Palestine’s tech sector is not a new phenomenon. Its universities are among the most prestigious in the Arab world, and multinationals have flocked to its history-rich, rolling landscape for years.
In the past half-decade tech has risen to the top of the country’s agenda. That makes sense for an occupied territory where even the water supply can cause an international row. Average pay for IT workers are around 25% better paid than other sectors. And while many Palestinians are still drawn away by big-spending Gulf and Middle Eastern companies, plenty are staying at home to build an exciting ecosystem.
At the heart of everything is Rawabi, a $1.4 billion planned city comprising 6,000 housing units and a prospective population of 25,000 and 40,000. The development sits near the city of Ramallah, which has become the West Bank’s de facto tech hub. Rawabi, whose name means “Hills” in Arabic, hopes to usurp its neighbor.
Rawabi Tech Hub will have space for 3,000 to 5,000 permanent jobs in the knowledge economy when it is finished. Developer Bashar Masri hopes that day will come soon. It will provide a focal point for a scene that is already well underway, and which hopes, one day, to rival its “Startup Nation” neighbor Israel.
Sadara Ventures, for example, is the “first venture capital firm targeting the Palestinian tech sector.” It will invest $30m across ten years. One of its portfolio is SoukTel, a firm that builds “custom digital solutions” with a social bent.
SoukTel has been named one of the world’s best change makers, is a winner of PayPal’s “Equality in Tech” award, and was recently deemed “one of five apps bringing the next billion online” by the Wall Street Journal. Among its projects is a solution linking Syrian refugees with legal aid, as they navigate the draining and dangerous journey from their embattled homeland.
Canadian-born entrepreneur Jacob Korenblum founded SoukTel 11 years ago to connect jobseekers with employers. The West Bank was a perfect fit. “From an infrastructure standpoint it’s great,” he says. “We have very high levels of human capital in the country, and the Palestinian education system is typically or routinely regarded as the best in the region…and the caliber of software developers is really second to none.”
SoukTel now employs around 40 people, and is jumping on a global trend for IT professionals to work remotely. “The tech sector has always been one of the growth sectors of the economy since IT was an industry,” adds Korenblum. “And it has remained the case over time.”
Multinationals including Microsoft, Cisco, HP and Intel already have offices in the West Bank. Even Israeli companies have taken advantage of its talent pool. Freightos, for example, is a digital shipping marketplace which this year raised a $25m round to expand its business. It employs a team in Ramallah.
Infrastructure is generally good: West Bank cities can be rambunctious but the roads are good, and accommodation is usually available. Utilities, however, are not, and have become a key political stick with which Israel has beaten its neighbor.
When Rawabi was first being built, in 2013, water supply was scarce and construction would often grind to a halt over its dearth. The city’s creators deal with such problems daily. Violence is also an issue: IDF soldiers regularly carry out patrols that lead to incidents, and the Palestinian Authority has done little to diffuse the region’s tinderbox political detente.
Recent political developments, such as US President Donald Trump’s widely-decried decision to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, have done little to lift the image of the West Bank as a place of conflict and political angst.
Palestinians have also complained that by collaborating with Israeli companies, Rawabi flouts the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation.
These disputes hide bigger problems for Palestine’s entrepreneurs, who “lack visibility” according to Murad Tahboub, partner and managing director of ASAL Technologies, a software firm headquartered in Ramallah. We need to find ways how we can engage with the international markets because there are a lot of stereotypes going on about the Palestinians in general,” he says.
“We have an industry, a daily life, a nightlife, hospitals…everything is running here as any other place,” adds Tahboub. “We do have our challenges, which is the Israeli occupation…but we have stable infrastructure. We do have the capacity, we do have the talent.”
Tahboub believes that Rawabi’s giving West Bank Palestinians a tech focal point is very important, if not crucial, to the survival of its industry. “I think we need to make successful stories we can replicate,” he says. “Once we reach those goals we need to move onto other destinations. It’s like Silicon Valley being successful, then tech moving on to other cities like New York.”
Success stories would entice more entrepreneurs to stay in Palestine, rather than moving to the Gulf or other regions where pay, and quality of life, are higher. That is partly due to the political situation, says Tahboub, and the global media: “Other destinations like India and eastern Europe are all highlighted in the news. We start from minus.”
Inspiration in those other regions often comes from interaction with foreign companies. With a Palestinian passport being one of the most restricted on earth, that is difficult to replicate in the West Bank. “Being able to tap into some of the technology and knowing how expertise is available, whether that’s in Europe, the US or Asia…that’s a challenge,” says Korenblum.
But if its Palestinian neighbors in besieged Gaza can do it, so can the West Bank. B2C companies have proliferated in recent years, as graduates emerge from diverse programs that have helped foster gaming, travel, robotics and many other high-tech firms.
While the current political climate could be seen to hamper progress, Tahboub maintains that everybody knows that creating more jobs for Palestinians is good for everybody – Israel included. “Usually the economic side of Palestine correlates with the political situation,” he says. So whatever the new political situation would be, it will have an effect in the economic development of Palestine.
“But we have had ups and downs, we never had a decrease in our professional clients, or anything different with our American and other relationships,” he adds.
With Rawabi nearing completion, and VC money beginning to come into Palestine in a big way, Korenblum believes that its potential as a tech hub has never been better. “Palestine faces very unique obstacles,” he says. But there’s a broad, significant and important tech entrepreneurship going on out of that region. And that should not be surprising with so many fantastic individuals getting connected with venture capital more than ever before.
“There’s a lot of potential and actual performance coming out of the region. And that’s something that’s often overlooked by the larger community that focuses on the news headlines.”