Betting on Jordan: An Oasis of Potential in the Middle East

Posted by: T-BIRD ALICIA ENGEL '16 on Thursday, October 19, 2017


Betting on Jordan

An Oasis of Potential in the Middle East?


Early morning in Amman, Jordan. As the sounds of morning prayer fade into sunrise, a father of two pays neighborhood children to collect empty plastic drink bottles strewn mindlessly on Zahran Street. His purpose? To bind and mold those discarded bottles until they form infrastructure that will embrace human weight. Covered in fabrics and other wrappings, they morph into ottomans, chairs and other marketable – and beautiful – furniture pieces. The sales of which, in turn, help sustain his own family, prosper his community and even help protect the environment. The Business Development Center (BDC), a Jordanian advisory firm, now enters the picture, giving this man access to resources for molding his informal family business into a formal concern. One that could deliver benefits far beyond mere survival.


What a remarkable analogy for Jordan, and the BDC has “file cabinets full” of stories like this one: stories that prove Jordanian entrepreneurship is blooming in this oft-stigmatized desert region.


The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan seems to live in the eye of the storm. Abiding courageously between Middle Eastern powers that are considered unstable and/or under formal sanctions, this nearly landlocked country offers a surprisingly steady “developing” or “emerging” regional beachhead. And as visiting Thunderbirds recently confirmed, Jordanian business leaders welcome foreign direct investment (FDI) to promote domestic entrepreneurship.  


Evan Mackie and David Roman, both EMGM ’16 alumni, witnessed the zeal for development first-hand while visiting Amman in March 2017. Traveling with current EMGM students on a Thunderbird field seminar, two meetings left lasting impressions:


  • Nayef Stetieh launched the BDC in 2004 to bet the fruits of his past business success on future economic growth by empowering Jordanian youth and entrepreneurs. Framed photographs on the rough walls of BDC’s “tight quarters” document visits from Queen Elizabeth II, the Pope, past and present Jordanian Kings, and even multi-national corporate dignitaries. Despite the interruption he experienced when his key contacts left Thunderbird during the ASU merger, Ghaleb Hijazi, BDC’s Senior Director, found great value in the relationship with Thunderbird. The BDC has sponsored many Jordanian Thunderbird students.
  • Ashraf Halawani is the third-generation owner of a food company. Producing potato chips and confections among other items, the company is treasured as “the equivalent of the Willy Wonka chocolate factory” in the hearts of Jordanians. It is often “considered the Frito-Lay of the Middle East.” In fact, “Frito-Lay cannot get a foothold in the Middle East because of this company.” As a Thunderbird EMBA ’13 alumnus himself, Mr. Halawani now strives to take his family enterprise global.

Jordan has a wealth of experience hosting the crossroads of ancient and modern multi-cultural trade routes. Nowhere is the benefit of this experience more tangible than in its handling of refugees from its war-torn neighbors.  While the US struggles to incorporate a few thousand Syrian refugees into a 360-million person population, Jordan has graciously absorbed nearly 3 million refugees from Palestine, Iraq and Syria into its just-under 9-million member populace. David Roman observed, “What Jordan is absorbing just being neighborly….[seems] beyond their capacity.”


David Roman (Left) and Evan Mackie (Right) at Petra


Life in the refugee camps is never easy, of course; but the Jordanian mindset has made it far less miserable for the displaced. According to what David and Evan learned, Jordanians realize “the refugees are going to be part of their communities for the next 15-20 years.” Furthermore, refugees are not viewed as “drains” on Jordanian society.  For example, “Aleppo was a city that was full of entrepreneurs with many very successful small businesses.” Jordan has welcomed these refugee professionals, doctors, lawyers, and business owners who lost everything…“but in a way that honors” their future desire to return home, “because that’s eventually what they want to do.”


Lacking in oil and gas, the Jordanian economy relies heavily on imports and remittances. Its key shoreline (and southern national border) spans just 16 miles of inland coastline at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, with eventual access through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Seventy-five percent of its arable land is used as permanent pasture. Its top exports include various agricultural fertilizers, knit sweaters, and tomatoes. In the early 2000s, King Abdullah II, also called “The Warrior King,” expanded international trade and privatized state industries. GDP has grown $36B under his guidance.


Perhaps Jordan’s greatest natural asset is its youthful population. As of 2016, 90% of the population was under the age of 55, with an average age of 22. Literacy rates average 95%, and are only slightly higher for men than for women. Of course, most of the population resides in and around the capital, Amman. With a good third under 14, it’s a younger nation with talent pools deserving of development and opportunity.


It’s not a perfect oasis. Jordan suffers from “chronically high rates” of poverty, unemployment, public debt and corruption. Due to lack of economic opportunity, 2,500 Jordanians are known to have joined ISIS (from the CIA World Factbook).  Per-capita income remains low, and significant capital and start-up constraints do exist.


But this is changing. And the BDC is not alone in its efforts to support the entrepreneurial growth that can boost this nation’s fortunes. An organization named Endeavor partners with “high-impact entrepreneurs” in emerging markets worldwide, its purpose mirroring Thunderbird’s mission. In Jordan since 2008-2009, Endeavor recognized the potential of the country’s relatively stable environment.   Thunderbird for Good has recently connected with Endeavor to explore mutually-beneficial work.


From L to R: David Roman (EMGM '16), Evan Mackie (EMGM '16), Stan Duvall (EMBA '12), Ashraf Halawani (EMBA '13)


As businesspeople, and moreover as Thunderbirds, Jordan offers raw material for those with the heart to embrace the potential of forgotten bottles; for those who can find creative ways to cushion the risk of this rumbling, budding economy.


Two days after the larger cohort visited BDC, David Roman returned for a second meeting to discuss near-future business opportunities. This time, the wall of fame displayed a new photo: the Thunderbird EMGM26 cohort captured just two days before. Newly framed, it’s more than a memento of an opportune visit; it’s another signpost for the road ahead.


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