E-government services have grown increasingly sophisticated in the Middle East in recent years, evolving from simple websites to portals that enable citizens to pay utility bills, apply for visas and potentially vote in elections.

Developing e-government portals is becoming an essential part of the services that governments offer. They have also become a new model of partnership with different sectors and, for telecoms operators, a major new income stream. The UAE telecoms operator Etisalat says government services are now its biggest source of revenue outside its core mobile business.

Citizen focused e-government services

“The efforts being exerted by Middle Eastern governments to rollout e-government services have the goal of situating the citizen at the centre,” says Mukesh Chulani, senior research analyst at US-based market intelligence firm International Data Corporation.

Currently, the governments of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the UAE and Yemen all boast an online presence, although some are more advanced than others.

According to Jordanian research firm Arab Advisors Group, Bahrain has the most advanced e-government portal, followed by the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, while Morocco and Tunisia take the lead in North Africa.

Middle East IT sector assessment*
Country Networked readiness index 2010-2011 Government online quality of service index
UAE 24 96
Qatar 25 87
Bahrain 30 8
Saudi Arabia 33 73
Tunisia 35 29
Oman 41 53
Jordan 50 22
Egypt 74 23
Kuwait 75 35
Morocco 83 100
Lebanon 95 90
Iran 101 90
Algeria 117 125
Syria 124 131
Libya 126 118
*Position in world ranking. Sources: World Economic Forum; UN E-government survey, 2010

“These countries come at the forefront in the Arab world in terms of offering advanced e-government features. Following those is Egypt and then Jordan, Algeria, Oman and Yemen, while the least advanced is Lebanon,” says Zeena al-Borgan, senior analyst at Arab Advisors Group.

The Arab countries’ electronic governments are progressing rapidly. In just one year, from November 2009 to November 2010, Algeria, Oman and Yemen all launched e-government portals.

Online services in Dubai

Dubai’s e-government initiative now has in excess of 2,000 online services. In the six months to the end of June this year, Dubai’s e-Pay had completed more than 1.3 million transactions, collecting $462m for the entities, which include Dubai Customs and Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa). In the same period in 2010, only 800,000 transactions were completed, raising $300m.

Qatar’s Hukoomi portal has more than 300 information-based sites and close to 70 transactional services, while Bahrain has enabled more than 200 government services online.

“E-government projects are being applied with a long-term view and in an evolutionary manner,” says Chulani. “Beyond just rolling out one e-service after another, there is also concurrent work taking place to ensure successful adoption and acceptance of these services by citizens and residents alike. Of course, this is happening to varying extents and levels of success.”

E-government projects are being applied with a long-term view and in an evolutionary manner

Mukesh Chulani, International Data Corporation

Infrastructure is vital for the success of e-government portals. The countries that come top in the rankings are the ones that have invested the most and developed their infrastructure to make the internet accessible to their populations. Most GCC countries also have the advantage of a smaller land mass and so rolling out a fibre-optic infrastructure is cheaper than in places such as Algeria or Egypt.

Broadband access in the Gulf

Access to high-speed broadband is essential in driving national competitiveness and enabling advances in sectors such as education, healthcare and energy. In March, Qatar’s government established a new company, Qatar National Broadband Network, to rollout a $550m nationwide broadband fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network to cover 95 per cent of the country by 2015. The UAE is also pursuing FTTH access through Etisalat, a plan that is costing the operator $15bn, while Abu Dhabi is already the world’s first fully FTTH-connected city.

Because of the region and the governments themselves, there is no public cloud suited to that sort of scale

Trevor Dearing, Juniper Networks

Besides a fibre-optic backbone, the infrastructure for e-government has developed along with new technologies. Cloud computing has become an area of interest for many policymakers in the Middle East. It is, however, a sensitive topic and governments are usually reluctant or hesitant to discuss their plans for cloud computing initiatives. But trends indicate that ministries in the GCC region are pursuing private clouds.

“Because of the region and the governments themselves, there is no public cloud suited to that sort of scale,” says Trevor Dearing, chief network strategist for Europe, Middle East & North Africa at US-based Juniper Networks.

Internet and mobile pentration rates, 2011
Country Internet penetration (percentage) Mobile Penetration (percentage)
Algeria 13.4 98
Bahrain 53.5 188
Egypt 24.5 94
Iran 42.6 91
Iraq 1.1 77
Jordan 26.8 112
Kuwait 42.4 120
Lebanon 26.4 69
Libya 5.4 195
Morocco 41.3 96
Oman 48.4 148
Gaza/West Bank 53.7 63
Qatar 66.5 167
Saudi Arabia 43.6 186
Syria 19.8 52
Tunisia 33.9 106
UAE 69 205
Yemen 9.7 30
Sources: Internet World Stats; MEED

“Building a private government cloud seems to be the obvious step, which is being pursued, but you cannot avoid the fact that there will be politics and different agendas involved. Since there are chief information officers in government here with their roles beginning to take effect, there is a better chance for cloud computing to succeed.”

Using public clouds or data centres outside the country can create concerns for national security. The flow of data is still an unrefined issue, with different laws and regulations governing different countries across the world.

Developing sophisticated services is the next step and the most successful portals facilitate and simplify bureaucracy within government operations, while also integrating different sectors into central government initiatives.

“Most of the e-government services in the region are driven by plans and economic visions to diversify their economies. A lot of the governments have been explicit in wanting to enable better services for citizens through the development of such portals,” says Dino Wilkinson, a partner at UK-based law firm Norton Rose.

Policymakers play a particularly strong role in facilitating the use of IT within various sectors. The UAE central government has worked through ministries to develop IT initiatives in health, education and civic affairs.

Equipping schools with computers

State-backed schools in the UAE have benefited from a $21.5m Ministry of Education initiative to supply computers and internet access following concerns that they were under-resourced compared with private schools.

The Ministry of Health launched an initiative called Wareed to link 13 state hospitals and 67 clinics across the UAE through an integrated electronic platform.

Saudi Arabia’s development in this field has also been impressive. The government is realising its e-government ambitions through its portal Yesser. Projects that have been implemented include the Ministry of Defence and Aviation and Medical Services Division (MSD) initiative to create a unified medical system to link all 26 MSD hospitals and 68 medical centres and clinics across the country.

The challenge that [regional] governments have is unique, based on fear around opening up things too freely

Dale Zabriskie, Symantec

In 2009, the cabinet signed off a $3.1bn plan to improve the education system by equipping schools with new technologies. Half the funds have been used to improve the general educational environment to help keep pace with scientific advancements.

While infrastructure and sophisticated services are vital to the success of any e-government portal, internet access and literacy levels in the population are just as important. “IT is always a challenge. It is not just a case of buying a few boxes and turning them on. It requires integrating solutions with the people,” says Wilkinson.

Digital divide in the Middle East

Internet penetration levels are still low across the Middle East. This is usually referred to as the digital divide, a problem acknowledged by many of the region’s policymakers, who hope their investments in the education system will help bridge the gap.

Yet despite the technological advancements, one of the biggest concerns when it comes to e-government is the issue of security. Data breaches, hacking into data centres and accessing sensitive information have become widespread and a recognised risk in IT.

“There has been a shift from a widespread virus with no specific target to extremely targeted attacks and there is now a lot of fear and trepidation in adopting new technologies, since it has turned into nation states targeting one another,” says Dale Zabriskie, principal technologist at US-based security firm Symantec.

Last year, Iran was the victim of a sophisticated cyber attack called Stuxnet. It was believed to have been developed by US and Israeli scientists to delay the country’s nuclear development capabilities. Yet, while these threats are becoming more potent, they are not enough to prevent the region’s governments from pursuing IT initiatives.

There is a fear of opening up too much, however. “The challenge that the Middle East governments have is unique, based on fear around opening up things too freely, particularly after what has happened in Egypt and Tunisia,” says Zabriskie.

Regional governments now have to play a balancing act between enabling these services and encouraging greater internet access while protecting their own interests and those of the state.

“The government has to provide an appropriate amount of access to ensure data does not end up in the wrong hands,” says Zabriskie.

Identification management is one of the biggest areas and, according to Dearing, the sophistication of authentication varies with different governments. In January, Bahrain commissioned Singapore’s Crimsologic to create a national authentication framework. The contract, which is scheduled for completion in September, is worth $2m.

“These systems deal with millions of people, so they require a more sophisticated end-point with authentication and identification management. It’s a new scale that requires infrastructure and massive data centres, so the knock-on effects are bigger than just security,” says Dearing.

Opting out of the technology is not sustainable and is potentially more damaging to the economy than a cyber attack.

“It doesn’t matter if you have the best technology in the world. It’s about looking at the wider issues, being open and identifying potential risks. Working out ways to address and manage them is essential to a successful e-government presence,” says Wilkinson.

User privacy and data protection laws are vital components, but are almost non-existent in the region. There is no region-wide body to tackle the issue of the flow of data and what governments are entitled to do with user information, so much of the policies have been driven by internal government directives. Qatar has been the first to address the question of user privacy by holding a public consultation and on 27 June it issued a first draft of a new Personal Information Privacy Protection Law.

“Besides being effective, technologically sound and efficient, the essence of a good e-government portal is trust. Citizens must feel safe and unthreatened when using these services and safe in the knowledge that their information is not being exploited by third parties,” says Zabriskie.

A fully functioning e-government portal is the basis of a smart city, a concept that is quickly gaining support.

“Technology has become an enabler, a tool to increase efficiency and connectivity between people, people and machines and machines to machines. The various interactions and links to systems and people are the basis of smart cities,” says Mathieu Bossard, research project leader at France’s Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs.

According to Bossard, the infrastructure of a smart city comprises three components: firstly, the communications infrastructure; secondly, the application marketplace, where third-party developers enable people to interact with the information on offer; and thirdly, the user interface that citizens use.

Smart cities in the Middle East

“Many of the countries in the Middle East are best-placed to develop their e-government portals and create smart cities because they do not have much legacy to deal with,” Bossard says.

Saudi Arabia is planning to build six of these smart cities, with IT at the heart of their design, to create more sustainable, economically friendly, connected networks. The first of these is at King Abdullah Economic City, where construction company Emaar, the Economic City awarded Sweden’s Ericsson an $85m project to implement and operate a smart city infrastructure and network in 2008. All the buildings will be connected by voice, data and video links.

While these services are considered of vital importance for future economic plans and are seen as a way for governments to develop and become more accessible to their citizens, they will be a pointless investment if people cannot access them easily. Developing the facade and the services must go hand in hand with investing in the infrastructure and educating the population to become IT-literate.