There's a new source of wealth bubbling up in the Middle East, and it has nothing to do with oil. Countries such as Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan are building up their IT capabilities, and human capital, to prepare themselves for when those rivers of black gold slow to a trickle.
From the expansive Technology Park in Muscat, Oman, to Internet City in Dubai, to Egypt's fledgling call centers, the Arab world is hoping there's life after oil. Some countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, rely on a combination of foreign investment and government support. Microsoft Corp., for example, has invested heavily in Egyptian technology-outsourcing facilities, while Intel Corp. has established a $50 million venture capital fund in the Middle East and Turkey, according to Sam Hamdan, chairman of the Global Leadership Team, a Birmingham, Mich., consultancy working with the United Nations to put on the World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, to be held in Muscat in April of this year.
The IT growth in India and China has been a huge eye-opener for the Arab world, Hamdan says. "Arabs brought modern science, mathematics and many technologies to the West, and now they're lacking in all of these sectors."
Arab nations are likely to encounter some stiff competition, however. According to Robert Brown, a research director at Gartner Inc., language issues will be a major, though not the only, stumbling block. "Arab nations are not the 'next big thing,' " he says. "Some will benefit as global sourcing floats all boats, but there are potential security concerns, either in perception or reality."
Regardless, oil-rich nations such as Oman are pouring petroleum profits back into technology education for women and youth. Such efforts, however, have as much to do with staving off an enormous employment pitfall as with entering the global economy. About 50 percent of the population in the Arab world is under the age of 15. According to the U.N., these nations will have to create 84 million jobs by 2020 in order to employ their own citizens. The United Nations Development Program also sees IT education as an opportunity to empower Arab youth and so move them beyond disenfranchised povertywhich can lead to religious extremism. "We are using the language of economics to bridge these cultural gaps," says Hamdan.