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Lebanon might be halfway around the world from the tech hub of Silicon Valley, but Wednesday hundreds of digital enthusiasts saw Google, one of the world’s best known IT companies, come to them.

“Silicon Valley was started [at] Stanford and Berkeley, so I don’t see why the universities here can’t start a mini Silicon Valley here. If you come up with ideas, things will come to you,” said Google’s new business development manager of emerging markets William Kanaan, before an audience of engineers and Web developers at the American University of Beirut.

Kanaan should know. He grew up in Lebanon and later spent over 10 years in California’s high-tech hub, where he learned that small businesses can start with limited money and resources; they just need an Internet connection and good ideas.

The full-day workshop, which was hosted on the sidelines of this week’s Arabnet gathering in Beirut, has been a long time coming for Lebanon’s Google fans. “I’ve been a Google fan since forever,” said Raghad Hamzeh, a fourth year engineering student at AUB, who also serves as one of two “Google student ambassadors” in Lebanon, and who previously attended Google conferences in Egypt and Jordan (the company has hosted such events across the region in the past two years).

He says he likes the company for their clean, simple and user-friendly services, as well as their corporate ethics, including their motto “Don’t be evil.”

The company has long had a following in the Arab world, which increased even further when then Cairo-based Google executive Wael Ghonim became a spokesman for the Egyptian Revolution, after he helped mobilize his compatriots though his Internet activism.

Many aspiring high-tech workers are also attracted to Google’s unconventional office environment, which encourages employees to take time out of their regular daily duties to develop their own concepts.

Although it doesn’t have a local office in Lebanon, through student ambassadors such as Hamzeh, Google is able to guage what young people need in terms of tools and material. This year, for example, many of the final year engineering projects are using Android, the mobile operating system led by Google. The company does have business offices in Dubai and Cairo.

“We want 19-year-old students not just to use Google, but also to see it,” said George Turkiyyah, chair of AUB’s computer science department. “It’s a way for them to test the waters.”

“There’re a lot of talent and good universities here,” Kanaan told The Daily Star during a coffee break. But, he added, “What’s frustrating is the Internet here isn’t very good.”

Indeed, the poor Internet speed slowed down a live online presentation given by a Google marketer, and a 10-minute power outage interrupted the workshop midway.

Still, the visit of Google to Lebanon has been an affirmation to some that at least the country is heading in the right direction and is getting recognition for its high-tech potential.

“I think Google is seeing the beginning of a serious software industry in Lebanon,” said Mariette Awad, assistant professor of electrical engineering at AUB. “I believe in a couple of years we could be a hub.”

Al Bawaba

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