Technology has the potential to transform the Arab world. In some places it is already doing so. In others, its use has barely started. Throughout, it will bring huge changes over the next few years – in the way that people live and in the lives they can expect to lead in the future. By Mark Ford –

Gathered together in a room at the top of the world’s tallest hotel is a group of ministers, each holding a brief for information and communications technologies (ICT) in Arab states. Crown prince of Dubai and UAE defence minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum puts a simple question to them: “Is it too much for Arab countries to find a way forward through technology?”

The building in which they are gathered answers the question. The billowing sail-shaped Burj al-Arab testifies to how Dubai, an emirate that 30 years ago comprised little more than parched desert, has harnessed the latest architectural and civil engineering technologies to put up several spectacular structures – including the 321-metre-high hotel on a man-made island 280 metres offshore.

The architecture of this extraordinarily opulent monument makes reference to Dubai’s seafaring heritage and offers some of the most spectacular views of the Gulf.

To achieve this, the Burj al-Arab does employ technology to capture creativity, displayed in the indoor and outdoor choreographed landscapes of waterfalls and fountains that spout fire as well as water.

About 3,500 jobs were created during construction of the building. Since completion it has stimulated many thousands more direct and indirect employment opportunities. It is an asset in Dubai’s hotel stock, and strengthens the emirate’s claim to be the Gulf’s business and financial hub in the global marketplace. It stands as a record of state-of-the-art architectural and engineering technologies.

Less opulent but no less impressive examples of Arab employment of technology are found across North Africa, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and elsewhere in the Gulf.

Some show how technologies are employed as tools to develop local resources or traditional industries. Some demonstrate how Arab states have used technology to build a stock of producing firms capable of winning business from competitors based in more mature manufacturing nations. Some show how technology has spawned economic opportunities for a new generation of Arab entrepreneurs.

So the answer to Sheikh Mohammed’s question is “no”. It is not too much for Arab countries to find a way forward through technology. But, sadly, it is all too rare that they are doing so.

If the speeches delivered by representatives at the October 2002 ministerial Arab ICT Summit at Burj al-Arab are anything to go by, governments are bogged down by a wide range of problems, which many officials blame for the lack of a framework within which technology can be employed to release a host of social and economic benefits.

Masters of problem diagnosis

The catalogue of problems faced by Arab policy makers concerned with technology can be placed in dozens of perspectives. In November 1999, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) held in Cairo an Arab regional forum on industry entitled “Adoption of new technologies and industrial policies: linking the Arab regional markets with the industrialized world”.

It summarized the problems by concluding that the Arab region faced a “wide milieu of problems due to underdeveloped science and technology infrastructure, lack of large private industries with their own research and development (R&D;) activities, insufficient numbers of trained personnel and tested strategies for technological development”.

The forum added: “It also has insufficient economic diversity for stable growth and inadequate capacity to handle the technological growth in competitive areas. Part of the problems result from the lack of knowledge on adaptation of available science and technology potential to the needs of their economies.”

Very little seems to have changed since then – except perhaps that there is greater recognition that the problems restricting the development of technical knowledge in the Arab world are rooted much more deeply than in the higher education and industrial sectors.

“Illiteracy is a catastrophe,” says Raafat Radwan, chairman of Egypt’s Cabinet Information and Decision Support Centre. He argues that the inability to read or write prevents people from using, let alone creating, technology and automatically puts them on the wrong side of the “digital divide” that separates those who are ICT literate from those who are not.

“Infrastructure is no good without people,” says Farid Metwaly, general manager of IBM for the Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan. He believes that “developing the human element is the most important aspect” in promoting ICT literacy.

But there is a conundrum. Technology has a habit of spawning new devices and processes and making others redundant. So a skill acquired today might be of no value tomorrow. Yet while it is impossible to predict what technologies will be used in the future, it is certain that all professions and trades will increasingly rely on technology.

“How do we qualify our children for skills that do not exist?” asks Jordan’s minister of ICT, Dr Fawaz Zu’bi. He believes that an “emphasis on learning, not teaching” is required to ensure that future generations will be equipped to compete in the modern world and emphasizes that “teaching and learning are not two sides of the same coin”.

Continuous learning should therefore be considered the primary skill while the second most important competence is “thinking” according to Zu’bi. The ability to change will also be required since “each child will need to learn a new profession five times – or every 10 years – in its career”.

Incubators not importers

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nayan, the United Arab Emirates’ minister for information and culture, is also concerned about the development of human resources in an educational framework that extends to postgraduate level and in job training.

What seems to irk him particularly in this area, however, is the failure of the Arab world to build its own incubators and stores of technologies and technological skills.

“We have to do away with the idea of importing technology,” he says. The Arab world is losing out because, unlike the more technologically advanced economies, it has failed to establish research bodies that work to develop technologies, often in close association with business. “This is a cultural issue, not a technical issue,” he says.

Sheikh Abdullah forcefully insisted at the ICT summit that women must be included in the knowledge economy – a sentiment shared by several speakers, including Zu’bi, who reckons that women are better at managing small and medium-size enterprises than men.

Sheikh Mohammed notes that 38.7% of all Arabs and 51% of Arab women are illiterate and describes “women’s hesitation to work” as a fundamental social issue that wastes a valuable resource. “We have to tap into this,” he says.

The problem was well demonstrated at the Burj al-Arab. The first woman to address the mainly male delegates did so at 3.20pm, more than six hours after the summit began – by which time the conference hall was half empty.

“Unfortunately, we are still focused on side issues,” says Sheikh Abdullah, who maintains that apart from human resource development, only two other issues seriously stand in the way of Arab ICT development.

He believes in “information empowerment”, which, among other things, means no compulsory state censorship of internet access. He also believes technology costs should be cut by reducing call charges and by abolishing tax and duty on technology equipment.

Side issues, according to Sheikh Abdullah, include perceptions of vulnerability to cybercrime, the role of government in the ICT sector and the failure of Arab states to adopt intellectual property rights legislation.

“We want you to ask us to help you,” is Sheikh Abdullah’s invitation to other Arab states. Given the UAE’s stellar growth in terms of ICT over just a few years, Arab policymakers should consider that invitation carefully. Some of the suggestions and sentiments expressed by Sheikh Abdullah made uneasy listening for some delegates, including his apparently sceptical view of a pan-Arab quest for a solution to the region’s ICT challenges.

He is “not optimistic about an Arab solution” and calls into question the efficacy of pan-Arab meetings, which in his view are characterized by “hot air” and “spent podiums” and much debate about problems.

“I believe that applies to all Arab meetings. Working at GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] level is better than working at an Arab level. At an Arab level you will not achieve a lot in the near future,” he says. “We are masters of problem diagnosis – we have to move on.”

Commercial perspectives

Businesses have moved on in Dubai, where Sheikh Mohammed’s ability to deliver world-class commercial ICT facilities is manifest in the purpose-built complexes of Dubai Internet City (DIC).

But facilitating business development in the knowledge economy requires more than physical infrastructure, according to Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi, chief executive of online business-to-business marketplace Tejari.

Training facilities such as the IT academy – established in partnership with IBM – are critical components in the environment that has enabled new-economy businesses in DIC to mushroom.

“Practise what you preach” is Sheikha Lubna’s message to policymakers. She is convinced that the examples set by the UAE authorities are important. Initiatives such as “e-government”, which makes public services available online, through to an “e-college” that promotes quality management have stimulated internet penetration in the UAE, thus stimulating ICT literacy.

But businesses encounter very different experiences as they look to establish positions across the region, according to Husam Dejani, Oracle’s vice-president of Middle East operations. He describes the issue of ICT literacy as “not a single problem, but multi-layered”.

He suggests: “You can start with children if you can wait a generation, or you can start with the business community [since] these are the people who would use them [computers] most.”

Another layer of the problem is about which side of the supply and demand equation is tackled first. Dejani shares Sheikh Abdullah’s view that a pan-Arab solution would be hard to find. “Countries are different: Egypt and Jordan have capabilities but no money while Saudi Arabia has money and is short on capabilities. I don’t know of any country in the Middle East that could address both issues at the same time,” he says.

Dejani notes that governmental approaches to technology are very different. In the Gulf, he says, there is no aim to protect local labour, while technology is seen as a vehicle for job creation in Jordan and Lebanon, where it might be difficult to recruit expatriate labour.

Private partnerships are widely regarded as a good way to stimulate new economic activity. But for the private sector to be involved in technology initiatives it has to understand the objectives of government. The problem, says Dejani, is that “often the government does not know what its objectives are – or at least they are not clearly stated”.

Some governments are taking a practical approach to involving the private sector in areas traditionally reserved for the states. The Omani and Qatari governments have each apparently opted to spend about $2,000 per graduate on Oracle training.

They view this sum as a drop in the ocean when compared with funding a child’s education from kindergarten through to university, only to find there is no job at the end of it all.

Connecting the Arab world

Internet access must be recognized by now as key to a country’s participation in the world economy and a global society. But while internet penetration in Korea, Singapore, Australia, North America and parts of Europe sits comfortably above 50%, overall penetration in Arab states was just 2.54% by the end of the third quarter of 2002, according to UAE-based Madar Research Group.

There are distinct differences in penetration rates among Arab states. Madar estimates that the UAE’s and Bahrain’s end-2002 penetration rates were 27.69% and 22.06%, respectively. Saudi Arabia hosts the single largest online Arab community, with 1.6 million internet users, while 1.5 million Egyptians are connected, according to Madar. At the other end of the scale, Yemen, Sudan and Iraq have penetration rates of less than 1%.

Strong growth is expected in some countries. The UAE will have achieved 38% internet penetration and Bahrain 32% by 2005, according to Madar. But while much more connectivity is forecast across most Arab states, the researchers expect Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan to lag well behind the pack. This means that by 2005 about 25 million Arabs will be connected out of a total population of around 300 million.

“The role of technology and know-how in creating value added has become crucial,” argues Abdel Latif Youssef El Hamed, chairman and director general of the Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD), in his foreword to the United Nations Development Programme’s Arab Human Development Report 2002.

“Central to these huge developments in any society are the capabilities of people and the extent of scientific and cultural progress. All development starts with human development,” Hamed writes.

Hindrances to performance

Knowledge and women’s empowerment – both of which should be vibrant constituents of a country’s pool of capabilities – were identified in the report as two of the three key Arab institutional structures that hinder performance and cripple human development. The third area is governance. An earlier UNDP report questioned how effectively countries develop technological capabilities throughout the population.

The UNDP’s Human Development Report 2001 introduced the technology achievement index (TAI) – a composite index based on eight indicators in four dimensions: technology creation, diffusion of recent innovations, diffusion of old innovations and human skills.

That report makes gloomy reading for those concerned with Arab technology strategies. It found that most Arab countries were not employing technology and technical know-how nearly so well as many other countries.

Four groups of countries are distinguished in the report. These are categorized as leaders, potential leaders, dynamic adopters and those that are marginalized.

Leaders – topped by Finland, the US, Sweden and Japan – are at the cutting edge of technological innovation. Israel is included in this group, as are two countries that have advanced rapidly in technology – South Korea, ranked fifth, and tenth-placed Singapore. There are no Arab states in this group.

Potential leaders have skills levels comparable to those in the top group but while they have diffused old technologies widely they innovate little. This group consists mainly of European and south and central American countries. There are no Arab states in this group either.

Countries in the third group are dynamic users of new technology. Most are developing countries with significantly higher human skills than the fourth group. Many of these countries have important high-technology industries and technology hubs but the diffusion of old inventions is slow and incomplete. At number 51 in the world, Tunisia is the leading Arab state by TAI rankings. Only three other Arab states – Syria, Egypt and Algeria – join Tunisia in the dynamic adaptor category.

Sudan is categorized as a marginalized country that has been unable to diffuse old or new technologies. The majority of Arab states feature alongside other countries where a lack of data prevented a TAI estimate.

“We should give our children what they need – the capability to compete in the modern world,” says Jordan’s minister of information and communication technology, Fawaz Zu’bi. “Technology itself is not the goal, it’s the tool for empowering Arab nations,” he argues.

The consequences of a country not developing technological capabilities – in terms of its competitiveness compared with other nations – may be more costly than doing so.

“The basic challenge is to encourage students to become life-long learners,” argues Rasha al-Sabah, under-secretary at Kuwait’s ministry of education.

Every policymaker says capabilities are important, even if they are still pondering strategies and frameworks for developing them. “Arab countries lack legislative frameworks and lack innovation and creativity in technology,” says Ebrahim al-Dossary, director general for information affairs and follow-up at the Bahraini prime minister’s court.

“We have to match educational outcomes to demands,” he argues.

The inter-relatedness of technology, education and the economy are clear, but a technological knowledge gap may be even more dangerous for countries that fail to develop capabilities, says major-general Zakaria Hussain, adviser to the president at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology and professor of strategic sciences.

“Any backwardness and non-commitment to science and technology constitutes a serious threat to the national security,” he said in an address to the influential Zayed Centre for Coordination and Follow-Up in Abu Dhabi.

Hussain argues that a soundly structured scientific and technological base has become one of the most significant pivots of economic development, and capabilities have become a systematic part of a productive process and one of the integrated stages of production.

“We have to match educational outcomes to demand,” says al-Dossary. He points out that 15 million Arabs have emigrated, along with their skills, to the US and Europe to compete in the global economy.