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Technology Outsourcing

In Palestine, Technologists Find Freedom to Innovate

In his 1997 book I Saw Ramallah, the Palestinian writer and poet Mourid Barghouti creates a wonderful evocation of what it is like to be an exile… and what it means to be a Palestinian.

Barghouti spent his childhood in Ramallah before leaving for Cairo to study in 1966 at the age of 22. His timing was appalling. While he was at Cairo University the 1967 Six-Day War began and finished, and he was consequently denied entry to Palestine. He then lived the rootless and nomadic life of many an exile before him, spending time in Amman, Baghdad, Beirut and Budapest before returning to Cairo. His description of his attempted return to Ramallah 30 years later is poetic, moving and gripping.

Barghouti’s tale is tragic and is one of too many in this part of the world. The Millennia-old dispute between the Semitic tribes of Jews and Arabs is unlikely to be solved in our lifetimes, but some seeds of hope are beginning to emerge from the Palestinian IT and tech sector.

According to PITA (the Palestinian Information Network of IT Companies), more than 10% of Palestine’s GDP now comes from IT outsourcing and a nascent startup ecosystem is attracting early investments. Even more interestingly, the Israeli arms of global tech giants that are availing themselves of Palestinian engineers and coders as a cheaper alternative to using Israeli companies.

Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Microsoft and Intel all work with Palestinian IT companies that are around 25% cheaper than their Israeli equivalents and are very local indeed in terms of geography if less so in terms of politics. Moreover, the director of developer relations at Google Israel has extended an open invitation for Palestinians to work on mobile apps at its Tel Aviv centre. That invitation has also been offered by the Microsoft Development Centre in the Israeli city of Herzliya.

But such olive branches, welcome as they are, cannot be accepted by young Palestinian entrepreneurs because of political bureaucracy. On a recent trip to Ramallah to speak at the Expotech event, I was left stranded in Tel Aviv because of the intense snowstorms that afflicted the country, and unlike Mourid Barghouti I didn’t even manage to see Ramallah, let alone meet Ramallah companies.

While the road was blocked going into Ramallah and only army vehicles were being allowed through, it was still possible for people to come down to Tel Aviv, 50 miles to the south. When I suggested to the organiser that a selection of startups should come to meet us in Tel Aviv, he laughed out loud. He was a Palestinian who was ‘lucky’ enough to hold an Israeli ID, something that is unusual for Palestinians. If you don’t have one, you’re not allowed into Israel, so it was impossible for Palestine startups to meet us in Tel Aviv and, crucially, not possible for them to take up the invitations from Google and Microsoft.

This also creates big problems for Palestinian companies wanting to travel abroad. Israel’s Ben Gurion airport is only an hour’s drive from Ramallah, but because of these restrictions, the only alternative for Palestinians is to cross the border at Jordan and undertake the four-hour car journey to Amman.

In spite of these challenges, a nascent startup ecosystem is slowly being created. When Palestine was given observer nation status by the United Nations in 2012, the Palestinian Diaspora began to trickle back into the country and while that trickle has yet to reach biblical flood dimensions, it is flowing faster by the month.

This has been aided by GloPal, an IT social network of Palestinian companies, entrepreneurs, investors and IT professionals who share information about the sector and events such as the previously mentioned Expotech that had attracted more than 700 attendees from around the Arab world and beyond.

Alan Weinkrantz is a sector specialist based in San Antonio, Texas, who has advised PITA on its technology ecosystem strategy and divides his time between Israel and the US. He is passionate about the growth of Palestine as a tech centre.

“The tech sector in Palestine is happening and it’s happening now, and that’s regardless of whatever American President or US senior figure tries to do,” he says. “There are naturally evolving ecosystems that occur everywhere in the world and here it is no different. I live in San Antonio in Texas. We are five hours away from Dallas and we’re also five hours from Monterrey in Mexico. The startup community here veers towards Mexico because it’s cheaper, but it doesn’t matter where these ecosystems happen.

“Think about it. Ramallah and Tel Aviv are closer than Brighton and London are in the UK. When it comes to entrepreneurship, it doesn’t matter where you live and what religion you follow. The religion, the only religion, is startup culture because nobody can occupy the cloud.”

Palestine’s example here is obviously the huge success and influence of Tel Aviv and one that any city would like to emulate. In spite of the barriers placed in front of it, the Palestinian tech ecosystem is here to stay. Seeing Ramallah as a place where entrepreneurship flourishes is undoubtedly something that Mourid Barghouti will be very proud of.

 

Monty Munford has written about digital innovation for Wired, the Daily Telegraph and many other titles, often looking at the impact technology has on Africa and Asia. He runs his own site at www.mob76outlook.com and has also starred in Bollywood films.

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Monty Munford

Monty Munford has written about digital innovation for Wired, the Daily Telegraph and many other titles, often looking at the impact technology has on Africa and Asia. He runs his own site at www.mob76outlook.com and has also starred in Bollywood films.

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