According to Arab Finance
In a bid to further strengthen its growing information and communication technology (ICT) sector, Jordan has begun implementation of a new policy to enhance "e-participation", outlining a set of aggressive targets to boost internet usage and access across the country by 2011.
The ministry of ICT's (MOICT) new ICT National Strategy 2007-2011, issued late last year, significantly revises the kingdom's initial 1999 ICT policy, which was known as the Reach Initiative. The new policy outlines a number of objectives for the country to reach within the next three years, including fostering a $3bn ICT sector, encouraging the development of 35,000 jobs and pushing the internet penetration rate towards 50%. The strategy was devised with extensive input from the private sector, including the Information Technology Association of Jordan (Int@j), an industry lobbying group.
According to Zeid Shubailat, country manager for Microsoft Jordan, "The Jordanian IT sector has remained just at the tipping point and we are hoping that this new initiative will create enough critical mass for a truly developed information technology ecosystem [...] This will be hard to reach without the government really driving it forward."
Jordan has traditionally been one of the most developed knowledge economies in the region, with statistics pointing towards an annual growth rate of 50% in recent years. When the Reach Initiative was initially proposed eight years ago, the ICT sector was expanding rapidly, with a number of innovative start-ups such as Maktoob.com and d1g, as well as a labour force that was in increasing demand. To capitalise on this, the initiative proposed the creation of 30,000 ICT-related jobs, $550m worth of exports and $150m of FDI, all by 2004. However, by 2006, Jordan was still below the Reach targets; in some ICT sectors, the kingdom had even fallen behind its neighbours.
According to a UN global e-governance index, between 2002 and 2005 Jordan ranked below the UAE, Egypt and Lebanon in terms of its e-government projects and its overall online engagement. As of late 2007, in spite of the Reach efforts, Jordan's ICT-related workforce remained at 16,000, while government statistics indicated that internet penetration hovered around 11%. Similarly, PC ownership was only 7.1%, while ADSL penetration was less than 1%.
Jordan's ICT sector also suffers from something of a brain drain, as high Gulf salaries lure away talented staff. Although an estimated 5000 ICT students graduate each year, skilled labour can be difficult to come by.
Batoul Ajlouni, the vice-president of business development at Jordan-based Integrated Technology Group, told OBG, "This is a major challenge facing us as many of the IT graduates are simply not sufficiently trained to begin working and require a good deal more investment from the private sector. Employees often take six to nine months of additional training, particularly in soft skills, and this represents a significant cost to us, as well as a risk of investment should the employee leave."
The 2007-2011 strategy directly addresses these and other weaknesses; including the high cost of broadband access, legal and regulatory challenges, and the lack of diversified ICT demand (the government is the major buyer of ICT services in Jordan). According to Bassem Roussan, the minister of ICT, the new policy will provide a more detailed approach to facilitating government support and encouraging greater investment. The new policy looks to boost the sector's current 10% GDP contribution by focusing primarily on connectivity, research and development, labour and education, regulation and the investment climate.
Although the policy is still quite new, the private sector is responding to the strategy with enthusiasm. According to Ajlouni, "With this new government, the private sector and academia are extremely keen to revitalise this whole process and our citizens should start to see major changes within three to five years. [ICT] has to be a major priority and is now very high up on the national agenda."
Foreign companies are also showing interest, with industry heavyweight Cisco Systems having selected Jordan as a training centre for its Middle East and North Africa operations. Niche sectors with ICT services are also becoming increasingly visible, with the Jordan-based animation and multimedia company Rubicon recently announcing a production and licensing partnership with Hollywood's MGM studios.