Arab leaders vow to embrace online world

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Dr. Hessa Al Jaber, Secretary General, of ictQatar opening the session of the Connect Arab Summit 2012, 5-7 March 2012, held in Doha, Qatar. Photo - ituPictures

Arab leaders have come a long way for the development of Internet infrastructure in the Middle East and North Africa. A summit, which was jointly organised by the UN’s Information and Technology Union (ITU) and the League of Arab States, looked at ways for pan-Arab strategy to work together to improve Information and Communications Technology (ICT) development in the region.

The conference brought together political and industry leaders from 21 countries in the Middle East and North Africa during the first week of March. The aim was to tap the potential of ICT to revolutionise societies and economies from Manama to Nouakchott. However, experts at the conference insisted that would depend on governments playing an active role, adopting legal and regulatory frameworks, encouraging investment and stimulating job creation.

Addressing the Summit’s opening session, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani said that the summit is being held amidst many crucial challenges facing the Arab nations, who must work hard to meet these challenges and protect their interests.

Brahima Sanou, director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, said that infrastructure was critical, but must be accompanied by a proper legal and political framework. He said: “In years to come, broadband infrastructure will become basic infrastructure.”

Dr Saad Bin Dhafer Al Qahtani of Saudi Telecom Company (STC) Group presented a paper that focused on the Group’s initiatives while Paul Budde, an independent ICT consultant who specialises in high-level strategic consultancy, said that ICT could provide infinite number of opportunities for the unemployed citizens of the Arab world.

The path ahead

Middle Eastern governments have started to realise the extent to which freedom of information has empowered their citizens. Tunisia and Egypt, two countries that witnessed uprising and resulted in toppling their governments in early 2011, had the highest number of Internet users in the Arab world.

ITU’s latest report on the region reveals there is much work to be done. There is a growing gap in ICT access between the oil-rich, and relatively stable GCC countries, and the rest of the region. According to experts, there is a need for a more concerted approach to ICT infrastructure even in the rich countries.

The statistics also revealed the growth in number of mobile subscribers. By the end of 2011, there was an average of 97 mobile subscriptions for every 100 people across the Arab states (the ITU includes 21 countries in the Middle East and North Africa in its statistics). This ranges from fewer than one subscription for every ten Somalis, to 1.8 for every Saudi.

Along with Saudi Arabia, Oman, Libya and Kuwait have some of the highest mobile users in the world. Mobile broadband is available in all Arab countries, with faster 3G networks.

Widening Gap

The ITU’s latest report on the region insist that there is much work that needs to be done if the Arab states are to usher in a new era of Pax Technologia.

It indicated that there is a growing gap in ICT access between the oil-rich, and relatively stable, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and the rest of the region. Experts argue that there is a need for a more concerted approach to ICT infrastructure even in the richer countries.

“The leadership has to come from the government, and has to come from the top of the government,” Budde said. “Companies only want to invest if there’s a clear vision and a clear strategy.”

Susan Teltscher, head of the ICT Data and Statistics Division of the ITU, said researchers have predicted a drop in the prices and that mobile broadband was the technology that is going to continue in the coming years. However, the fixed broadband Internet growth has been much slower. By the end of 2011, only 2.2 % of the population had fixed broadband connections.

Low investment in ICT infrastructure reflects the autocratic governments approach to the technology sector. The biggest barrier to Internet access, according to researchers, is the relatively high price.

According to Paul Budde, the best regional model for fixed broadband rollout is from Oman.

Qatar plans to launch its own sateillite, Es’Hail, which will provide communications services to the Middle East and North Africa, and will help establish Qatar Science and Technology Park as an educational hub and an incubator for start-ups, to encourage local innovation.

Moussa Benhamadi, Algeria’s telecommunications minister announced his government is aiming to introduce 3G and 4G LTE wireless networks, and that by 2015, he hoped to connect every Algerian household. The Mediterranean nation has already introduced e-government services, making some administrative services available to Algerians anywhere in the world. However, many ordinary Algerians have recently found it increasingly difficult to get online, under security restrictions introduced by the interior ministry after Arab uprisings began more than a year ago.

Even though the participants were optimistic about the approach to ICT, it is still a long way ahead and the potential is yet to be tapped into.

(Written by Suneethi Raj with input from; Edited by Moign Khawaja)

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