Could Ramallah become an Arab World tech hub?

By Jen Copestake
BBC Click

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WATCH: Meeting the West Bank's tech start-ups

In the heart of Ramallah, the office of Yamsafer feels like it would not be out of place in the Silicon Valley.

It has dark wood panelled walls and a cool black kitchen with espresso machines.

It is 10 o'clock at night but there are many people here, some working, some talking and relaxing over a game of ping-pong.

Yamsafer is one of the West Bank's most successful start-ups. Seeded with $1m (£600,000) venture capital money, it is a travel site trying to replicate the success of for the Arab world.

It uses technological innovation like "cardless bookings" where an algorithm determines if the guest has enough trust to book without a credit card.

Just down the road, on the second floor of an office block on aptly named "Struggle Street" is one of Ramallah's tech start-up incubators.

A bright open reception area leads to a hallway lined with open-plan, glass walled offices.

Here, late in the evening, young women in colourful hijabs are huddled over a laptop, working on a website called Fadfid. Arabic for "venting" it connects people with confidential counselling services across the Middle East.

Taboo subjects are discussed openly and sometimes form building blocks of projects. Pinch Point, a gaming company, has just created a video game called Sperm Mania.

Beyond the shock value of the title, CEO Khaled Abu AlKheir sees a story in the game that reflects their lives under occupation: the sperm have an extremely difficult journey to fertilise an egg, with only one in 300 million succeeding.

"Everything we do is faced with challenges so always have to think outside the box, whether it's a service or a game," says Mr Abu AlKheir.

"Many publishers gave us negative feedback on the sperm, saying you're dreaming. But anyway we are releasing it," he adds

Development hurdles

Just 20km (12 miles) away from here, Israel's tech scene is booming.

A recent episode of BBC Click focused on developments in Israeli technology, showing amazing advancements in military and medical technology.

In the West Bank, it is a different story. In Ramallah, the unofficial capital of the occupied territories, Palestinians are hopeful that investing in tech start-ups will help lift them out of a struggling economy stifled by sanctions.

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Signs warned US President Barack Obama about the lack of 3G mobile coverage in the occupied territories

The separation barrier dividing Israel and the occupied territories is the most obvious obstacle, but there are other major hurdles to technological development.

Israel controls bandwidth in the occupied territories, and at the moment will not release access to the 3G network to Palestinian mobile companies.

The issue was highlighted on a recent trip to the West Bank by US President Barack Obama. Signs were put up around Ramallah telling him to leave his ubiquitous smartphone at home, as he would not be able to access a fast mobile network.

The UN recognised Palestine as a non-member observer state in 2012. In 2013, reflecting the outcome of the vote, Google changed its search engine page from Palestinian Territories to Palestine.

Perhaps more significant for the burgeoning tech scene is Apple's decision to allow payments to companies via the app store to and from the Palestinian territories.

Palestinian bedroom programmers can now get payments for developing apps. However, PayPal does not yet accept payments to and from the occupied territories, something that Palestinians are hoping will change soon.

'Facebook Hacker'

Khalil Shreateh is one of those who would like to see change. He came to prominence when he hacked into Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook page last year.

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Despite job offers elsewhere, programmer Khalil Shreateh says he would prefer to work in the West Bank

He lives in a house in Yata, on the outskirts of Hebron, 80km south of Ramallah.

It is a longer than normal journey for us to meet him, as there are no Google maps or sat-navs, to guide us to the destination.

Growing up in Yata, Mr Shreateh's school did not have the best computer lab. He says his school relied on foreign aid donations to buy computers.

It took him two years to save up to buy his first computer with money he made from manual labour. He taught himself to programme online and is now has a large web following around the world for his exploits.

After the Zuckerberg hack, he received many job offers, including from Israel. But he wanted to continue working at home in the West Bank.

"I could make a lot of money if I want to travel outside of Palestine, but it's something loyal and I like my work here," he says.

Mr Shreateh calls himself a "white hat" or ethical hacker. He finds exploits in companies' websites and alerts them. Sometimes they offer to pay him for his information.

It is one way to make money remotely, but comes with challenges. He gets paid by money transfer, but this can be problematic.

"Of course it is difficult [because] a lot of people don't know Palestine - they think it's Pakistan.

"Last week a customer bought one of my products and he mistakenly transferred the money to me through Western Union in Pakistan."

Young generation

The advantages of self-taught programming are being picked up other young people here.

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Diaa (L) got his interest in programming from his father's business

Back in Ramallah, we met Husni Abu Samrah at the Movenpick Hotel. The ornate building's large gardens are often a meeting place for the city's tech entrepreneurs.

Mr Abu Samrah's company, MobiStine, develops health-related apps for the Arabic speaking market. He already has about 30 apps that have collectively generated 1.5 million downloads.

His son Diaa became interested in developing apps when he saw his father. His dad gave him an old MacBook and within a week Diaa had made his first app, about herbal remedies.

He is now 16 and had six apps for sale on the App Store. With the money he made from downloads, he upgraded his MacBook and sold his old one to a friend.

"This is what is good in technology, it breaks the borders. A person with a laptop can work in the worst cases, he can work from his home and interact with the global community," says Husni Abu Samrah.

"Without the passport and despite the occupation. It is limitless,' he adds.

You can watch Jen Copestake's film from the West Bank in this week's Click. If you are in the UK you can watch the whole programme on BBC iPlayer.

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