Can Coding Be the Next Arab Doctrine?

Gamal Abdel Nasser’s fiery speeches on pan-Arabism inspired a generation of youth to look toward each other as one large nation. It didn’t last. Cue the other extreme, and more recently Arab nations have sought to build tight bonds of loyalty among the young. But this, too, is feeling the strain. Neither idea managed to gain fast traction because, with the exception of a handful of cases, either the wellbeing of the young was a secondary matter or it was absent altogether. While nations might urge their youth to dedicate themselves to the ideals of nationalism, the social contract was often unbalanced. In many cases, a demand of loyalty to the larger whole, or nation, was not matched by an equal offer of opportunity to individuals to prosper at home. But something is going on at the intersection of economics and technology that may usher in new sense of youth opportunity and identity. Any country that recognizes and enables this will prosper; those that impede it through hoary, false nationalist protectionism will trail. And if the former, beyond pan-Arabism and nationalism, a third way might very well emerge.

In 2016, The Economist magazine declared the Arab region’s youth to be “wasting away.” Two years later, many remain in enforced decline. Civil wars still rage around the Middle East, diverting energy away from peaceful opportunities to a battle just to survive. Many who can be thankful to live outside conflict zones must still confront with the almost never-ending challenges of corruption, nepotism and surreal bureaucracy. With no one else but governments to blame for all this, there is little wonder why more and more of the region’s youth are turning their back on their governments. Some who are able to have chosen to emigrate, while others without the options afforded by visas and widely accepted passports have turned inward to their computer screens. But ironically, those screens might augur a bright future and a horizon of new possibilities.

Today, there are an estimated quarter of a billion internet users in the Arab world. And according to research by Fadi Salem of the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government, “[b]y 2021, it is projected that 47 million new internet users, 45 million new mobile broadband users and around 160 million new social media users will come online in the Arab region.” Thus, as Arab youths turn inward to their computers and mobile phones, they are as much creating new opportunities. But even as such opportunities present themselves in ways unimaginable two decades ago, the caveat is that these will not be fulfilled if governments get in the way. Rather than put up barriers by, for example, banning services like Skype that are now essential for work or blocking open-source website-publishing tools such as Google’s AMP, governments must broaden the space for innovation. If they do so, they might find that, for instance, “coding,” the process of computer programming to create complex software, websites or mobile-phone apps, will power their economies.

One of the best examples of the power of technology, and specifically of coding, to create jobs and opportunities are Gaza Sky Geeks. Started in 2011, the co-working-space outfit provides coding training and outsourced services to Gaza-based freelancers, including game designers. In 2016, a game developed by one of its start-ups was so successful it was downloaded half a million times. This achievement is even more impressive when one considers that Gaza has been under a debilitating double blockade, imposed by Egypt and Israel, that along with incompetent management of the strip by Hamas has devastated the economy. So apparently unconducive and insalubrious is the environment to technological innovation that almost two decades after the introduction of 3G mobile phone services around the world, the people of Gaza will only switch on to 3G this year. And yet the coders succeeded, a testament to this new breed of innovators.

It was perhaps a recognition of the particular tenacity of coders that in October last year, Dubai launched a coders competition to identify and train one million young Arabs. The challenge offers rewards not only to the best competitors, but also to online tutors. The response has been staggering. By earlier this month, over 750,000 young Arabs had applied, reflecting the interest of the young in technology and particularly in coding. While online advances cannot replace good governance, they can certainly complement it so long as governments don’t view the internet with suspicion and try to overregulate it.

For indeed, in the new era of the Internet of Things (IoT), the opportunities are seemingly endless. By 2025, it is estimated that tens of billions of devices will be connected through IoT, with an economic benefit of between $4 trillion and $11 trillion to the global GDP. IoT is expected to contribute $70 billion to the Middle East and North Africa region, but there is no reason (except old-school governments) that the young men and women of the region cannot compete for a bigger slice of the trillion-dollar global business from their home countries.

In the past two decades, Gulf states provided many job opportunities to the Arab world’s youth. However, strict security measures, as well as the nationalization of jobs, meant that many of these young people have had to emigrate elsewhere to lay the ground for their future. But if they are provided a level playing field on a global scale, rather than a set of restrictions at the local level, many of these youths may not have to travel further than their desktops for opportunities.

So, can coding bring Arab youths together? This is what Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, once asked me. The answer, I said, depends on whether the region’s governments continue to view the internet as a source of threats or one of opportunities. If the latter, then there is a chance of creating a novel environment of pan-Arabism based on localized interests and national characteristics. Now, what would Nasser think of that?

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based columnist.