Africa and the Middle East

Let’s Innovate Against ISIS

November 5, 2014

*This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

German poet Friedrich Hölderlin once wrote, “But where the danger is, grows the saving power also.”

Much has been made of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s technological prowess — its slick recruitment videos on Al Hayat, its glossy pages in “Dabiq” magazine, and its endless volley of grisly tweets from the towns they “liberate.” The ISIS trope now reads: Technologically savvy terrorists leverage social media to recruit youth, who, lacking jobs, economic opportunity, and dignity, take up arms and fight alongside extremists in hopes for a better future. However, in focusing on the dangers of technology in the Middle East, the world seems to have forgotten its saving power.

Today, technology is finding its way into the hands of men and women throughout the region, creating a new generation of Middle East entrepreneurs ready to make their mark on the world. Chris Schroeder’s important work, “Startup Rising,” cites that the question is not if the Middle East’s startup ecosystem will affect positive change, but when. The Aspen Institute has sought to turn when into now by bringing the Middle East to Silicon Valley. By facilitating connections, mentorships, and innovation — from Jordan to Morocco — Aspen is translating the ideas of young entrepreneurs into reality.

An article by Jordanian entrepreneur Fadi Ghandour published in the October 2014 issue of “Entrepreneur Middle East” lists the Arab world as having a collective GDP of $2.85 trillion — larger than that of India, Russia, and Brazil. Over half of the region’s population is under the age of 25, and they are more globally connected than ever before. Fadi writes, “Between 2007 and 2012, internet penetration jumped 294 percent, while mobile data traffic grew 103 percent in 2013.” These are higher increases than in the Asia Pacific, North America, and Western Europe.

The Arab world is home to a vibrant and connected youth culture that is embracing technology as a force for good and a vehicle for self-determination. Ghandour is correct: now is the time to invest in the Middle East. This may seem far-fetched to a global community more familiar with the region’s masked men, bombed-out buildings, and autocratic rulers, but the Arab world is teeming with potential. This fact is evidenced by Jordan’s burgeoning tech center, which makes up roughly 12 percent of the country’s GDP. The Oasis 500 website cites Amman, Jordan, as the 10th best place in the world to start a company. More surprising is that 30 percent of the labor force in Jordan’s tech industry is female. By comparison, women make up 20 to 23 percent of the workforce in Silicon Valley. The fact that Jordan — a non-oil-producing state (they import roughly 97 percent of their energy) that shares a border with Iraq and Syria — can boast some of the world’s fastest growing startups and a larger percentage of female workers than Silicon Valley is a testament to the power of investing in entrepreneurial ideas in the region.

Stories of success are not limited to Jordan. The Levant, the Gulf, and North Africa all contain booming tech centers filled with young, motivated entrepreneurs. In Morocco, entrepreneur Anaasse El Hasnaoui founded 4US, which empowers Morocco’s lower classes through community driven economic development. In Lebanon, Diwanee, a digital media company that specializes in content creation targeting women in the Middle East, was recently acquired by French Webedia for roughly $20 million. In Saudi Arabia, the government launched a $270 million venture fund to support the kingdom’s startups. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition from this year boasted finalists from all corners of the Arab world. The products ranged from Palestinian shopping apps to early childhood development technologies.

Today, young entrepreneurs, engineers, and hackers represent the region’s proven ability to innovate around problems in a challenging environment. New technologies are working to solve the most pressing issues in the Middle East such as education, food security, and energy. Technology is a pathway to knowledge, and it is knowledge that will ultimately curb extremism and promote pluralism in the region. That is why at Aspen Institute Middle East Programs, we are committed to advancing entrepreneurship and innovation as essential elements for stability in the Middle East. An idea does not die on the battlefield. An idea cannot be bombed from above because it grows from within. ISIS has captured the attention of the world, in part because of the dexterity with which it juggles modern technology, but it is technology that will undo the organization in the end. The world needs to invest in entrepreneurs in addition to airstrikes; for it is innovation that will save the region. 

Toni Verstandig is chair of the Aspen Institute Middle East Programs.