Is Jordan the Middle East’s Next Hi-Tech Hub? Not So Fast, Experts Say
Despite government launch of initiative to train one million coders, education and slumping youth labor market are holding back serious progress
Jordan is striving to become the Middle East’s next Silicon Valley, but industry experts say the Hashemite Kingdom still has a long way to go before becoming a hub for entrepreneurs and innovative technologies.
Last week, Amman launched the “1 Million Jordanian Coders Initiative,” a broad national drive that aims to train 1 million Jordanian youths in computer programming and coding via free online courses, granting them certification to pursue careers in the tech industry. The initiative was spearheaded by the Crown Prince Foundation, Jordan’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship, and the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and the Future.
Hugh Bosely is the founder and executive director the Silicon Valley-based ReBootKamp (RBK), which operates coding boot camps that train new software engineers in a matter of months in Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries. Amman’s move was a “step in the right direction,” he said.
“Mere exposure to programming fundamentals and language is useful in lighting a spark in the 1 percent who will go on to become our next generation of programmers,” Bosely told The Media Line.
Bosely revealed that he had been following the progress of the “1 Million Coders Initiative” for the past three years, having worked with some of the people involved in its development.
“[The] goal was not only to introduce youth to a necessary form of literacy, but also to try to uncover a Steve Jobs or Marissa Mayer,” he said, referring to the late co-founder of Apple and the former president/CEO of Yahoo!.
Despite its positive intentions, however, Bosely he that the program is ultimately a publicity campaign that will have no impact on the state of the tech industry in Jordan due to ongoing socio and economic challenges. Among them: the country’s education system, which he argues “is designed to suppress autonomous learning and creativity.”
“Like most other Arab states, Jordan is an absolute monarchy,” Bosely explained. “The last thing the power structure needs is a bunch of free-thinkers running around. So they push a rote-memory education system that essentially produces Xerox machines, thereby preserving the status quo.”
Another issue affecting the rise of entrepreneurship in the country is literacy.
“At RBK, we have tested over 10,000 Jordanian youths for native and English literacy, including reading comprehension,” he elaborated. “Eighty percent are fundamentally illiterate, unable to read and comprehend above a 5th-grade level. These are adults with university degrees. Their English ability is worse yet.”
Bosely added that there was a significant shortage of programmers in Jordan due to a lack of qualified candidates.
Others involved in the education sector in the Arab world were also unimpressed by Amman’s coding campaign.
“With all due respect to this effort, coding instruction is too often being presented today in the Middle East as a magical shortcut to employment, and as a substitute for the more comprehensive education that is badly needed,” David Wheeler, editor of the London-based Al-Fanar Media, a publication focused on education, research and culture in the Arab world, told The Media Line. “Arab higher education needs a massive overhaul, and most political leaders know it.”
In addition to learning computer programming skills, Wheeler said the younger generation was badly in need of acquiring business-communication and language skills and that a coding certificate would do little to address that. All of these problems are further compounded by Jordanian government policy, he added.
“Will the many Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian migrants and refugees qualify, or just Jordanian citizens?” Wheeler asked, noting that “the city of Amman has forbidden non-Jordanians from working at home, including as computer programmers.”
In the Hashemite Kingdom, citizenship is determined by paternity, meaning a man with Jordanian citizenship automatically confers the status on his children, even with a wife who lacks citizenship. By contrast, a woman with Jordanian citizenship cannot do so if she is married to a man lacking Jordanian citizenship.
According to the Jordanian Ministry of Interior, over 355,000 non-citizen children born to Jordanian women currently reside in the country, which has a population of 10 million, including millions of Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees. In fact, a national census published in 2016 showed that 2.9 million inhabitants are living in the kingdom without Jordanian citizenship.
This is significant because several restrictions are imposed on non-citizens, who are barred from owning property and accessing health care and public education, and also face obstacles when applying for work permits.
Some, however, do see a silver lining in the “1 Million Coders Initiative.”
Marcello Bonatto, co-founder of the non-profit Re:Coded organization – which provides program training for refugees and displaced youth in Iraq, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries – believes the move could push Jordanian youth into pursuing an education in the technological sector.
“Online programs like this initiative have the advantage of reaching out to hundreds of thousands of people, but completion rates are typically low,” Bonatto told The Media Line. “I believe it is nonetheless important to encourage youth to start learning skills that are and will be in high-demand in the future.”
Bonatto emphasized that Jordan had been investing heavily in technology and innovation in recent years, such as with Innovative Jordan, a nationwide campaigned aimed at encouraging and investing in entrepreneurs and tech projects. However, he continued, the unemployment rate remained high among the Hashemite Kingdom’s youth, standing at 37% for 15-24 year olds, according to data released by the World Bank.
“While other regions in the world are already moving fast towards new ways of learning and working, changes in parts of the Middle East are new and slow,” Bonatto stated.
“At the same time,” he added, “the market potential for Arab developers is immense. Today, companies in the region rely on developers from India, the Ukraine, the Philippines, among others, to fulfill their needs for website development and mobile applications. Facilitating the entrance of more youth in technology areas will be critical for economies in the Middle East to pick up the pace in the next few decades.”