exception was Yousef Tuquan, vice-president of brand marketing and loyalty at Jumeirah, who produced a magical, insightful and progressive take on Saudi Arabia entitled ‘Arabs Be Like’. I left feeling hopeful and energised by his optimism after he showcased how today’s Middle East is an incredibly rich and diverse place. It is a land of contradictions that exists alongside some of the highest social media usage in the world. Jeddah and Riyadh are the cities in the world that use Snapchat more than any other, and 510 million daily views make Saudi Arabia the highest per capita consumer of YouTube globally.
Even though we have a world-class digital infrastructure in place – with initiatives like Smart Dubai, Expo 2020 on the horizon and Saudi Arabia’s 2030 vision – we all acknowledge that the region is many years behind in terms of technology, innovation and progressive digital understanding, especially in our world of marketing and communication. Even more reason, then, for more marketing professionals to attend SXSW and be part of a world that is constantly changing.
How I wished Mohamed Alabbar had been there to talk passionately about dotcom entrepreneurialism and help to awaken the technological sleeping giant that is soon to hit this region.
Still, I tried to find something that I could bring back to the region and that could give me real insight and meaning around the potential of this fantastic place I now call home. After all the anti-Muslim Trump rhetoric and finding myself proudly working in a predominantly Muslim region, I decided to attend ‘A Global Muslim Start-up Ecosystem Emerges’. This session broke out of the paradigm of radicalisation and discussed ways in which identities should be positive. With 1.7 billion Muslims, in the world, of whom nearly 700 million are under 30, Muslims are already an integral part of the modern world, upwardly mobile and talented in many unexpected places.
Research has found that nearly 96 per cent of all people would pick a white famous male to represent forward thinking and business acumen, and yet there are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world. When we define entrepreneurship, we see something else, usually Steve Jobs. This has undoubtedly led to a lot of problems in the Muslim world and the people on the panel agreed that it needed to be challenged.
But Launch Good is the total hero of Muslim start-ups. It is essentially a billion-dollar religious start-up that has witnessed a rebirth in ‘action’, a sort of renaissance of a modern Muslim community. It has funded projects like Launchgood.com/cemetery, a programme to allow Muslims to unite and repair a Jewish cemetery, which raised $160,000 in less than a week. Amna Al-Haddad, the UAE hijab-wearing weight lifter, started her funding via Launch Good, and now we have the very first crowdfunded veiled ballerina, Stephanie Kurlow. The power of social movements and doing good is an amazing story that should be celebrated. I know there are hundreds, if not thousands, more within the region that we should all be celebrating,
It only takes one story to lift everything and change perceptions. The region is a like-hearted community, not like-minded. All around the world, and in particular in this region, we are witnessing rebirth in action, a renaissance in Muslim modern community that often is not seen in the Western world. I believe this region is about to explode on to the global world of technology and creativity. It can learn from its Western contemporaries and ensure it does not make the same mistakes. So this brings me back to my first point: the region needs to be more vocal and present in the Western world so we can show our true muscle power. SXSW is one such forum where the world should see our potential. I certainly will be banging the drum at SXSW for the region in the years to come. Keep an eye out for Matt Butterworth’s upcoming feature in Campaign on what else he took away from SXSW.
MATT BUTTERWORTH Managing director, MullenLowe MENA