Governments in the region can follow a policy of deregulation and positive engagement to reap the benefits of convergence of information and communication technologies.
Dubai, UAE, 28 January 2007 – 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 South East Asia are already experiencing this paradigm.
The Middle East region, however, is still far from realizing the full benefits of ICT, and the path to true advancement will continue to be tortuous unless the topic receives full attention. A number of challenges must be overcome to get ICT development on a sustainable path.
“The importance in giving the populations of the Middle East access to ICT cannot be underestimated,” said Eddy Skaff, Senior Associate, Booz & Company. “In order to be competitive on the world stage, Middle East markets will have to prevail over some current obstacles they face that threaten to hinder the successful implementation of an environment that supports and sustains ICT and its benefits. Governments in this region can play a key role in making these benefits a reality to consumers.”
The single biggest hurdle is the lack of a holistic ICT development agenda at a national level in most Middle East markets. Definition of a development plan at a market level across the main facets of ICT is mostly non-existent in the region. This position does not undermine the successful formulation and early implementations of sector specific ICT plans, such as e-government, e-education, and broader e-commerce activities in markets such as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Nevertheless, it does underscore the prevailing state of fragmentation region-wide. The accumulation of these soiled initiatives is creating an inefficient allocation of resources and substantive delays in delivering meaningful services to end users that can truly improve their lives. Recent research in the Gulf region reinforces this viewpoint with nearly 60% of respondents agreeing that ICT development is important for the Government, while 55% rate the related Government efforts as unsuccessful.
ICT development continues to suffer from an over-emphasis on telecommunications development at the expense of most other elements in the ICT spectrum. The emerging view, however, from most Middle East markets is that policy makers and regulatory authorities should continue to strive in democratizing access to all telecommunications services and encourage further innovation in the sector. This will require a shift over time from defining licensing regimes to stimulating accessibility and affordability of services. Past the priority of communication accessibility and affordability, policy makers should create an environment for the development of digital-services in a number of domains such as education, health, media, general government activities and other commercial transactions.
There are three dimensions to the new ICT convergence facing the Middle East market:
The first deals with consumers and how their role in a truly digital world can shift from pure consumption to active participation in the development and production of products and services.
The second dimension covers product and services where the delivery of communications, services, information, and entertainment becomes increasingly digital, standardized, affordable and easy-to-use.
The third dimension deals with technology and how Internet Protocol is driving the integration of voice, data and media platforms.
Unfortunately, the Middle East region continues to exhibit an inhibiting environment, mostly due to insufficient commitments and investments.
Middle East markets can reverse this trend and truly realize the full potential of ICT for the benefit of their economies and societies however. Notwithstanding the fact that the region has entered rather late into the deregulation arena across various sectors in general and ICT related domains in specific, almost all countries in the region have the potential to move fast in setting their related agendas and enacting them, bridging in the process many of the present gaps. Some of the pioneering, though limited, initiatives in Jordan, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are providing a favorable environment to facilitate the development and adoption of broader ICT services.
Treating ICT development as a national priority is a clear choice for all governments in the region. The how-to, however, remains elusive. There are three major efforts governments can undertake to implement an environment conducive to achieving convergence and improved ICT services for the general population:
Governments must adopt a holistic approach to ICT development with a focalization of responsibilities and resources. While a focalized approach is not a panacea for ICT development in all markets, it does provide significant affinities for the Middle East context where ICT maturity of the private sector is still lagging.
Secondly, governments should pave the way through their deregulation approach to the convergence between telecommunications and media. While telecommunications deregulation and liberalization is well underway across the region, the media sector in general and the broadcast segment continue to be over-regulated and monopolized by government agencies and other aligned groups. As the broadcasting media sector is being deregulated and proper legislative and regulatory structures are put in place, policy makers in the region should develop early on a viewpoint on how media and telecommunications are intersecting and how their regulatory modus operandi can support the emerging convergence. This could range from introducing transparent coordination mechanisms between media and telecommunications regulations to a full merger of the authorities overseeing these sectors.
Third, governments should apply a systematic approach to planning and measuring their ICT progress. The framework to apply starts by creating a fertile environment. This encompasses the level of political leadership, regulatory openness, innovation, capability, IT skills in the population, and the cost and availability of access. The framework must then move to create the right level of readiness among the country’s economic actors – citizens and residents, businesses and governments – to capitalize on the opportunities that a strong environment brings. The idea of readiness naturally requires an appropriate access device, be it a PC, a Digital TV or a mobile device, plus the skill and the will to use it for electronic exchanges. The development framework must then be complemented with targets related to uptake and use that describe the adoption of ICT enabled services, the volume and sophistication of use. Finally, yet importantly, the framework must conclude with the concept of impact, which would capture the degree to which adoption of ICT enabled services has changed the behavior of citizens or transformed their businesses.
“Governments implementing a highly structured program that incorporates these approaches will more than likely see positive results, especially in the areas of dissemination of new technologies to greater numbers of people than before,” said Karim Sabbagh, Partner with Booz & Company. “ICT that is widely available will give Middle East economies the very element they need to maintain competitiveness in the near and long term future with technologically advanced economies throughout the world.”
ICT remains in the near future an emerging field, where expertise is still developing and learning is intense. Middle East countries can therefore jump start their progress by adopting a focalized approach and creating ICT centers of excellence where students, champions, master-planners and developers can come together to realize the full benefits of this sector.