Amman, Jordan // Jordan is positioning itself as a hub for computer programming in the Arab world. The government and private sector plan to train hundreds of thousands of Jordanians from the ages of six to 46 to read and write code, the "DNA" of computer software, apps and websites.
The resource-poor kingdom, where 70 per cent of the population is under 30 and rapidly entering the job market, is turning to become a digital economy. The ambition is to open up job opportunities and overcome an 18.9 per cent unemployment rate.
The potential, officials and observers say, is clear.
Hundreds of Jordanian coders are working for Microsoft and Expedia out of Amman, and dozens of others work remotely for western and Arabian Gulf companies outside the capital in cities such as Irbid.
In 2017, Jordan became one of the earliest countries in the region to introduce coding into its primary school curriculum.
"People are coming to Jordan because they understand the value of Jordanian workers and the bright young people here," Mothanna Gharaibeh, Jordan's Minister of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship, told The National. "This is a key growth area and we will make sure we equip our people."
Central to these efforts is the "One Million Jordanian Coders" initiative unveiled in May. The programme is a collaboration between Jordan's Crown Prince Foundation, the private sector and the UAE. The launch ceremony was also attended by the UAE's Minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, Mohammed Al Gergawi.
In association with international companies such as Microsoft, Jordanians aged 18 and above across the country will receive free three-month training sessions and online courses in coding, and awarded internationally recognised certification.
The qualification will also be endorsed by the UAE Ministry of Artificial Intelligence.
The Crown Prince Foundation and organisers say the initiative will target disadvantaged groups outside the country's main urban areas by providing online courses, with the goal of creating a talent pool to be later linked with internships and potential jobs. With the ability to work remotely off-site, officials believe coding can open up careers for Jordanians in the suburbs, where unemployment rates reach as high as 30 per cent.
A lack of transport and high costs in Amman make commuting or relocating to the capital an obstacle for many trying to land employment.
Jordan has a distinct edge in coding in the Arab world. Under the directives of King Abdullah, the kingdom embarked on a revamp and expansion of its IT sector 20 years ago. It has since built up an extensive internet infrastructure, attracted global tech companies such as Microsoft, Cisco and Amazon, to set up shop and enter partnerships in the country and developed a start-up ecosystem. Jordan remains the largest source country for Arabic-language web content in the region
at more than 60 per cent, despite accounting for only 4 per cent of the region's population. More than 20,000 Jordanians are now employed in the ICT sector.
Bolstering Jordan's competency in programming is an expanding start-up ecosystem. Numerous business incubators and initiatives are helping start-ups get off the ground by connecting them with IT companies across the world.
"The talent in Jordan has proven itself, many are working as programmers across the region and for international companies," said Hanan Khader, whose start-up Hello World Kids, formed in 2015, teaches coding in Jordan's schools.
“Now we want to promote that culture and nurture talent at the early age.”
western investors say the availability of programmers makes the kingdom an attractive destination for either opening a tech business or outsourcing to produce Arabic web content. "The talent here is affordable, with international experience and both Arabic and English language skills," says one foreign investor, who did not want to be identified as talks are under way about partnering with a Jordanian company.
“If you want access to the Arab market, Jordanian talent is the gateway.”
At Ms Khader's Hello World Kids, experts teach children between the ages of six and 14 coding through games, cartoons and songs, both in class and via an online platform they can access at home.
The interface allows educators and the company to track children's development, allowing them to identify and nurture talent and help them apply for scholarships and even mentorships offered by global tech companies.
Hello World Kids reaches 50,000 primary schools across the country, and will be available to an additional 40,000 pupils annually over the next three years.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Digital Economy is set to work with the private sector to train 35,000 university graduates and professionals in digital skills and coding by the end of the year.
Officials in Jordan and members of the business community stress that the drive for promoting coding comes out of a recognition that despite lacking natural resources – the country imports 90 per cent of its energy needs – it is blessed with a valuable resource in a highly educated and skilled workforce.
Organisers of One Million Jordanian Coders cite World Economic Forum research that shows 65 per cent of jobs over the next decade will be positions that currently do not exist and 45 per cent of them will be automated in the next five years.
At the first Digital Mashreq Forum held by the World Bank in Amman this weekend, the lender announced a “Skilling Up Mashreq Initiative”. It is designed to train 500,000 students, graduates and workers in digital skills in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq by the end of 2020. The lender may also provide the three states with up to $1 billion to support tech related initiatives, The National reported on Sunday.
The UAE also has its own One Million Arab Coders initiative, launched in 2017. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, unveiled the programme to produce a generation of Arab digital experts by providing them with necessary expertise and scholarships.
The Dubai Future Foundation in March last year signed deals with several major international companies to support the programme, including Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Careem, ConsenSys and Emirates NBD.
"The initiative also supports the aspirations of the youth to stay abreast of global technological developments," UAE Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence Omar bin Sultan Al Olama said at the time.