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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jordan: the Middle East’s Silicon Valley?

You might think that the United Arab Emirates with its futuristic skyscraper cities would be the beating heart of what is Middle Eastern technology today. However, a much more unassuming, low-key country is earning itself that title through an impressive number of persevering, talented and creative entrepreneurs.

Jordan is at the top of the list for the most technology startups, and its developers are at the forefront of some of the most popular Middle Eastern startups to have come out of the region.

Until recently, the country was probably best known for its ancient ruins in Petra, but now the small kingdom finds itself leading the pack in innovative technology. A quick look at one of the most comprehensive databases of Middle Eastern startups at YallaStartup will show that Jordan is dominating.

Maktoob is one Jordanian company that stands out in particular, and is a major trophy on the list of Jordan’s tech achievements. It made headlines when it was acquired by Yahoo in 2009 for over USD 80 million, symbolizing the first significant step in the international tech arena by a purely Middle Eastern company.

So what is it about Jordan that has it coming out on top? There is definitely something to be said for having the support of the Jordanian monarchy, with the Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship (QRCE) playing a large role in fostering Jordanian talent. Queen Rania herself was the first among Middle Eastern leaders to understand and embrace the value of social media, creating an instantaneous and direct link with her audience through her YouTube channel and Twitter account.

Support from the powers-that-be, of course, would be nothing if it were not for raw talent and drive that exists among Jordanian developers. Roba al Assi, a Jordanian blogger who currently works at Bayt.com managing the sub-division, Bayt Communities, attributes a large part of the credit to the open source community citing groups and organizations like the Jordan Open Source Association, GeekFest and Amman Tech Tuesdays. “What helps is that we are a country of human resources, as opposed to natural resources. In the absence of money and more lucrative industries, the Jordanian youth has spent the past decade building its passion for the ‘you can do what you want attitude’ of our industry.” Al Assi adds the information technology educational structure to the list of assets that has Jordan sprinting ahead. “Historically, most of the large web startups have been Jordanian in origins, like Maktoob, al-Bawaba and Jeeran,” she adds.

Oasis 500 is another important element in providing the funding that takes those ideas from concept to reality. The Jordan based organization provides significant funding and the opportunity to pitch a concept to angel investors. Al Assi attributes the very existence of Oasis 500 to the Jordanian tech community’s passion.

That’s not to say there aren’t other important products coming out of the Middle East beyond Jordan’s borders. One of the most popular webapps for Arabic speakers today is Yamli, the brainchild of Lebanese developer Habib Haddad. Lebanon is hot on Jordan’s heels, with over 50 startups listed on YallaStartup, and is also home to one of the largest tech conferences in the region, ArabNet.

Speaking to Haddad on the topic of a Middle Eastern Silicon Valley, he told us, “As far as tech hubs in the Middle East go, it’s hard to pinpoint one. The Levant, Egypt and North Africa all have great talent and are growing at an exponential speed. If I was to pick three, it would be Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia, and that’s not to say that other hubs are not as advanced but they are less unified into a solid community, and that is key for a strong tech hub.”

Moving further south, Cairo’s sudden heightened interest in social media could play a significant role in changing the tech scene in Egypt. The ingenious use of Facebook on the part of Egyptian revolutionaries, has translated into the addition of 2.5 million more Facebook users in the country in the space of just a few month, and so Egypt could see a sudden surge in its Internet stocks.

Significant developments in Egypt, such as the the launch of a Cairo-based office of Silicon Valley’s Plug and Play and Cairo’s very first Startup Weekend, could mean that we’ll be seeing more out of the country in the coming months, as the dust begins to settle on the political scene.

Jordan is the closest the Middle East has to Silicon Valley right now, but the Middle Eastern startup world is in a constant state of growth, and with time, it could be anyone’s game. Al Assi reminds us that the road ahead is still long. “There are 337 million Arabs, 17 percent are currently using the Internet…Arabic content is even worse off, with one measly percent of all content online in Arabic, although it’s the world’s fifth most-spoken language.”

Where do you think the hub of technology truly lies in the Middle East? Let us know in the comments. 

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