In the last presidential foreign policy debate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney used the word “tumult” five times when discussing the Middle East. Employment in the region, on the other hand, was mentioned only once, sandwiched between President Obama’s guarantee of preserving Israel’s security and a non-sequitur on the US education system.
While there is no doubt that the civil war in Syria and the threat of a nuclear Iran present serious challenges for the region’s future, both candidates’ presentation of the Middle East as a violent and unstable monolith ignores a remarkable and important recent trend: the emergence of a thriving Arab tech startup scene.
Given the region’s difficulties with unemployment, it will be important for new, home-grown industries to develop and create jobs. Ultimately, this growth is an important determinate of long-term stability.
So, who is actually moving toward growing that industry? Some of the tech innovators laying the groundwork for this movement include:
Maktoob is an Internet services company founded in Jordan in 1998 and acquired by Yahoo in 2009 that serves as the granddaddy of the region’s tech industry.
Oasis 500 is a Jordanian incubator that includes trains, mentors, and invests in promising startups based on the Y-Combinator model from Silicon Valley. Oasis 500 has a portfolio of over 50 companies, from a healthcare-focused network connecting international patients to medical treatment in Jordan to a Ticketmaster-like events service for the Middle East.
Flat6Labs in Egypt is an incubator with a similar concept to Oasis 500 showing the incubator model can work even in politically uncertain environments. Flat6Labs’ companies include a job recruitment network that connects talent to opportunities based on online social connections.
Networking tech giant Cisco has also identified Palestine as a growth opportunity for high tech industry development. It brings together a coalition of companies and government agencies to lay the foundation for the West Bank as an outsourcing hub for Tel Aviv’s tech boom next door. Cisco now outsources a significant portion of work from its Israeli office to Palestine. (Full disclosure: my company Mission Measurement worked with Cisco on this project.)
Wamda, based in the UAE, is a platform for supporting entrepreneurs across the region through localized content, an investment fund, and supporting startup events from Turkey to the Gaza Strip.
These represent just a few examples of the region’s exploding startup scene and this tech acumen is beginning to raise eyebrows internationally. This past July, Silicon Valley tech accelerator 500 Startups invested in its first Middle Eastern company Jeeran, a Yelp-like review portal for the Middle East.
Certainly our future president should focus on the major current geopolitical threats in the Middle East. But we should also support the region’s young, but fast-growing tech industry through targeted aid and technical assistance. Perhaps one day an innovative startup will even create an app to help perplexed presidential candidates locate potential enemies on a map.
Matt Guttentag is a consultant with Mission Measurement, a strategy consulting firm that helps companies, non-profits, and government agencies measure and increase their social impact. He is a regular contributor on international development and innovation to a forthcoming blog in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He spent two years living and working in Jordan.