A combination of high birth rates and low mortality rates has given rise to rapid population growth in the Middle East in recent years. This trend is set to continue for the foreseeable future, putting immense strain on public services. At the same time, the region is experiencing an explosion in chronic diseases due to a more sedentary lifestyles. Governments are responding by investing ever larger sums in developing social infrastructure.

The rise of type 2 diabetes in GCC states
(Millions) 2000 2030f
Bahrain 37,000 99,000
Kuwait 104,000 319,000
Oman 113,000 343,000
Qatar 38,000 88,000
Saudi Arabia 890,000 2,500,000
UAE 350,000 684,000
f=Forecast. Source: World Health Organisation

During the financial crisis of 2008-10, the construction of hospitals, schools and universities has given a major lift to the region’s building industry, amid a slowdown in new projects awards in the real-estate sector.

Focused health and education investments in the GCC

More than $30bn-worth of university projects are currently planned or under way in the GCC, with the majority in Saudi Arabia, which has the largest population of the six member states. The kingdom’s biggest scheme is the $12bn Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University for Girls project in Riyadh. It entails the construction of 22 new colleges, a 700-bed hospital, as well as a central library, conference centres, laboratories, administration buildings, and accommodation blocks. On the healthcare side, there are about $15bn-worth of hospital schemes planned or under way in the GCC. The largest is the $2.3bn Sidra Medical & Research Centre in Doha. The hospital will initially house 412 beds, but will have the infrastructure to expand to 550.

These two megaprojects are slated for completion in 2012, but they set the mould for social infrastructure investment in the decade ahead. At the heart of both schemes lies the use of innovative technology.

IT is central to the Sidra hospital project; the clinical, research and administration systems will all be digital and its staff can expect to work with robotic pharmacies, computer-aided surgery and diagnostics. Some have even joked that Sidra is an IT project with healthcare attached. While the Princess Nora university scheme includes a monorail system to link the 8 million square metre development and will make full use of computer-aided learning techniques.

The use of technology will help education providers shift focus to creativity and analytical thinking

The increased use of technology in schools, universities and hospitals in the Middle East will define investment in social infrastructure over the next 10 years. In the developed world, technology is already an indispensible tool in today’s classrooms, and emerging economies are set to follow suit.

Schools in the region are frequently criticised for using traditional teaching approaches, based on rote learning, that leave students ill-equipped for entering the modern workplace.

The use of technology will help education providers shift focus to creativity and analytical thinking and enable them to benefit from international expertise and varied classroom materials. Computer-based learning and interactive media has been shown to enrich the educational experience and stimulate minds.

Technology is already a major feature of daily life at Education City in Qatar, where six US universities have set up a branch campus. Several of the universities have e-libraries, where students can access online journals and books. Lecture rooms are also fitted with videoconferencing equipment to enable classes to be taught simultaneously in the US and Qatar. Without this, some courses could not be offered due to the relatively low number of students in Doha.

Technology will also play an increased role in the healthcare sector. Health authorities in the Middle East are already investing in IT systems for electronic patient records to improve information portability. In 2010, Saudi Arabia allocated $6bn for investment in e-health. Machine-to-machine (M2M) mobile communication technology is forecast to become a major growth area for the health sector worldwide, and one that telecoms companies are keen to exploit.

Embracing technology in the Middle East health market

A November report from Berlin-based mobile market research specialist Research2guidance forecasts more than 500 million people will be using mobile health applications by 2015, with the Middle East making up around 5 per cent.

“There is a lot of interest among the big operating groups in the Middle East in the potential of M2M communications, and m-health could form an important part of M2M through the deployment of services, such as remote monitoring of medical devices and patients,” says Matthew Reed, senior analyst at London-based telecoms and media research firm Informa.

In places such as Egypt, where access to healthcare is limited, and in remote areas of Saudi Arabia, m-health presents a major opportunity for doctors to reach and communicate with patients.

Faced with changing demographics, investment in social infrastructure will continue to be a priority area for government spending right up to 2020 and beyond, and the classrooms and hospitals of tomorrow will be far more technologically advanced than those of today.