|Software developers praise local advantages despite high costs|
|Local technicians rival competition from India
Intel forum highlights significant return of Lebanese-owned businesses to Beirut
Some of Lebanon's largest software companies said local advantages outweighed the skyrocketing cost of telecommunications here at a forum chaired by Intel on Tuesday.
In search of a highly skilled and cost-effective workforce, Lebanese-owned firms operating out of Europe and the United States claimed they had moved substantial parts of their business back to Beirut, where connecting to the Internet can be hundreds of times more expensive than other countries.
Sponsored by IDAL, the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon, the forum hosted software houses like Murex, which counts JP Morgan, Lehman Brothers, and HSBC among its claim to 120 clients across 30 countries.
The French financial software maker has 500 employees, seven offices worldwide, and a customer base stretching from Sweden to Japan - but no clients in Beirut, according to managing director Salim Edde.
"Our Lebanon office is essential because of the technical expertise it provides," he said. "Apart from personal reasons, me being Lebanese, it is the quality of personnel and the several languages spoken here that are essential to any business as international as ours."
Soft Solutions, which supplies merchandise management tools to European retail giants such as Carrefour and Gallery Lafayette, said it had moved its research and development office from France to Lebanon for similar reasons.
"We realized that not only are we finding good engineers in Lebanon, but the time required to develop products was faster," said Antoine Hage of Kube, which develops "100 percent" Lebanese-made content management systems for U.S. and European markets.
He said local technicians could rival fierce competition from India in terms of "quality, efficiency and price."
"There is more value for time," said John Kayat of Data Flow, which has done outsourcing for the French and Lebanese governments.
But Michel Kilzi, the head of Internet Facilities Group, which makes security software, said the firm's Lebanese roots hurt its export operations, which he said account for over 90 percent of sales.
"We were sometimes obliged to hide our Lebanese identity, due to tough Jewish competition," he said, adding that the lack of affordable high speed Internet also hinders doing business out of Lebanon.
"We are behind all neighboring countries. It's a pity that we don't have DSL in Lebanon. We are still using dial-up and prices are extremely high," he said.
Joe Faddoul of Istisharat, which produces software for the global banking industry - including Goldman Sachs and Citibank - said locals were not "as cost-effective as Indians" but could more easily identify with Europeans on a cultural level; in addition to being free from long time delays over the telephone.
"With the right support, Lebanon can be the India or the Ireland of the Middle East," said Beirut MP Ghinwa Jalloul, the chairwoman of a parliamentary committee on information technology.
She said the government would soon pass long-awaited laws on e-commerce by 2005, including a bill authorizing electronic signature transactions if "the political situation permits."
"Lebanon has companies that have excelled at providing software to Europe, the U.S. and South America," said Dave Ryan, Intel's marketing director for software enabling in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
However, he could not say when or if Intel, which has signed marketing-related partnerships with several local IT companies, would invest in software development in Lebanon.
Beirut,12 20 2004
The Daily Star