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Beyond the conflict lies a Middle East of milk and ehoney

The Sunday Times

The West sees only a region ravaged by strife but it is fast being reshaped by a young digital generation racing to better their lives.

Had they been watching the BBC or CNN in recent months, even the most inspired optimist would find it difficult to be encouraged by the Middle East. Barrel bombs in Syria, crackdowns in Egypt and the seemingly insoluble Israeli-Palestinian conflict have all but unravelled the hopes of many for the Arab uprisings three years ago.

But here are a few facts we rarely hear on the news. The country that uses YouTube the most, per head, is Saudi Arabia. More of the viewers are women than men, and one of the most-watched categories of video is education.

One of the most successful flotations in 2013 was that of Asiacell, which raised £800m. Asiacell is the largest mobile provider in Iraq.

Dubai, Amman and Beirut are hubs of a growing regional burst of ecommerce, moving well over $1bn in goods in 2013, and, in a market that produced more than $400bn in traditional consumer sales, they present a big opportunity. It should be no surprise that in the past year the ecommerce global payment juggernaut PayPal has opened offices for the first time in the region.

Even the uncertain Egypt will surprise. The internet contributes as much of a percentage of GDP as its health services, education and oil industries, and is growing at nearly twice the rate in Europe. Egypt also has the largest population of internet and mobile users in the region. One day it will no doubt again be one of the greatest tourist destinations. What opportunities for innovation await there, given that last year only 5% of all travel bookings were made online?

The Arab world of more than 350m has a collective GDP the size of India’s, and a per head GDP nearly twice that of China. Its internet usage is one of the fastest growing in the world: the number of users is expected to exceed 140m next year. Within two years at least 50% of people in most countries in the region will have smartphones — which means half of people in the Middle East will be walking around with the same computing power in their pockets that put a man on the moon.

Why aren’t we hearing more about all this? Part of the answer lies in narrative bias. We rarely ask the basic question about what is happening now that may make the next, say, five years different from the past five. Especially through the post-September 11 lens, we tend to look for the Middle East to be a region of unending conflict. After all, there is plenty of evidence to confirm this bias. Other possibilities are hard to consider and are often rejected.

Members of a new generation in the Middle East, as elsewhere, have never known a world before information technology, and they have a keen understanding of how others like them live and create opportunities for themselves.They take for granted easy access to inexpensive technological, social and collaborative tools. With these they communicate, start businesses and access affordably once unreachable ideas, customers and markets regionally and abroad.

Entrepreneurs are inventing apps to use crowd-sourcing to help navigate traffic-clogged Arab cities, and are creating online platforms to crowd-fund start-up ideas. They are launching video sites offering classes in languages, maths and computer programming to supplement often inadequate formal education. They are building enterprises that use solar energy to pump water to hard-to-reach places and create new arable land, or to produce fresh water through desalinisation. They are finding innovative ways to remove waste and recycle. They are testing countless health plans.

And with the world one click away, entrepreneurs who were once confined to local markets can reach virtually any market connected to the internet to share ideas and services.

We are unsurprised to hear such stories coming from China, India or Brazil, though who among us would have thought them possible there a decade or two ago? And for all their success, these are still countries racked with corruption, political uncertainty, unemployment and wide gaps between rich and poor.

We may be equally surprised today to learn that the largest mobile payment country is Kenya — 20% of its GDP passes through a mobile cash texting capability — or that the rising technological hub of Africa is Rwanda. And yet the latter was in the midst of genocide two decades ago, and the former recently suffered one of the most brutal terrorist attacks of the past five years. The worlds we are entering have many concurrent narratives — good, bad and neutral. We need to be open to what is different.

During another period of great uncertainty and change, which carried with it great opportunity and disappointment, one of its leaders — the Czech writer Vaclav Havel — made a distinction between optimism and hope. “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism,” he noted. “It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

No one can predict how Syria or Egypt or other points of conflict in the Middle East will look in three years’ time. But we do know that there will be a lot more people — millions more — with a lot more technology in their hands. How this can change the equations we take for granted, what opportunities and tools are available to us now that were not available in the past, raises huge and hopeful possibilities.

Christopher Schroeder is an internet entrepreneur and the author of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East, published by Palgrave Macmillan

First published in The Sunday Times on December 29, 2013.

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