What if it All Came Together?

04/07/2015 11:23 am ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

To outside observers the Arab world looks anything but happening; unemployment, political instability and youth's aspirations hanged by failed states. Beyond the screaming headlines and the grim, disheartening stories we hear, is a new parallel and brimming reality. A digital revolution is budding within its youthful communities and is determined to drive change. Thanks to thought leaders like US venture investor Christopher Schroeder more and more people realize that the Arab world is a land of untapped potential.

Consider these facts. The Arab world is where internet penetration has increased by more than 400 percent in the last decade. The Arab world is also where 9/10 youth believe that "access to the internet and mobile digital technology can help them realize their personal aspirations for employment, entrepreneurial opportunities, education, banking and healthcare." As a result of this new reality, a potential intersection of three rising technologies (online education, freelance web portals, and online payment networks) can perhaps offer solutions that would transform the region and create a new reality.

At its essence the uprisings of 2011 were a quest for self-determination driven by frustration about the status quo. In many ways, the beginnings of the Arab spring were like a startup. The optimism, determination and will that triggered it then must persist to carry the region to a better reality. In an interview in late 2014, Marc Andreessen, the inventor of the first web browser, noted that "[m]y presumptive tendency, when I'm presented with a new idea, is not to ask, 'Is it going to work?' It's, "Well, what if it does work?"And I can tell you, at least from the last 20 years, if you bet on the side of the optimists, generally you're right."

Many looking into the region may think that any alternative reality is practically impossible. But what if like in other developing regions, optimists were willing to take charge and rewrite the narrative? What if over the next 10 to 15 years the region was transformed in a way that could help its youth fulfill their potential. Certainly, unemployment, access to education and access to finance are only some of the challenges the region faces. But for its optimists, these challenges may well be the region's biggest opportunities.

Growing at 20 percent annually, there will be well over 270 million internet users across the region by the year 2020. Simultaneously, as a result of a baby boom that swept the Arab world in the 1980s, the number of tertiary students across the region is ballooning. By 2035, 4 countries alone (Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria) will have almost 50 million new high school graduates who are ready for tertiary education.

With higher rates of internet usage, more people are seeking online education. A study in 2012 by regional employment portal showed that attitudes towards online education were steadily improving, with almost 45 percent of respondents having pursued online education in the past. Recently, a new study showed that youth believe that the internet can provide them with an opportunity to continue their education, and already spend at least 16 percent of their time online pursuing online education. On the supply side, several online education startups and efforts are popping up all over the region to meet this rising demand.

Technology is not only disrupting education, but also reshaping the future of work. We're witnessing a rise of independent skilled workers that are seeking more flexible, freelance and collaborative work opportunities. According to, 7 in 10 Arab professionals think that freelancing is a good option and 24 percent of survey respondents mentioned that freelancing would help them focus on what they love to do. Online freelance job marketplaces, such as Nabbesh, Staylinked, and Laimoon, are popping up across the Middle East and making it easier than before to connect freelancers to cross border job opportunities.

However, even if the internet allows you to freelance remotely from any corner of the region, freelancers still can't get paid easily for their work. Critically, 80 percent of adults across the region remain unbanked making it very difficult for many of them to freelance online. Current payment networks are unfit for the aspirations of youth across the Arab region. They do not enable them to leverage new educational and employment paradigms. A technological revolution in payments and financial services is necessary in order to create new pathways for youth. Several fintech startups such as Payfort, WhitePayments, and Telr are already trying to reshape this sector. One new and promising solution could be the rise of Bitcoin; a peer-to-peer cryptocurrency and an open decentralized payment protocol. Just like the internet has disrupted the way we communicate in the last few decades, Bitcoin holds the potential to revolutionize finance in a similar way. Youth can learn skills online, freelance with newly gained skills, and can get paid from anywhere across the world.

We will need to create this reality. Others in the region are certainly working towards creating a much gloomier one. There are certainly many challenges that face the prevalence and perseverance of these technologies in the region. Millions remain to be connected and provided with the needed bandwidth. The regulations around digital currencies and freelance employment across the region remain premature and in many cases restrictive. But what successful emerging growth market has not wrestled -- in deed still wrestles -- similar issues? These are all hurdles that must be overcome, and it is the hidden promise on the other end of these problems that makes finding solutions more pressing and important. We must realize our agency in creating this reality. It is the tendency to ask the question, "what if we make it work?"