How Can the Diaspora Boost ICT Development in the Arab World?

by Nina Curley, January 20, 2012

In early January 2011, startup accelerator Plug and Play Egypt kicked off its first cycle with investment in six startups. 

Yet after demonstrations in Tahrir caused Mubarak's ousting on January 25th, plunging the country into a year of protest, economic stagnation, and political transformation, the Egyptian arm of Silicon Valley-based accelerator Plug and Play Tech Center, had all but gone silent.  

"There were too many logistical issues after the revolution to continue developing Plug and Play Egypt then," confesses Mohannad El-Khairy, Manager of Middle East Business Relations at Plug and Play's headquarters in Sunnyvale.

However, Plug and Play has big plans to expand into the Arab World in the next year, building up to five centers that will serve as bridges between the Arab World and Silicon Valley. 

To reaffirm its commitment to supporting entrepreneurship in the Arab World, the tech accelerator hosted an event on January 16th, titled "Unlocking the Potential of the Arab Spring," to address how IT can contribute to creating sustainable economic growth in the Arab World.  

"The idea was to ask, how can we unlock the potential of the masses in the arab world? What can technology do, and what can Arab-Americans do, to facilitate that process?" says El-Khairy. 

The event was part of the National U.S. Arab-American Chamber of Commerce's 5th High Tech Road Show, which was larger this year thanks to a new partnership between NUSACC and IJMA3-USA, the Union of Arab ICT Associations, who worked to bring 40 delegates from 11 Arab countries. 

Arab-American heavyweights from Google, Cisco, Kiva, CMEA, and the U.S. State Department, as well as the Ministers of Telecom from Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, and the CEO of the IT authority in Oman were present to discuss how Arab countries can move away from being resource dependent and towards IT and knowledge-based economies. 

Mohammad Allawi, Iraq's Minister of Communications, was a particular draw, the Mercury News reported, as he emphasized Iraq's ambitious plan to connect its population of 32 million to the internet by adding 2 million fiber optic cables a year. After years of war and sanctions prevented Iraq from building proper IT infrastructure, Allawi is now encouraging the private sector to invest in tech startups. 

Indeed, looking to entrepreneurship and youth as a solution for job creation is a theme of 2011 that will continue to build in 2012. Julie Hanna, Chair of the Board at microfinance organization Kiva, may have summed up it up perfectly, says El Khairy. "Entrepreneurs and activists have a lot in common, as they are both agents of change."

 
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