So it is hardly surprising that the agreement signed in September between the US’ Cisco Systems and the government of Jordan made little impression outside the kingdom. Similarly, the national Information & Communications Technology (ICT) forum at which it was announced was largely eclipsed by the fanfare surrounding the GITEX trade fair in Dubai. The last such ICT forum, held in 2002, suffered a similar fate. Yet there was plenty of cause for a bit of fuss – shortly beforehand, global giant Microsoft had announced its first joint venture agreement in the Middle East, with a Jordanian company, Estarta Solutions.

Landmark

There is more than a little snobbery involved. After all, the UAE is one of the biggest economies in the Middle East and one of its biggest IT markets. As the lavish public receptions that attend GITEX demonstrate, it is also one of the wealthiest. Jordan, by comparison, is tiny in terms of population and productivity. And yet this small desert kingdom is the first country to conclude landmark agreements with two of the biggest corporations in the world.

Like consultancy agreements, strategic partnerships rarely make the front pages for their dollar value. But their impact often goes deeper and lingers longer than more conventional supply or project contracts. ‘It is not just about the relationship between this company and the government,’ Cisco president John Chambers told witnesses to the 13 September signing. ‘It’s really about nation building. Jordan is a model for what others should do – we are planning to put more in here, in terms of scope and long-term investment, than anywhere else in the world.’

So why Jordan? ‘There is an element that big multinationals like to have some ethical investments in their portfolio for the sake of their image – in the case of Cisco and Microsoft, in the education system here,’ says a European economist. ‘But they don’t go looking for charity cases. Jordan genuinely has the potential to become the IT hub of the region, not only in terms of developing software, but developing the IT workforce for the rest of the region. And King Abdullah has done a fabulous job of marketing the place abroad.’

There are some obvious attractions for foreign companies. According to a recent World Bank report, Jordan made the most progress among regional states in improving its investment climate in 2003. An IMF-backed reform programme, bolstered by economic support from the US, has reportedly led to gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the region of 7 per cent this year. But its greatest asset, says the government, is human resources.

‘Managing the transformation has not been easy – changes to the education system always take a school generation to work through, but the $500 million that was earmarked for educational reform back in 2001 is beginning to have an effect,’ says ICT Minister Fawaz Zu’bi. ‘The advantage of us partnering with the private sector for this transformation is that we can match the education system to the requirements of the market, and in doing that there is an automatic process where the increase in innovation itself starts to create new business and new jobs, and an added dimension to the knowledge economy.’

Wiring up

With the help of Microsoft, the ICT Ministry in 2002 launched a project to connect all the kingdom’s public universities, community colleges and schools with high-speed broadband networks by 2006. The recent thre