Omar al-Abdallat, a well-known political cartoonist, clicks on one of his latest creations for Kharabeesh, Think Arabia’s Web site: a drawing of a terrified child peeking out of a hole shaped like a map of Syria. Abdallat, 32, is recruiting top cartoonists from across the Middle East to provide animated video content.
Founded in 2008 by blogger Wael Attili and friends, Kharabeesh, which means “Doodles” in Arabic, is creating videos that attract 20 million views a month.
Before there was an Arab Spring, there was a quiet revolution of sorts brewing in Jordan. The country experienced a tech boom that gained speed as young Arabs toppled regimes from Egypt to Tunisia and millions were driven online for the first time. Jordan now hosts about three-quarters of all Arabic content on the Internet, according to the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union.
Can it last? Doubts grew in September when the Jordanian parliament passed a law curtailing freedom of expression on the Internet and giving the government broad powers to block Web sites.
“The law is so vague you could drive a truck through it,” says Abdelmajeed Shamlawi, chief executive of the Information and Communications Technology Association of Jordan.
The law, passed days after demonstrators took to the streets in Amman to protest an anti-Islam video that originated in the United States and was broadcast online, was deplored by groups such as Human Rights Watch as an instance of state censorship.
On a scale of 1 (most free) to 7 (least free), Jordan scores 5.5, or “not free,” according to the Freedom in the World 2011 report published by Washington-based Freedom House.
Still, even with large Palestinian and Iraqi communities inside its borders, and flanked by a deepening civil war in Syria, Jordan remains relatively stable by regional standards.
While online enterprises crop up from Cairo to Qatar, Amman is the closest thing the Middle East has to a Silicon Valley outside Israel. It has been dubbed Silicon Wadi (Arabic for “Valley”).
The capital, as a hub for Web businesses, could benefit from the regional market. Only 29 percent of the Middle East’s population used the Internet last year, according to the ITU. With two-thirds of the population under 30 years old, the region has one of the world’s fastest-growing Internet penetration rates.
In Jordan, entrepreneurs have been thriving. The surge in business activity is luring Jordanian expatriates back to the fold; there’s even a LinkedIn group called Jordan’s Brain Gain, with 2,700 members.
Israel, home to the largest number of start-up companies per capita in the world, is unrivaled as the region’s information and communications technology powerhouse. Its industry generated $20.5 billion in revenue in 2011, or 12.1 percent of the country’s GDP.