Can Tunisia Become the Silicon Valley of the Arab World?

The country could be a model for how economic innovation can help the changing Middle East succeed.

tunisia march30 p.jpg

Tunisian factory workers in Sfax Reuters

TUNIS -- Last November, dozens of young Arabs lined up for the chance to meet him. When he spoke of his struggles and triumphs, they hung on his every word. And when only one of the 50 attendees was chosen for training, some of the young Arabs grew frustrated and complained of being excluded.

A jihadist back from battling Americans in Afghanistan? A recruiter for al Qaeda's North African affiliate? A Hamas member looking for volunteers to attack Israel?

No, the visitor was a Tunisian-American eBay executive who has worked for Apple and Oracle, and founded two Silicon Valley startups. His audience? Young Tunisian entrepreneurs and programmers who dream of turning this city into the Arab world's Silicon Valley.

"There is a lot of potential," Sami Ben Romdhane, the eBay executive, told me in a telephone interview this week. "I don't see any difference between students who are graduating there and students who are graduating here and in Europe."

Fourteen months after a Facebook-facilitated popular uprising here sparked the Arab Spring, the appeal of American technology remains overwhelming. But a sputtering economy, the emergence of hardline Islamic Salafist groups and the failure of the United States and its European allies to deliver on promises of assistance are prompting growing frustration and instability.

Tunisia's revolution and its aftermath show how rapid technological change has altered economic, diplomatic and political dynamics worldwide. But outdated American notions of power - particularly in Congress - are preventing the United States from keeping pace. A decades-long American practice of spending vastly more on military efforts than civilian ones is handicapping a vital attempt here to create a democratic, free-market country that is a model for the Arab world.

The United States' strongest weapons against Islamic militancy are not CIA operatives, drones or infantry battalions. They are the modern, new high-tech office buildings that Hewlett-Packard, Fidelity, SunGard, Microsoft and Cisco have opened here in recent years. In the wake of the revolution, Tunisians dream of their country becoming a hub for cloud, big-data and open-government computing in the region.

"The revolution was through the Internet," said Leila Charfi, a Tunisian who runs the Microsoft Innovation Center here. "People are hungry to use new technology and develop a new country with IT."

To be sure, the fate of Tunisia rests in the hands of Tunisians. The country's first democratically elected government since independence from France in 1956 is being criticized for indecisiveness. The economy is slowing in many areas for local reasons, not foreign ones. And the United States is providing $300 million in assistance to Tunisia, including $100 million announced on Thursday.

And while Washington is influential here, Europe is and will be the dominant foreign player. France, the former colonial power, is the country's largest foreign investor. European countries provide the bulk of aid. And traditional exports to Europe are vital to Tunisia's economy, particularly agricultural products, clothing and auto parts.

But Tunisians - justly proud of their revolution - insist they are eager to serve as a model for the region. With little oil, they realize that economic innovation is the only way ahead. And they are looking to America's high-tech industry for inspiration and training.

A closer look at the Silicon Valley executive's visit revealed a well designed State Department program with too few resources. Ben Romdhane, the executive, traveled to Tunisia under Partners for a New Beginning, an initiative launched by the Obama administration after the president's 2009 address in Cairo. The program is designed to increase business, cultural and educational exchanges between the United States and the Arab world.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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