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Jordan sells its high-tech sector to region at 2004 ICT Forum

Cisco systems hails 'unique' government reforms
Cooperation between public, private sectors praised as Unparalleled

AMMAN : Jordan is pinning its economic future on becoming the high-tech hub of the Middle East - and despite its modest GDP and labor force - the kingdom has drawn praise, if not unabashed cheerleading from some of the most powerful corporations in the global IT industry.

This week, in a dizzying number of press conferences, John Chambers, CEO of networking giant Cisco Systems, heralded Jordan as a shinning example for regional development, a country, he said, whose growth record over the past five years his $22 billion company could only strive to emulate.

"In Jordan, the government and the private sector are working together in a way I have not seen anywhere else in the world," he said repeatedly throughout a series of Cisco-sponsored events leading up to the much hyped 2004 Jordan Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Forum. The event touted the country's IT initiatives before a gathering of over 800 regional delegates from Sept. 14 - 15 at a barely-completed new Dead Sea convention center.

"What you have outlined is very unique in the world," he added, dubbing King Abdullah II as "one of the top leaders in the world."

But Abdullah, a close personal friend of Chambers, tempered the rhetoric with sobering statistics about the region's dismal economic performance in his keynote address on Tuesday.

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa, he lamented, account for less than 1.5 percent of global non-oil exports, "less exports than Finland," and only one in three of the region's citizens will find jobs in their respective countries, he added - a ratio that could grow to one in five by 2010.

"The world continues to grow at a faster pace than the region," he said. "We can't comprise and we have to set the pace."

That much may be true. Revenues for Jordan's budding ICT industry grew by 30 percent last year to just under $300 million, with exports surging by over 70 percent during the same period.

And although fewer than 10 percent of Jordanians have access to the Internet, the country's ICT Ministry is intent on transforming the sector into a $1 billion industry by 2008.

The Hashemite kingdom is also trumping Monday's release of a 1.5 million dinar broadband network that will connect local students to thousands of universities in Europe. Jordan is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on its new education programs, and inviting multinationals like Cisco, Dell and Computer Associates to contribute to and sponsor a new electronic curriculum.

"King Abdullah and Chambers give Jordan's ICT sector good exposure in the region," said Rami Sawan, a manger with Jordan-based United Business Machines. "I think the bureaucracy, the legal environment and the long time issuing tenders is sometimes an obstacle, but in general it is an open and competitive market," he said.

Other Arab participants saw the forum purely as a public relations affair, but lauded the apparent difference between Jordan's progress and that of their own country.

"It's nice to see such a well-organized event in the Arab world. However, there's nothing new here," said Bassam Jaber, general manager of Cyberia, one of Lebanon's largest Internet service providers.

"We knew about Jordan's initiatives a long time ago - every country has an initiative, all they need is a leader. They have one and we don't," he said.

Jordan already boasts vibrant competition in its mobile sector with three private operators, but Lebanese politicians have failed to agree on privatization reforms, while their constituents pay some of the world's highest phone bills.

"It's just a matter of making a decision. If you have a vision, you can do whatever you want," said Jaber.

Amman,09 21 2004
Habib Battah
The Daily Star
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