Lacking the oil resources of most of its neighbours, Amman has long focused on the development of its principle asset, its people. And for most of the past three decades, the kingdom has prioritised investment in the education and training of young Jordanians, particularly in the areas of engineering and technology.

These long-sighted policies launched in the late 1970s are bearing fruit today, with Jordanians playing key roles in businesses across the region. But it is in the information and technology sector where the kingdom is really benefiting from its investment in education.

Reaping benefits

With ICT playing an increasingly central role in the everyday life of individuals and companies, information technology companies are becoming increasingly important players in the regional economy, both as providers of products and services, and as employers of young Arabs. Jordan, in particular is emerging as an IT services hub, providing highly-qualified developers, bilingual in English and Arabic, situated at the geographic centre of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. Today, the sector accounts for about 14 per cent of Jordan’s gross domestic product, and employs some 2.5 million people.

Location of internet users in Jordan
Location Share of internet users (per cent)
Amman 76.6
Zarqa 9.2
Irbid 5.6
Balqa 3.11
Madaba 1.4
Aqaba 1.1
Kerak 1
Ma’an 0.9
Jerash 0.6
Mafraq 0.4
Ajlun 0.1
Source: Arab Advisors Group

The sector is now so significant to Jordan that it is at the heart of the government’s development strategy and the recent news that the ICT Ministry is to rewrite the country’s telecoms law is aimed at ensuring it can deliver this goal. 

The plan to revise the law is the result of the emergence of broadband mobile phone networks that enable mobile phones to go beyond the traditional voice-only services to provide data services ranging from high-definition broadcast to commercial transactions.

The development of these services through downloadable applications or ‘apps’, is creating a convergence between the telecoms industry and other sectors, such as media and banking, that existing regulations are not designed to cover.

“We have a good telecommunications law in place,” says Jordan’s ICT Minister Marwan Juma. “But all laws need to serve at least a five-year period. In the telecoms sector, we have the issues being created by the convergence in fixed and mobile telephony. This will bring about a convergence in telecoms and media regulation, so instead of waiting, we are doing it now.”

Amman’s drive to become a regional IT hub is also set to deliver some significant investments in infrastructure projects as data and technology firms seek to build their resources in the region.

“There will be opportunities for data centres coming up,” says Juma. “Jordan is well placed to link Europe with Asia and Africa, so there will be more communications infrastructure coming through Jordan, such as asset recovery centres and data centres.”  

One of the main business drivers behind the development of broadband mobile services in the Mena region is the high level of mobile penetration compared to internet penetration levels. For companies that provide services online, being able to provide the same services through a mobile phone provides a route to a large untapped market. It will also create opportunities for Jordan’s Arabic software developers.

“We have to enable the environment for Arabic developers,” says Juma. “Arabic developers say they do not develop Arabic services because of low internet penetration. That can change with third generation (3G) networks. There is a big opportunity for Jordan to provide Arabic-based mobile apps.” However, with most mobile users having to upgrade their phones and line subscriptions in order to receive broadband, Juma says that there will be many cultural barriers to the development of broadband services outside the main urban centres.

Cultural barriers

“Even the smaller cities in Jordan have mobile, but very few have broadband,” he says. “There is still a lot of fear of the unknown. There is a lot of ignorance, particularly among fathers. Mothers tend to be more aware.”

Differing attitudes between Jordan’s urban and rural areas also risks creating a divide between the capital and the rest of the country.

“Internet penetration in west Amman is 60 per cent,” says Juma. “In east Amman, it is 25 per cent. In Jordan’s smaller cities, it is single digit. The operators go where the money is, so we are seeking to help them go outside by removing costs such as frequency spectrum fees.”

Developing confidence in modern communications technology and services is a key challenge for Juma. And once again education is the key. “The ignorance will disappear the more we use ICT in education,” he says. “We are trying to develop a programme where we eventually have one-to-one computing in schools. We are working with the Education Ministry to create a model to provide a laptop for every student in school.”

With about 1.6 million students in the kingdom, Amman cannot fund the project alone and is seeking private-sector support. “We are trying to create a model that will allow the operators to finance it,” says Juma.

The state has so far been the engine of Jordan’s IT sector through education. But the sector’s continuing development is dependent on close cooperation between the public and private sectors. With his background in the private telecoms industry, Juma is well suited to making the partnership work.