Jordan’s ‘Sowt’ a new voice for the Arab Spring

Jordan’s ‘Sowt’ a new voice for the Arab Spring

It is podcast meets Twitter. Available in English and Arabic, Sowt (meaning “voice” in Arabic) allows users to share with the world an audio message lasting forty-two seconds or fewer.

Hazem Zureiqat, a Jordanian civil engineer, started this new social media platform in March 2013 with his siblings, Dana and Tarek. Given the grassroots nature of political action in many Middle Eastern countries today, Sowt’s founders sought to create a venue for citizen journalists to broadcast their voices. Their end product has turned out to be a generic social media vehicle with broad appeal. Since its launch, the site has picked up 20,000 users in countries throughout the Arab world, with a concentration of accounts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco.

“Voice has always been the most common form of communication between people; it’s always the most effective,” said Mr. Zureiqat. “[Sowt] is combining the power of social media—the wide reach that it gives you—with the effectiveness and common aspect of voice.”

Mr. Zureiqat hopes that Sowt will help elevate the level of online conversation about important topics. He suggests that the personal aspect of the voice-recording medium promotes honesty and integrity more than written formats, where users may feel less accountable for what they write.

Sowt comes as the latest output from Jordan’s tech sector, touted in recent years as an innovation-friendly environment. This reputation is backed up by the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector’s economic impact, making up 14% of GDP. Zureiqat points to King Abdullah II’s commitment to developing the tech sector as a driving force behind growth. A handful of key factors serve as the foundation for a thriving ecosystem, he says. A number of project accelerators and incubators, driven by seed funders and venture capitalists, help fledgling enterprises get off the ground. The inclusion of IT in the countrywide Tawjihi exam and a new IT college at the University of Jordan are training programs that provide the manpower for this industry. Meanwhile, the government has taken steps to facilitate the process of establishing and registering a tech start-up. Despite these developments and the hype, Zureiqat notes that, since Maktoob’s success, there have not been many examples of Jordanian start-ups making it big.

A Jordan Times report from August 2012 reflects this concern by reporting some threats to the continued development of the ICT sector. According to the article, there is a need for legislation promoting public-private partnerships along with improved tech training programs that would better match the skills of graduates to the demands of companies in the field.

Mr. Zureiqat has had a mixed experience in terms of Jordan’s friendliness to IT start-ups. He notes that Jordan has gotten better at registering small tech companies. Among the improvements, there is a lower threshold for the amount of capital required. He also reports that when he was registering his company in December 2012, the Jordanian Ministry of Industry and Trade listed social networking services as a category for business type, indicating an openness to this type of enterprise. At the local level, however, in dealing with the city government to rent office space and obtain a vocational license, Mr. Zureiqat found no existing framework to accommodate his line of work. In addition to this kind of logistical complication, Zureiqat pointed out that some other tech start-ups have encountered difficulties regarding valuation. Jordanian assessments have typically not taken potential future earnings into account, thus posing a challenge to tech companies, whose worth often lies in their potential.

Censorship is another concern that has surfaced over the past year. The new Press and Publications Law, passed in September 2012, seeks to provide stricter guidelines for news websites that report on Jordan’s domestic and international affairs. The legislation requires websites to register with the Press and Publications Department, to have an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the press syndicate for four years, and to take full responsibility for comments posted in response to news stories. If a website fails to fulfill these requirements, the director of the Press and Publications Department is authorized to block it. In recent months, a number of prominent Jordanian sites, including 7iber, have been shut down. Although the sites implicated have, for the most part, found ways to continue operating, this wave of restrictions is troublesome for what it represents. Mr. Zureiqat expressed concern that these developments would hinder innovation and undermine the image of Jordan as the “Silicon Valley of the Middle East.”

For those with an opinion to voice on the topic, perhaps is the perfect venue for continuing the discussion. Looking forward, Mr. Zureiqat hopes Sowt will build on its base in the Middle East and eventually expand to other regions.

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