Ask an American VC or angel investor what comes to mind when they think of the Middle East, and many are likely to say “war.” “When I see my friends from business school,” said Tarek Assaad, a 2000 MBA grad from Stanford University and managing partner at Egypt’s largest tech VC firm, “the discussions we have are always around problems—because that’s all they see in the media.”
But the Middle East’s startup ecosystem is booming: 2016 saw nearly $1 billion in venture funding—up from $200 million the previous year, according to MAGNiTT, a Crunchbase-like tracker of regional deals. Companies from Morocco to the Gulf States are developing everything from new payment systems to bug tracking software, as well as local counterparts to TaskRabbit and Rent the Runway. And entrepreneurs here are hoping that the stereotypes will fade, or at least evolve, especially among the U.S. and European investors whose help they need.
The enthusiasm was palpable earlier this month at RiseUp, one of the region’s premier entrepreneurship summits, now in its fifth year. In many ways, it looked like any Western tech conference. Hoodies and jeans predominated. Flocks of young people flitted about in matching logo T-shirts. Sleek sofa-decorated stages were backed by thumping house music. But, because this was taking place in Cairo, there were also flurries of headscarves, swaying palm trees, and periodic calls to prayer wafting over the campuses where the event was held.
Over 5,000 people showed up, more than double the 2,300 who attended the first conference in 2013. A handful of Western tech luminaries, like…