The other day I drove from Israel to Jordan through the Jordan Valley which is 1,200 feet below sea level – and really hot. About an hour over the border (photo below) we stopped at Mount Nebo which is where Moses saw the Promised Land; below us was Jericho and on the distant horizon was Amman. I would like to point out that two weeks ago I would never have guessed that I would ever write those sentences.
For the past ten days I have been traveling in the Middle East with Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts to support his trade mission to the region and to meet local entrepreneurs and investors.
Obviously the “Start Up Nation” phenomenon that is Israel is well chronicled. I was last there three years ago and the economic vitality and entrepreneurial success stories continue apace, even in spite of the Arab Spring which has upset all semblance of normal life in the region. There were over 500 attendees at an eHealth conference I spoke at – the size of the audience frankly caught everyone by surprise. The building boom in Herzliya, which actually seems sustainable, is testament to the power of their innovation economy.
But what I was really intrigued to see was how adjacent economies were faring with their interpretation of an innovation economy. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 so notwithstanding long lines at the border crossing, the country has had 20 years of relative stability and valuable trade with its western neighbor – obviously complicated enormously by the influx of displaced Palestinians (coincidentally, while in Jordan, Hamas and Fatah announced the “Unity Cabinet” which generated sensational headlines in the local papers). And with this peace came a modicum of relative prosperity. A couple of other observations I would share:
- There are thought to be 7 million inhabitants in Jordan but the make-up is tricky. In addition to the Palestinians, there are now 650,000 Syrian refugees – some analysts suggest that number may be well over 1 million. We saw United Nation Refugee tents along many of the highways; evidently they are sold on the black market as much of the population is still nomadic. While today only 1% of the country is Bedouin, that number had been 10% a generation ago and many more share that nomadic history and sensibilities.
- There has been a significant investment made in higher education. We visited the King’s Academy, a high school modeled largely on Deerfield Academy with an extraordinary mosaic of students from around the world; other than the fact that it was nearly 100 degrees and there were palm trees, I could have been on any New England prep school campus (turns out the headmaster went to college with me – small world). Recently American and German universities were opened, which co-exist with a number of elite state universities. One gets the distinct sense that the commitment to education will lead to interesting clusters of economic activity.
- And in fact there is now a real incubator in Jordan called Oasis500. In 1999 there was effectively no IT industry in Jordan; today IT represents 12% of the economy. Apparently 75% of all Arabic content on the Web is created in Jordan (although I am not sure how one would even go about determining that)
- Jordan is the regional destination for medical tourism, at least for those in the Middle East who cannot afford to fly to Boston, New York, Cleveland, London, Paris, etc. We heard a lot about the investments being made in community hospitals – delivering quality healthcare to that population is complex.
So while our drive from Jerusalem to Amman presented to us a country haltingly on the road to continued improvement and prosperity, certainly as compared to its neighbors to the east/north/south, lunch with US Ambassador Jones (a brilliant foreign policy expert, who upon Senate confirmation is to be posted to Iraq) was a reminder how tenuous life still is there. The conversation was far-reaching but underscored that formal country borders are often incidental to cultural and tribal boundaries. In particular, the discussion of Kurdistan highlighted the profound disruption created by ancestral disputes. Seemingly Jordan has learned well that investment in its people through improved education and healthcare infrastructure leads to economic gains which drives stability.
Later that night I flew to Abu Dhabi – wow.