A new golden age for Islam?

BOOKS: The Arab nations are set for a tech-based economic boom, argues the author of Startup Rising: The entrepreneurial revolution remaking the Middle East. Reviewer Martin Fletcher remains sceptical.

by Martin Fletcher
Last Updated: 27 May 2015

Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East
Christopher M Schroeder
Palgrave Macmillan, £17.99

If optimism is the hallmark of the entrepreneur, cynicism is that of the journalist. Christopher Schroeder, an American venture investor with a track record of success, asserts in his book Startup Rising that a tech-based 'entrepreneurial revolution' is 'remaking the Middle East'.

That is a bold and provocative argument to make at a time when Syria's conflict is inflaming Sunni-Shia tensions throughout the Islamic world, Egypt is becoming dangerously close to ungovernable, and Iraq is sliding back towards civil war.

He warns against the dangers of conventional wisdom, and may yet be proved right. I very much hope he is, but as a reporter who has spent much of the past few years covering the region's wars and revolutions, I admit that I am sceptical.

His Middle East and mine seem like parallel universes. Schroeder argues, in essence, that 60% of the Arab world's 360 million inhabitants are under 30, that they are hungry for and empowered by information technology, and that they represent a huge, underemployed talent pool.

At their backs, he says, they have a 'threefold hurricane force wind': unprecedented access to international ideas and markets; a new willingness by global capital to invest in risky emerging economies; and growing demand and opportunity in the Middle East. He rightly asserts that the Arab Spring revolutions were 'not merely about overthrowing long-standing dictatorships, but challenging a generational premise and complacency of their parents that things could not change'.

Schroeder uses rather too much jargon (to 'scale'? to 'ideate'?) and quotes that read like press releases, but I cannot fault his enthusiasm. He tells many inspiring stories of brave young Arab entrepreneurs - a surprising number of them women - who have had good ideas and made them work in the face of substantial odds.

His protagonists have built successful websites such as souk.com, ArabMatrimony.com and Ideal Ratings that tell investors which companies are Sharia-compliant. They have developed apps to bypass Cairo's appalling traffic congestion or to track the user's daily prayers. Some Yemeni schoolgirls went online and learnt how to make solar-power lanterns to end the fire risk to tents.

Hind Hobeika, a young Lebanese woman, invented Butterfleye, a module mounted on goggles that measures the heart rate of swimmers and now sells around the world.

My problem with Schroeder's case studies is that in almost every case the pioneers have been educated in the US or Europe, meaning they are drawn from a tiny pool that is hardly representative of Arab youth as a whole.

Moreover, he has limited his research to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Dubai - five of the Middle East's more advanced states and, again, not entirely representative of a region comprising 19 diverse countries. I fear he has identified a few small pockets of success, not a general trend.

I see a very different Arab world - Iraq, Libya, Syria and revolutionary Egypt - where the sort of pioneers Schroeder describes face any number of what he euphemistically calls mere 'headwinds'.

They include the anarchy and chaos of conflict; repressive, backward-looking governments that fear information technology and routinely restrict internet access; command economies dominated by tiny, exclusive elites; excessive bureaucracy; scant observance of the rule of law; rampant corruption; hidebound, conservative attitudes; sclerotic education systems; paltry credit card ownership, and much more besides.

Fadi Ghandour, a US-educated Jordanian who founded Aramex, an Arab Fedex, tells Schroeder how his Saudi drivers have been threatened at gunpoint after trying to deliver goods to women who are home alone during daytime. How long, I wonder, before some of Schroeder's pioneers give up in the face of such obstacles and return to the west?

What I see is the rise of jihadists and salafists who look backwards to a mythical 'golden age' of Islam.

I see a region that has scarcely embraced the book - a third of all Arabs are illiterate - let alone cyberspace. I see a region that excludes most women from its workforce. Far from catching up with the rest of the world, I fear it is falling ever further behind.

I rejoiced at the Arab Spring. I do not believe that it has failed - only that it is the start of a very long process that could take decades to produce what we would describe as normal societies in which start-ups routinely flourish.

- Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of The Times and has reported extensively from the Middle East.

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