Let’s be honest. The Middle East and North Africa is burning, and in some areas it is literally burning. Conflict and fragility have long warped what once was the cradle of civilization and the inspiration for the many inventions we can’t live without today. However, in the midst of that fire hope rises, a driver of change that is transforming the ugly reality into a bright future.
After I fled the war in Iraq in 2006, I was pessimistic about what the future was holding for that region. Year after another, the domino-effect of collapse became a reality that shaped the region and its people. Yet, fast-forward to 2017, I have witnessed what I never thought I would see in my lifetime: the new renaissance in the Middle East and North Africa.
I have just recently come back from attending the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa at the Dead Sea in Jordan. This year, the Forum and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, partnered to bring together 100 Arab start-ups that are shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
There, the positive vibe was all around; no negativity, no pessimism. Instead there was a new sense of optimism and enthusiasm, hunger for change, and the will to take the region to a whole new future, away from conflict and the current norm of pessimism.
Young and persevering
Throughout the conference, I was surrounded by young women and men whose startup ideas were revolutionary. As I spoke with them, I realized that they are the real leaders of positivity in the region. They’re the ones who are bringing change.
Take Charlie El Khoury, 24, from Lebanon, for example. The idea of the startup he co-founded, NAR, came up after a fire! ‘Nar’ means fire in Arabic. In 2014, a massive blaze broke out in a forest next to a Beirut suburb. He wondered if a drone could have helped firefighters track the blaze, predict where it was heading, and stop it much more quickly. That’s when he and his partner Nicolas Zaatar, a classmate at the Lebanese American University, took that idea to the next level and founded NAR.
Or take Sana Hawasly, from neighboring war-torn Syria, who co-founded Daraty, a startup that designed a hardware toolkit connected to a mobile app, to teach kids the principles of electronics without the need of expert supervision. Dodging their country’s challenges, she and her partner AlHasan Muhammad Ali’s startup sprung up as a way to make learning electronics as simple as possible.
Nearby in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Ayman Arandi founded Iris Solutions, a startup specialized in interactive Technology. Iris designs and implements sensory rooms — relaxing rooms with lights, music and visuals that can increase well-being and decrease stress. So far, they have installed 50 of these rooms across West Bank, serving more than 10,000 children and adults in schools and hospitals. Among their beneficiaries are children diagnosed with Autism, PTSD, ADHD, and disabilities. Their latest project is unique rooms in a public Palestinian hospital, serving children with severe skin burns.
Hundreds of miles away in the Gulf city of Dubai, a young woman from Lebanon, has a mission: helping freelancers in the region find work that suited their skills and passions. To achieve her mission, Loulou Khazen Baz, 35, founded Nabbesh.com. Today, 100,000 people use the platform to search for work with companies such as IBM, General Electric, and scores more.
Engines of job creation
With unemployment rates in the Middle East and North Africa remaining high, the ambitious goal of absorbing unemployed workers in addition to the new entrants implies the need to create close to 100 million jobs by 2020, according to the World Bank.
The region has long struggled to generate enough quality jobs for its large and increasingly educated workforce, but this can be turned around. A Bank report highlights the central role of promoting competition to stimulate private sector growth. It establishes that young and productive firms generate employment in the region’s economies.
“Entrepreneurship is crucial to the creation of a vibrant 21st-century economy,” said Fadi Ghandour, Executive Chairman of Wamda Capital. “Government can’t do it alone. Traditional businesses are facing challenges. If you want to create jobs in the Arab world, if you want innovation, you need entrepreneurs.”
“This is the future,” he affirmed.
We are the Middle East, but …
As I was getting ready to head back to the airport in Amman, I grabbed my smart phone and ordered a cab through UBER! I never thought I would use the exact same e-hailing app I use here in Washington DC in Amman. I have also realized that it’s not only Amman and not only UBER. It’s now across the region.
From Baghdad’s Ujra to the UAE’s Careem, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is revolutionizing the way Middle Easterners view their present and future. It is letting them overcome the many challenges they still face and allowing them to say “We’re the Middle East, but version 2.0.!”
Follow the author on Twitter @bsebti.
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