Adonis Diaries

Syrian entrepreneurs flee war-torn country to save their tech ideas?

Posted on: September 6, 2013

Syrian entrepreneurs flee war-torn country to save their tech ideas?

Like many in Aleppo, Louay Otba’s hope for the future now lies under a pile of rubbl e. A few months ago, his eco-friendly water decontamination technology won third place at the MIT Arab Business Plan Competition.
For a young entrepreneur in Syria, where family businesses and clan ties rule the economic landscape, the opportunity was unprecedented. Now, the materials he bought with his prize money have been shelled into oblivion and his office in Aleppo’s Sheikh Najjar industrial zone leveled.
There’s no option but to leave. “I’m not worried about my life in Aleppo,” he said over tea in Beirut. “But I’m an entrepreneur. If I stay in Syria, my idea will die.”
As Syria’s regime and its myriad opponents wage war, the United States is weighing a push to enter the fray. Of particular concern is the fortunes of Aleppo, where the city’s renowned industrial centers lie in tatters.
The decimation of a company is hardly as stark as the human brutality depicted on news sites and YouTube. Yet the closure of many of

Syria’s small and medium-size businesses — collectively worth billions of dollars — has left its economy shattered.

Timeline: Unrest in Syria

Nina Curley published in the Washington Post this August 30, 2013:

Two years after the first anti-government protests, conflict in Syria rages on. See the major events in the country’s tumultuous uprising.

Beirut- It’s not just young entrepreneurs being forced out of Aleppo. Syria’s lifeblood, the textile industry, is also in retreat.
Revered throughout the Arab world since the days of the Silk Road, Aleppo’s fabrics fueled one-fifth of Syria’s industrial output in 2011, when the textile sector employed 30% of the country’s workforce.
In recent years, its colorful, bawdy lingerie became an iconic secret of Damascus’s old souks.  Now, the sector is producing at an estimated 10% of its former capacity. Textile factories have been dismantled, with machine parts sold to Turkey for a fraction of their worth. The city’s industrial leaders have fled. Most headed for Egypt, which welcomed them under President Mohamed Morsi.
Whether Egypt continues to be the best option is an open question. Those looking to get beyond Egypt face a quandary. Many who have ties in Lebanon have already crossed the border, while entry to the Persian Gulf countries remains difficult for most, and economic sanctions complicate travel to other countries around the globe.

Jordan, Syria’s resource-poor neighbor to the south, has opened one of the few avenues available to Syrians for starting over. Jordan’s Oasis500, a tech start-up accelerator at the heart of Jordan’s booming information and communications technology sector, offers Syrians with viable business ideas passage into Jordan.

Those who pass the first pitching round are welcomed for 3 months into its white stone building in the King Abdullah Business Park, a military-gated enclave overlooking Amman that houses Jordan’s tech jewels: HP, Ericsson, Cisco, Microsoft, Dell, Samsung and LG.

(Disclosure: The writer’s employer, Wamda, has an investment arm that partners with Oasis500, but its news division covers technology in the region independently of the investment side.)

For Judy Samakie, whose father’s factory produced furniture textiles and curtains, the idea sounded too good to be true. After looters had threatened to bomb and burn the factory to the ground, the Samakies paid to have it protected.

Safety was a new cottage industry; mercenaries had kidnapped her brother and threatened to cut off the hands of her family’s factory manager unless ransom was delivered.

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