21st Century Pyramids
“Build it and they will come.” The mysterious voice that Kevin Costner heard in his 1989 movie Field of Dreams is fitting for one of Egypt’s prized projects, the Smart Village.
While Costner starred in the film which sees American players from the early 20th Century reappearing on a baseball diamond cleared from an Iowa cornfield, the Smart Village has a visual link to the ancient Pyramids only ten kilometres down the road in Cairo.
But instead of dreaming back 2000 years, the technology park is designed to take Egypt into the 21st Century. A half hour drive (if one is lucky) on the Cairo/Alexandria road leads you to mirrored glass pyramids, white walls and man-made lakes. It is home to some formidable international brands in technology – Microsoft, Canon, Hewlett Packard, Vodafone, Alcatel – and some local ones as well – Orascom, Xceed and Telecom Egypt.
During an interview in Davos on CNN Marketplace Middle East, Bill Gates talked about the ability to have technology help the Middle East region leap-frog against their more developed counterparts in Asia, Europe and the United States.
“Technology I think is very important now, whether it is to broaden the economies of these countries or just help them be more efficient in things they're doing”, said the co-founder of Microsoft. “Certainly if you look at the scale of investment there, making sure that the right software is done for banking, for tourism, for energy is important.”
Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif is big believer in the power of technology and the architect behind the Smart Village when he was Minister of Communications and Information Technology (CIT). He likes the place so much that he still spends two days a week working on the outskirts of central Cairo, in part to stay in touch with business leaders and to enjoy the peace and tranquillity. It is the complete opposite of ancient Cairo, where economic growth of the last four years has only added to the legendary traffic and honking horns.
While there is a great deal of excitement about the oil and gas driven growth in the Gulf, Egypt and its neighbours in North Africa have tied together a string of solid numbers to date. Egypt for example, continues to grow at a pace of about seven percent with its foreign direct investment surging from $300 million dollars five years ago to over $11 billion dollars last year. The World Bank has recognised this cabinet’s work by awarding Egypt with the most improved reformer in its “Doing Business” survey, for its work in simplifying regulations and cutting red-tape.
Meanwhile, at the Minister of CIT, Nazif passed the baton to Tarek Kamel, his young protégé who, with blackberry in hand, is in a rush to build on the gains. There was so much demand for the industrial park, that he has introduced Phase 4 which will be the new home of financial services companies. Over a tea in his office this week, Kamel called the Village a "flagship of development of CIT in Egypt. It reflects the public-private partnership spirit; government and private sector have invested since five years."
His next big project will take place in Maadi, a location best known for its expatriate compound. Kamel sees a big future for business processing operations (BPOs) with a huge pool of educated, but often unemployed and under-employed youth. Think of Arabic, English and French call centers for European and Middle East banks and credit card companies and you get the concept.
That is all on the drawing board right now and I am sure it is not without frustrations and challenges. Now in the fourth year of reforms, the government is eager to have solid growth and foreign direct investment create more jobs and to reduce those still living in grinding poverty. One may not see them in suburbia, but they are impossible to miss when driving to an appointment in the city.
The cabinet knows that reforms have to be felt by those at the lower end of the earnings scale. The poverty level, those living on two dollars a day or less, remains stubbornly high and long serving members of this government know that political realities require more action.
“We are deeply concerned about those in Egyptian society that are not touched by the reform directly,” Youssef Boutros Ghali, Egypt’s Minister of Finance told Marketplace Middle East. “There are people below the poverty line reaching almost twenty percent. Like all developing countries, these reform programs will trickle down but they will not trickle down overnight. They will take time to reach those less privileged in our society.”
And that is what struck me this week during my visit. While we may cherish the history, grit and chaos of Cairo, one gets the sense that the legacy carries with it a heavy burden. The Gulf countries are building new cities off of blueprints in the sand, with much smaller populations, and with no ancient buildings and historical sites to build around.
With 80 million people (and growing fast) the challenge is a big one but so is the opportunity to utilise young Egyptians to build their own Field of Dreams.
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ABOUT THIS BLOGJohn Defterios’ blog accompanies the weekly business program, Marketplace Middle East (MME) that is dedicated to the latest financial news from the Middle East. As MME anchor, John Defterios talks to the people in the know, finding out their opinions on the big business moves in the region, he provides his views via this weekly blog. We hope you will join the discussion around the issues raised.
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