Bridging the digital divide in the Middle East

15 December 2010

Each Gulf state will require a tailored approach if the technology gap in the region is to be addressed

As more governments in the region begin to realise the economic benefits of a well-connected society, investment in technology and adoption rates are rising steadily. Yet each country will require a tailored approach to tackle the digital divides in the Middle East.

Since mobile penetration in the Arab world is above the world average, one of the most effective ways to bridge the gap is through mobile broadband. Governments will need to liberalise their markets, issue new licences and encourage competition. If more of the telecoms companies focus on connecting areas outside of the big cities, the digital gap will significantly reduce. As it stands, rolling out high-speed fibre-optic cables to rural areas is not cost effective.

Illiteracy and poverty are two of the biggest inhibitors to adopting new technologies

The issue requires the input of all the players in the industry. The aim of the telecoms providers is not to address what is a political issue – they are businesses with the aim of making the highest returns possible. Investing in expensive long-term evolution networks while they can make money from their second- or third- generation networks will not be high on the agenda.

The digital divide goes beyond one of infrastructure, which can be overcome with better investment. Illiteracy and poverty are two of the biggest inhibitors to adopting new technologies in the Middle East. Hardware is expensive, as is the cost of an internet connection; even if the government subsidises these costs, illiterate users will not gain the same benefits.

Wealthy countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all have some of the most advanced infrastructure with higher than average internet penetration rates, but access to the internet is limited. Censorship and restricted access to websites deemed sensitive prevents people accessing all the information they want.

There is no escaping the digital divide in the Middle East. While the poor are limited by the high costs of connecting, the rich are restricted from the full freedom of the internet.

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