Charles Cooper: Middle East Tech - Jews need not apply

On the eve of the 21st century, can the Internet remain held back by the most hidebound legacy remaining from the 19th century?

The current diplomatic dance between Israel and Syria notwithstanding, the official Syrian Web site still refers to the geographic entity on the country's south-western border as Palestine.

My email inquiry to the Syrian Ministry of Information asking about its choice of nomenclature was predictably ignored, but I wasn't expecting much. The official propaganda organ of the Syrian regime has had a particular fondness for old-fashioned Jew-baiting, and old habits die hard.

Yet here's the intriguing question: Even though ideology -- which has suffused the Arab-Israeli conflict with calls to blood and tribe -- remains a powerful force in the region, now comes the Internet, transforming commerce, communications -- and societies -- around the globe.

The Net as liberator? Will it be a liberating force for change in the Middle East, as well?

The proponents of globalisation believe it will. They see the engine of cyberspace emerging as a powerful force that can cut through hardened walls and draw old enemies together.

It sounds good on paper, but the Internet moves at a languid pace in the Middle East.

Syria is a particularly tough nut, but the situation's not much better elsewhere in the region. Consider, for example, the continuing freeze-out of Israelis by Gitex, the Middle East's equivalent of Comdex.

This is a computer industry trade show that annually draws 70,000 thousand people to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates each year, featuring exhibitors from every corner of the high-tech universe. Given Israel's emergence as a hotbed of Internet innovation, Arab customers have an ample pool of tech talent in their backyard.

Yet Gitex didn't include a single Israel company for the obvious, old reasons.

As one industry executive familiar with the thinking of the organisers recalled to me, the question of inviting the Israelis to Gitex was only briefly considered.

"We couldn't invite them because nobody would accept them," recalled the official. "The Arabs are just not going to take the risk of directly dealing with the Israelis until the political climate changes."

To be sure, deals do get done in the region, but it's a wink-wink, nudge-nudge mode of business that insists on the 50-year Arab fiction of officially ignoring Israel.

"A few years ago when the peace process was in better shape, there was more inclination of doing deals direct -- and in fact we had some Arab VARs and systems integrators approach us to cut the middle man out," said Marius Nacht, one of the founders of Checkpoint. "During (former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin) Netanyahu's period, this was slightly stalled. Now we all hope this will resume -- and to a large extent even with the Palestinians."

Optimists see a glass that's half-full. They point out that the Middle East now accounts for about $100 million in e-commerce revenues. And although that's a drop in the bucket by U.S. standards, it's a good start.

Even in Saudi Arabia, they say, where the Internet was introduced only early this year, electronic commerce is finally getting a foothold.

But then you have the ridiculous spectacle of Lebanon refusing -- and then subsequently allowing -- the entry of products from Intel into the country because of a ban targeting firms with links to Israel.

So the question du jour remains: On the eve of the 21st century, can the Internet remain held back by the most hidebound legacy remaining from the 19th century?

I'd like to think not, but political obstacles rooted in nearly a century of regional conflict don't get overturned easily.

Not even by the Internet.