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French Version

Jordan's IT industry leads charge for change

Sector could generate $1 billion by 2008

AMMAN : On the surface, the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan - plastered with ubiquitous posters of King Abdullah and his late father - appears to follow many Arab states, espousing a cult of personality that has come to symbolize economic rigidity and political isolation. However, Jordan's government is embracing change, and its burgeoning hi-tech industry, projected to be worth $1 billion by 2008, is leading the way.

Last week, hundreds of IT professionals descended upon the country's Dead Sea coast for the 2004 Jordan ICT Forum, which was hosted by Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers - a close personal friend of Abdullah and virtual spokesman for the country's economic future.

During a series of carefully coordinated news conferences leading up to the event, Chambers missed no opportunity to praise Abdullah and his government, and said Cisco, the $22 billion U.S.-based networking giant, would be "putting more into Jordan than in any other part of the world."

In addition to investing $3 million in the country's education system last year, Cisco signed a strategic accord with Jordan's ICT Ministry on Sept. 13. Chambers also said Jordan will soon host "our support center for this part of the world."

"This is not about a company or a government," ICT Minister Fawaz Zubi said at the time. "It's really about nation-building."

Over the last year, Zubi has spearheaded Jordan's move toward creating a 21st century labor force, overseeing projects that will connect the country's universities to a sophisticated international broadband network, introduce an electronic curriculum to primary schools, and liberalize state post and telecom sectors.

He is confident that the new reforms and agreements will shape the country's modest $300 million IT industry, which grew 30 percent last year, into a $1 billion industry by 2008.

"I'm a dreamer, what can I tell you?" he said in an interview with The Daily Star.

"I know that in three years, the capability we will have in Jordan, in terms of network design and architecture, is going to be outstanding. We will build a skill level that will be equal to the best available in the U.S. or elsewhere," he said.

Zubi, formerly a prominent businessman, is convinced that Jordan's top five IT firms can easily be groomed into $100 million companies by partnering with global industry leaders. He said that the kingdom will soon produce graduates earning up to $300,000 per year.

"I think that where we fall short in the Arab world is that we have not spent enough time training and educating our public sectors," he said. "People today in the Arab world, in many ways I feel, lack the ability to develop policy and understand what the ramifications of different policy decisions are."

Many Arab bureaucrats and IT professionals attending the forum echoed calls for stronger and more qualified leadership in their respective countries.

"Jordan has a visionary leader who makes decisions and everyone follows them," said Raymond Khoury, an official with Lebanon's Ministry for Administrative Development.

"Jordan's ministers are young and educated. They are technocrats and they don't get involved in politics," he said, describing Lebanon's political system as easily susceptible to chaos and lacking any "clear executive mandate."

"I think what is lacking in most Arab countries is the concept of process," said Zubi. "This process should take you from A to Z in a very systematic way."

Neither Zubi nor Chambers, who predicted that Jordan will grow faster than the world economy, could say exactly how much Cisco will be spending in the country this year.

"It's not about how much money is going to be invested," said Zubi. We have a much higher level of thinking about it, and that is what we call capacity building of a nation."

Habib Battah
The Daily Star

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