AMMAN, Jordan — Fortunately, there is another Arab Spring going on alongside the drama in the streets of Cairo and Damascus. It is an explosion of startups by young Arab techies. Ground zero is a complex of buildings here in the heart of Amman. The site was built to be the headquarters of the Jordanian Army, but at the last minute King Abdullah ordered the army elsewhere, renamed the complex “The Business Park,” and declared it a special economic zone. The multistory army buildings now carry big signs that say “Microsoft,” “HP,” “Samsung” and “Cisco.” But it’s the building labeled “Oasis500” that really got my attention.
It’s where Lawrence of Arabia meets Mark Zuckerberg.
Oasis500 is an Arab-owned high-tech accelerator, looking to nurture 500 new startups in Jordan. It has dangled seed money for any Jordanian or Arab who wants to create a new company here, and like a flash rainstorm in the desert, Oasis500 has already helped dozens of Arabic-content Internet startups to blossom practically overnight. Only 1 percent of global Web content is in Arabic today, but 75 percent of it is produced in Jordan. The Arab world needs to create millions of nongovernment jobs to satisfy its youth bulge. Alas, though, there are no employees without employers – high-IQ risk-takers ready to start companies – and that is what Oasis500 is trying to multiply, fast. Without this Arab Spring, the other Arab Spring will never last. There will be no middle class to sustain it.
“We are big believers in creating companies rather than jobs,” said Usama Fayyad, the former chief data officer at Yahoo, who came home convinced that the raw material was here to create an Arab “Silicon Wadi.”
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“A job is a job, but a company is a growth story,” added Fayyad. It not only spawns jobs, but also ex-employees, who get trained and go off and start more companies and new industries. The average tech-sector job in Jordan pays about six times an average government job. Jordan has no oil, so “its people are the oil,” said Fayyad, and he is tapping them.
There is no tradition of venture capital in the Arab world, so Oasis500 is a pioneer. It invites any Jordanian or Arab to come with a startup plan. Any plan that is accepted receives $15,000 in seed capital. Then the starter-uppers have to go through Oasis500 boot camp, an intense five-week course in how to build a company. The survivors are given office space at the Business Park for three to six months. For those who manage to grow after their first stage of incubation, there is more angel funding, legal advice, mentoring and networking opportunities with local business leaders. Oasis500 invests in each company that makes it that far. Fayyad said that since Oasis500 started in 2010, it has received 2,000 applications and has invested in 49 companies. Of those, it has harvested one profitable exit, 45 are still active and only three have failed. It is now getting hundreds of applicants a month for boot camp.
During my visit, Fayyad introduced me to 30 of his latest startups, including: Doseyeh.com, an Arabic portal that provides course packets for undergraduate college classes; Firstbazaar.com, an online market for local artisans; Littlethinkingminds.com, which makes Arabic Internet content for kids; Ekeif.com, which makes Arabic how-to videos on parenting, beauty and health; Gateexpress.com, a money-transfer platform; Tawajod.com, an Arabic Motley Fool; Fakker, which enables young Arabs – who constitute some 40 percent of worldwide gamers – to develop work skills while gaming online; Gweet.com, an Arabic couch-surfing site; and I3zif.com, an online Arabic music school.
I also visited Kharabeesh.com, a popular new site that is helping young Arabs produce their own cartoons and content for YouTube and for its own platform – some of it highly politically incorrect. “We consider ourselves not only entrepreneurs but also change makers,” said Wael Attili, a co-founder. “Education is the long-term way to change the mindset of the people, but media for us is the short-term way.”
With all the young people looking for work, “the only way to handle unemployment is to invent your own job,” said Majed Jarrar, founder of VitalTronix, which is developing heart-monitoring technology. That attitude is Jordan’s oil.
The government here has real problems with corruption and political reform, but it has also created the best Arab platform combining education, high-speed bandwidth, uncensored Internet and laws that protect intellectual property and incentivize investment.
This is a new Arab growth model – based on entrepreneurship, not government contracts. “Entrepreneurship is about empowerment,” said Fadi Ghandour, an investor in Oasis500 and a founder of the first Arab-based company listed on the Nasdaq: Aramex. “Taking ownership of your future, and giving the skills and tools to these young aspiring entrepreneurs, means they are less dependent on the state and become job creators rather than only job seekers, creating value for themselves, their employees and the community at large.”
That is why I am rooting for this Arab Spring as much as the other one.