x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A silicon oasis blooms in Jordan

Young Jordanian entrepreneurs in the field of technology have more of an opportunity than ever before, but challenges remain.

Zafer Younis sat with a group of like-minded young Jordanians in an Amman restaurant on a recent evening, deep in conversation.

The group, whose average age is 27, shared tips on business strategy and talked about how they expected their respective companies to grow.

While this is not typical dinner chat for young Jordanians enjoying an evening out in central Amman, it is an indication of the entrepreneurial driving force behind start-ups in the country, especially in the technology sector.

Mr Younis, 31, is a co-founder and the chief executive of Play 99.6 FM, the country's first independent English-language radio station, which was launched in 2004. He is also a self-proclaimed ambassador of social media, technology and all things online. Since the launch of the station - he applied for a licence when he was just 16 - he has gone on to launch Modern Media, a marketing and events company and The Online Project (TOP), which applies social media tools to business.

Times have changed since he struggled to get noticed, Mr Younis says, and the current ease of securing the support and funding required for a new technology business has led to a stream of internet-based companies in Jordan.

"Seven years ago when we wanted to start our own business, we were laughed at [because we were so young]," Mr Younis said. "Everyone said you need at least 10 years of experience. "Access to funding was nearly impossible back then. There is a huge difference in appetite between when we launched Play FM and when we launched TOP two years ago.

"Today, you can see well-established businessmen sitting with young entrepreneurs helping them develop their ideas."

Among the entrepreneurs joining Mr Younis for dinner is Namek Zu'bi, the 24-year-old co-founder and president of Middle East Technology Pioneers Exchange, a not-for-profit organisation that connects technology companies in the Middle East to global counterparts.

Splitting his time between Jordan and New York, Mr Zu'bi has been promoting an initiative called "Silicon Badia meets Silicon Alley", a word-play on Jordan's Badia area, to encourage close links between US investors and Jordan in particular.

He is on his way to New York next week to help set up several Jordanian companies backed by US investment.

But access to conventional funding in Jordan remains a problem because of local banks' negative perception of intangible assets - a challenge that has existed for years.

Technology companies that have launched in Jordan in the past decade have had to contend with limited views of "idea companies", said Emile Cubeisy, the managing director of IV Holding, a venture capital company that invests in Web-based companies in Amman.

"We never placed value in knowledge. We've historically worked in these bubbles that made it less risky to invest in land and assets than to invest in people," Mr Cubeisy said.

IV Holding was set up because of the lack of funding for new business and has gone on to manage a portfolio of companies including ShooFeeTV, a regional mobile and satellite-based "TV Guide", and Oasis 500, an investment company that also is designed to help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into business start-ups.

Mr Cubeisy said Jordan was likely to continue producing innovative, technology-based companies partly because of the country's lack of natural resources. "There is no glass ceiling over their heads, and no one is saying 'you cannot be that big'," he said.

The evidence is clear to see. Rubicon, the Middle East's largest animation studio, founded by Randa Ayoubi, is an international success heading towards parity with Paramount and Pixar.

Maktoob, the Middle East search engine founded in Amman and known for being the first Arabic-English email service provider, was bought by Yahoo in 2009, cementing Jordan's place as a forward-looking technology base for the Middle East.

business@thenational.ae