Most governments in the Middle East are increasingly supporting the idea that information and communication technologies (ICT) can be made available to all citizens to truly improve their lives. In the not-too-distant future, ICT will positively transform how we interact as consumers with services such as banking, shopping, healthcare,transportation and many other facets of our everyday lives.Leading ICT regions such as Western Europe, North America,and Southeast Asia are already experiencing this paradigm.
The Middle East region, however, is still far from realizingthe full benefits of ICT and the path to true advancementwill continue to be tortuous unless the topic receives fullattention. A number of challenges must be overcome to getICT development on a sustainable path.
“The importance in giving the populations of the Middle Eastaccess to ICT cannot be underestimated,” said Eddy Skaff,Senior Associate at Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH). “In order tobe competitive on the world stage, Middle East markets willhave to prevail over some current obstacles they face, whichthreaten to hinder the successful implementation of anenvironment that supports and sustains ICT and its benefits.Governments in this region can play a key role in makingthese benefits a reality to consumers.”
Singapore is the world leader
The latest Networked Readiness Index, published by theWorld Economic Forum in collaboration with INSEAD,highlights the pivotal role governments play in driving thenational ICT agenda. In this ranking, one countryoutperforms the rest of the world in more than one pillar:Singapore. This underscores the “Singaporean government’sclear vision for ICT and the subsequent leading roleundertaken by the latter in promoting ICT diffusion andpenetration.”
The report shows the Middle East region remaining quitestable in network readiness and highlights several successstories with government-lead initiatives in the UAE (29thplace), Qatar (36th place) and Bahrain (50th place).
The single biggest hurdle is the lack of a holistic ICTdevelopment agenda at a national level. The definition of adevelopment plan at a market level is mostly non-existent in the region. This position does not undermine thesuccessful formulation and early implementations of sectorspecific ICT plans, such as e-government.
Saudi Arabia is a typical example where several governmentagencies are involved in different national IT initiativesand programs. The Communications and Information TechnologyCommission is championing Saudi’s e-government program aswell as several other IT sector initiatives such as theInternet Restructuring Project and Computer EmergencyResponse Team to name a few. The Saudi Arabian GeneralInvestment Authority has become a key player by launchingthe Knowledge Economic City in Madinah, establishing theIntel Capital Fund and signing an agreement with CiscoSystems to invest SR1 billion in the IT sector. Otheragencies have also contributed to the national ICTdevelopment.
Similarly, the UAE boasts several government-championedICT development projects. Dubai’s e-government program,launched in 2000, has been recognized as a success story bypractitioners. Dubai Internet City, Knowledge Village, andDubai Silicon Oasis are aiming to create and develop ICTclusters. The Abu Dhabi Systems and Information Committeelaunched earlier this year the Abu Dhabi Government’s portalalong with a very ambitious e-government project. TheTelecommunications Regulatory Authority, for its part,established an ICT Development Fund.
Such examples underscore the prevailing state offragmentation region-wide, albeit with a drive for increasedcoordination. The accumulation of these siloed initiativesmay be creating an inefficient allocation of resources andsubstantive delays in delivering meaningful services tousers.
How governments can promote ICT
Holistic ICT development agendas at the national levelshould be driven by governments through a complete SectorManagement Lifecycle. (1) Governments should begin bysetting national policies for the growth and development ofboth the telecommunications and IT sectors. (2) Thesepolicies would be translated into long-term master plansthat identify development priorities and programs. (3)Governments should also ensure the availability of adequateregulatory and legal environments to foster a faircompetitive market, regulate distribution of scarceresources, and protect consumers and businesses through aset of e-legislations. (4) Finally, government-ledinitiatives will create the right level of readiness amongthe country’s economic actors.
Telecom regulations are typically entrusted to astructurally and financially independent authority, whilesector development initiatives are usually overseen by anempowered cross-departmental program office reporting to thesenior program champion. However, some roles could also becombined within a single entity to accelerate theimplementation of the national ICT agenda.
“Governments implementing a highly structured program thatincorporates these approaches will more than likely seepositive results,” said Karim Sabbagh, BAH’s vice president.“ICT that is widely available will give Middle Easteconomies the very element they need to maintaincompetitiveness in the near- and long-term future withtechnologically advanced economies throughout the world.”