On 8 December, Vodafone Qatar became the latest mobile phone operator to trial new technology that will give mobile broadband speeds of up to 60 Megabits per second (Mbps). Such speeds will become widespread over the next few years and provide users with better connectivity.

While these trials are taking place in the technologically more advanced markets in the region, Other countries are being left behind. The result is that a ‘digital divide’ is emerging in the Middle East that is holding back the region’s development.

It takes one person to have a proactive attitude, to have the desire to make technology effective

Richard Marett, Whizz Education

This digital divide is most apparent between populations with access to technology and communications systems, and those with limited access. But it also reflects an imbalance in the resources and skills needed to ensure effective digital access. This knowledge divide is just as inhibitive as the physical divide.

In terms of information and communications technology (ICT) development and connectivity, the Middle East lags the rest of the world, but there is even more of a disparity within the region. While mobile penetration exceeds 200 per cent in the UAE, it only stands at about 35 per cent in Yemen.

Economic catalyst

In terms of economic development and competitiveness, the digital deficit could have serious consequences for the region. ICT is a catalyst for economic growth and sustainability. According to the World Bank, for every 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration, there is a 1 per cent increase in gross domestic product (GDP). For every 1,000 users of mobile broadband, 80 jobs are created as a result.

“Technology presents opportunities. When you have large swathes of society with no access to it, you’re preventing them the opportunity for economic equality,” says Jawad Abbassi, founder of the Jordan-based research company Arab Advisors Group.

Recently, however, governments across the Middle East have begun to understand the importance of a digitally enabled society where information is readily available. It aids economic equality, social mobility, enhances democracy and economic growth.

The GCC is leading the way. From 2011-13, GCC governments will invest $48bn in ICT. Saudi Arabia alone is investing $24bn.

“I don’t believe the digital divide exists anymore in the GCC, we have leapfrogged the divide and we’re at the forefront of technology,” says Ray Hassan, president of Ericsson’s GCC countries market unit.

The GCC markets have inherent physical characteristics that give them a head start in the development of their ICT infrastructure. In particular, they are smaller areas and have flatter terrain, which enables a quick roll-out of fibre-optics at a relatively low cost. Further, they are seeking to strategically reinvest oil revenues in the technology sectors to aid development and bridge the digital gap in these areas. In comparison, most North African states are large and rolling out fibre-optic cables to remote areas is too expensive. 

“The region is still relying on fibre-optic networks, but based on the new technologies the future will see more satellite-based coverage,” says Emil Samarah, regional director of satellite operator Yahsat. “Taking into consideration the costs and speeds of satellite and the geography of the region, it is the best way to decrease the digital divide.” 

Technology adoption

Countries that were late in opening up their tele-communications markets have suffered as a result, which has impacted on ICT adoption rates, but other factors have also held back the region. Some in the region are being held back by weak regulators and operators unwilling to invest in new technologies. In Lebanon, conflict has crippled infrastructure and the country continues to suffer from a lack of investment.

“Most regulators want to stimulate this productivity, but operators are holding back because they want the highest return on investment from their current second-generation infrastructure before upgrading their networks to 3G or LTE [long term evolution],” says Hassan. “There is a domino effect, as more operators upgrade to LTE, it’s a matter of pride and becomes a political issue.”

Better or sophisticated infrastructure does not always ensure a well-connected society, nor does it close the digital gap. In the GCC mobile penetration ranges from 150-200 per cent, much higher than the world average. Most local operators have been trialling LTE that give hi-speed mobile broadband, but fixed broadband penetration is still lower than the global average of 5 per cent, at 2.3 per cent.

Imbalances in the digital gap can stem from a lack of PC penetration levels, high price of connection, slow speeds, a lack of content and strict censorship, but one of the biggest causes is illiteracy. “It is not just a matter of mobile and internet penetration, there are many other aspects to the digital divide,” says Ali Amer, senior adviser to Saudi Arabia’s telecoms operator STC.

No matter how connected a society, or sophisticated its infrastructure, if a user cannot read or write, then the internet and other digital content cannot provide the same opportunities. This was highlighted at the Middle East’s first technology in education exhibition, BETT, which took place in Abu Dhabi in November. The event highlighted the role education can play in bridging the digital divide and narrowing the poverty gap. This is commonly referred to as the knowledge economy.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council has so far invested $11m in school management systems to increase flexibility and productivity in the emirate’s state primary and secondary schools. ‘Smart’ classrooms with technologies such as interactive whiteboards and web-based tutorials are receiving increased regional interest.

“Attitude plays a big part in the digital divide. It takes one person to have a proactive attitude, to have the desire make technology effective. Schools need to apply best practice in order for new technologies to have a profound impact.” says Richard Marett, founder and managing director of UK-based Whizz Education, a mathematics tutorial website.

Introducing technologies in schools will not narrow the digital or poverty gap entirely. Such products need to be used properly to raise attainment levels. Microsoft Middle East & Africa education director Zeid Shubailat points out a cultural barrier to the adoption of technology. “Without solid proof of return from investment, traditionalists will see it as a waste and teachers will not adopt it if they do not feel in control of these systems. There is great need for training and integration of these technologies in the education sector.”

Jordan, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been the countries most keen to build up a knowledge economy in the region.

Jordan has been a prime example, establishing the Jordan Education Initiative to improve the level of education through public-private partnerships (PPP). The country will soon open the Jordanian Academy for Technical Education, for which the government has allocated $14.14m. As a result, Jordan has become a leader in creating digital content with more internet startups than anywhere else in the region. Maktoob, a web portal acquired in February 2010 by US group Yahoo for $164m, was a Jordanian start up.

Yet there is still a lack of Arabic content. Only 1-2 per cent of all online content is in Arabic. “The internet provides a very important opportunity to connect people, but 70 per cent of Arab users do not speak English, so cannot benefit from most available information,” says Amer.

Arab Advisors’ Abbassi disagrees. “There are about 2 billion internet users around the world and Arabic speakers make up 2-3 per cent, so it is proportional. There is a lack of content to an extent, but it is being addressed quite well with the e-government processes and all major news companies adopting a presence online and adopting social media,” he says.

Key driver

While GCC countries have almost bridged the technology gap – in terms of infrastructure, consumption of online content and fixed broadband penetration – levels are lower than countries with poor infrastructure. In the UAE, internet penetration is about 60 per cent of the population. In Egypt, internet consumption is much higher, with Egyptians ranked as the world’s second-most active internet users. In places where there is heavy online censorship there is an impact on consumption.

The Middle East’s large youth population is a key driver behind the demand for better connectivity and more online content. “People want the latest technology and connectivity anywhere and everywhere. The need for communication has forced operators to develop and improve mobile broadband,” adds Hassan. And it is through mobile broadband that the digital gap can be most easily addressed.

It will require all major players – including the telecoms operators, internet service providers, solutions developers and vendors – to play a part in developing ICT. “The gap is really big, it needs a lot of work and effort on all levels,” says Amer.