World Bank offers $1bn tech boost to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq

Network of private sector, governments and universities will work together in these countries to provide digital skills

epa07611234 A portrait of King Abdullah II of Jordan (Top-L) seen near a market area of Amman, Jordan, 29 May 2019. According to media reports, Some Jordanians call for a protest again on 30 May to express their refusal of a US peace deal dubbed the 'deal of the century', due to be presented by White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner later in June at a conference in Bahrain. Kushner arrived in the Middle East region on 29 May, he plans to meet officials in Jordan and Israel after he visited Morocco one day earlier.  EPA/AMEL PAIN
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Amman, Jordan //  The World Bank said it may provide up to $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in financing commitments to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq to boost investment initiatives supporting the development of the digital economies of the three nations, struggling to maintain economic growth momentum amid mounting debt levels, according to a senior World Bank executive.

The lender is ready to offer financial assistance to bring together governments, the private sector and educational establishments to develop technological expertise and adoption, said Mashreq regional director Saroj Kumar Jha, who covers Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Iran.

At the first Digital Mashreq Forum held by the World Bank in the Jordanian capital Amman, the lender rolled out a "Skilling Up Mashreq Initiative" designed to train 500,000 students, graduates and workers in digital skills by the end of 2020, as the three countries pledged to overhaul regulations to rejuvenate their digital economies. The forum highlighted some of the tech start-ups from the three countries, ranging from on-demand shipping to digitised Arabic books, as a way of introducing them to Saudi, US and Asian investment funds present at the gathering.

"We will engage with all of these [three] countries in terms of continuing education, in terms of trying to squeeze as much as we can out of the experience of these start-ups to make sure we can build those skills that will allow for those young and not so young to engage in this economy," World Bank vice president for Middle East North Africa Ferid Belhaj told The National.

Under the initiative, a network of private sector, governments and universities will work together in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq to provide digital skills for students, graduates and workers in coding, digital security and leadership skills to open up job opportunities and encourage start-ups in the knowledge economy.

A core focus of the initiative will be reaching people outside the Jordanian, Iraqi and Lebanese capitals, where training and education in digital skills is sparse, the World Bank said.

In a communiqué on Saturday, the governments of the three nations pledged to increase broadband access to 100 per cent across their countries over the next few years, promote e-payments and digitise government services under the watch of the World Bank. A 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration could lead to an increase of 1.4 per cent of GDP growth each for Leabanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Boosting the digital economy and entrepreneurialism is seen as critical for economic growth in Jordan, which is battling 30 per cent youth unemployment and a national debt crisis, and in Lebanon, which aims to position itself as a tech hub in the Arab world and boost economic growth. Lebanon's real GDP for 2018 is estimated to have grown by only 0.2 per cent, reflecting a deceleration in economic activity linked to policy-based tightening of liquidity, according to an April report by the World Bank.

At the forum, Jordan pledged to increase cashless e-payment use in the country from 33 per cent currently to 50 per cent by next year and open up its national broadband network for investment under public private partnerships to extend affordable fibre broadband to 1.3 million households in the kingdom.

Earlier this year, Jordan reformed its Ministry of Information and Technology into the region’s first Ministry of Digital Economy. It is set to spearhead a series of initiatives including the training of 35,000 people and 300,000 public school students in coding and digital skills. Jordan ranked 60 and Lebanon 88 out of 143 nations in the 2016 World Economic Forum’s Net Readiness Index.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government said at the forum it would introduce a new regulatory framework for digital payments - seen as part of a solution for the country’s struggling banking industry - to enable access to financial products and systems for all Iraqis.

"After this conference, with the three countries working together with the World Bank, investors understand there is so much potential in this part of the world," Jordan Minister of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship Muthana Gharaibeh told The National.

The Digital Mashreq Forum, which gathers entrepreneurs, investors, and governments from Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and across the region, is set to become an annual fixture, with follow-up forums to be held in Beirut in 2020 and in Iraq in 2021.