Syria and Israel are fighting. Egypt is in a near civil war. The mainstream media, and thus ordinary citizens of the U.S. and Europe, see the entire Middle East as a gaggle of contentious tribes wanting to return to the Ottoman Empire using radical Islam as a philosophical underpinning and suicide bombers as tactics. This leads our politicians and bureaucrats to make blanket statements about the “volatile region” and discourage people from visiting and discovering the region for themselves.
But for every RPG launched from Palestine toward Israel, or every Syrian uprising, there is a better, more positive story. I’ve recently spent several days in Amman, Jordan, with GeeksonaPlane at startup events, seeing some of the most interesting companies, accelerators, VC companies, and entrepreneurs, eating the best Middle Eastern food, and enjoying hospitality beyond compare.
Jordan will be a tech community to reckon with in the very near future. Seventy percent of the online content delivered to the Middle East is created in Jordan. It has the kind of rich, creative class Richard Florida pines for.
Jordanian entrepreneurs are content curators and creators, animators, and providers of essential online services to the MENA region, defined as the Middle East and North Africa. This is a dramatically overlooked region by the West. But it’s another large, emerging market, just as India was, and Brazil, and China. The West ought to take another look with different eyes. Places like Amman are not about oil or Islamists. The king is committed to IT.
When reporters come to the Middle East, they base in Jordan and make quick trips to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other less tranquil places. And they aren’t business reporters; they are war reporters. They don’t report on civilians unless we are killing them by accident. Or someone else is killing them. No one is killing Jordanian civilians, so you don’t hear about them. Big mistake.
Jordan has beautiful infrastructure, including all the major hotel brands and even–hold your breath–Starbucks. It has women entrepreneurs and women cofounders. It has Petra and the Dead Sea, a rich history, and a king who is young, tech savvy, and meets personally with the tech entrepreneurs. And yet, when Egypt had problems, Jordan had to endure a 75 percent tourist cancellation rate.
A few companies to watch from the region: ShopGo, an e-commerce store; Oasis500, a collaborative for startups; Jo Bedu, a graphics and T-shirt vendor whose Arabian comic themes drew us all; ArtMedium, a woman-owned art events management company; Jeeran, a Yelp-like review site for the Middle East; Kharabeesh, a high-quality video and animation provider of content to YouTube; and Think Arabia, a holding company for six creative producers and agencies. I also mentored a woman who is creating an online lending library for Jordan, and a man who is creating a regional TV Guide.
All those startups sometimes meet at conferences attended by hundreds of people, like AmmanTech Tuesdays. And at events like these, the Twitter feed projected on the big screens is not about war, but about entrepreneurs. I plan to go back, and you should come with me. If you are at all interested in the future, you need to know and understand the Middle East.
[Image: Flickr user Francisco Martins]