"Dubai has a take-a-chance mentality. It's a risk-taker as opposed to risk averse," says Hisham Malak, channel and marketing manager of software integration company Sybase. "It's always at the forefront of development in the (Mena) region." Hence its lead in customer-focused electronic operations which allow citizens to access and use the country's systems from their own computers, instead of having to queue to pay bills and fines, make visa applications, pay municipality fees, register companies, apply for health cards, deal with the police and the law, book flights or even make their Zakat (alms) payment.
By November 2006, 2m transactions had been carried out online and the municipality had reached its target of offering 90% of all services online a year ahead of schedule. The city is now going a step further and giving the public the facility to liaise with the government via their portable handsets.
In comparison with the West, the Gulf has taken some time to invest in technology that allows users seamless access to systems from any common or garden PC with an Internet link. But with the sudden rise in interest in the Internet, many technology users in the Mena region are surging ahead with their own implementations.
According to the World Bank, e-government is the use by government agencies of information and communications technology in order to provide better delivery of government services to citizens, improved interactions with business and industry and citizen empowerment through access to information or more efficient government management. The benefits can be less corruption, increased transparency, greater convenience, revenue growth, and/or cost reductions
And it's not just in government: the trend is related to e-commerce or enterprise mobility, which allows companies to do business with each other and their customers more efficiently through technology links. An obvious example is Internet banking, which has been around in the US since the mid-1990s but was introduced in the Gulf three to four years ago.
As Malak says, the Dubai municipal government, which launched its services in 2001 with 25 government departments online, is a trailblazer for the movement within the Mena region. The project was the first of its kind in the Arab world and Dubai also leads other Gulf governments due to the complexity and scale of its operation, according to Dr Philip van Heerden, a programme manager for research company IDC, "Dubai is adopting a high-end world class system".
The next step on from e-government is mobile (or m-) government, which is well advanced in countries such as Sweden, The Netherlands, Singapore and Hong Kong. This involves using 'smart' mobile phones that tie in voice communications with computer, network and e-mail functionality or personal digital assistants (PDAs), which combine the functionality of a computer, a mobile, a music player and a camera; customers are keen to identify as many uses as possible for the devices. "There's a requirement for data to follow the end users, wherever the end user is," says Malak.
The technology requires wireless infrastructure and gives organisations the ability to reach more people than would be possible through a wired Internet. Disadvantages of m-government include increased security issues due to the fact that mobile devices are easily hacked and wireless networks send signals over public networks. Governments need to address the legal responsibilities involved in sending data over such links and there's a huge learning curve involved in getting the public to use the systems, as well as a need to recognise that not everyone wants to, or can, deal with the state over the airwaves. These issues were acknowledged by Rehab Lootah, Dubai e-government's acting e-services director at the Middle East Mobility and Broadband Summit in September 2006.
With a mobile presentation level of 120%, Dubai launched the first mobile portal in the Middle East in September 2005, having conducted an online survey to assess the kinds of services users would like. It now offers access to 81% of the 1,900 public services offered by the government, including payment of utilities bills and traffic fines, job searches, flight information and public transport information and has partnered with the industry and business communities for airline bookings, stock quotes, entertainment and Dubai city information.
Lootah says: "Our pioneering portal http://mobile.dubai.ae has increased channels for people's interaction with the government and lowered administration costs while at the same time ensuring higher levels of public participation in governance."
The Dubai government now bills its service as a multi-channelled approach because in addition to e-government, a bilingual call-centre and the mobile-based Internet portal, it also offers a mobile channel where customers can get personalised information via SMS 'push' and 'pull' text messages, which let them receive and initiate communications.
But while advances in mobile offerings have upgraded the Dubai government's interactive ICT offering, the city actually fell in a UN league table of municipal systems. Dubai's world ranking fell from 18 to 50 between 2003 and 2005. However within the Mena region, Cairo has crept up to 45th place, while Riyadh is not far behind at 52. The UN table scores the municipalities in terms of privacy and security, usability, content, services, citizen participation and best practice. One issue that needs to be worked on is the public's awareness and acceptance of dealing with the government online if it wishes to achieve its target is of having up to 50% of all transactions carried out online this year. A National Bank of Dubai study of 4,110 local firms reported in June 2006 that the authorities could benefit from marketing the concept more aggressively to convince firms that it could help them improve profitability and that they could benefit from researching the factors that influence consumer attitudes and behaviour towards e-services.
In spite of the UN assessment, however, Dubai has a much higher profile offering than its Middle East rivals.
Meanwhile, the e-government system of the UAE ranks the highest amongst its neighbours in world terms. In 2005, the portal for the UAE was ranked 42nd in terms of e-government readiness, having gained 18 places in a UN rating behind the countries of North America, Europe and South and Eastern Asia. It came higher than Bahrain, which in 2004 was the Arab leader, ranked 46. The UN report particularly commends the UAE for its single gateway to e-services, giving it a commendation for regional best practice thanks to its organisation. The site provides information, services and transactions and is separated into sections for residents, business, visitors and government. The UN singles out up-to-date information and an online bidding facility for public tenders as particularly noteworthy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UN report comments: "The preponderance of high and middle income countries in the top 50 indicates that e-government readiness is related to income."
Saudi Arabia has recently allocated $800m for its implementation in the kingdom. The project aims to bring 150 government services and 1,000 subsidiary services offered by 40 departments online. The kingdom is implementing an awareness campaign to inform the public, business and civil servants of the benefits of the strategy, which aims to have a 75% adoption rate and 80% user satisfaction, as well as high security standards and a user-friendly interface by 2010.
Qatar expects 100,000 citizens to use ICT to access its government services this year and Egypt claims to have 600 government services for businesses and individuals online, saving the government $1.6m per month for every 100,000 users. "Bahrain and Qatar have deployed fully integrated e-government systems that are very advanced," says van Heerden.
US-based analysts Forrester Research, defines the mobile enterprise as, "the ability to connect and control suppliers, partners, employees, assets, products and customers from any location". Worldwide, the notion of such an enterprise is still in its infancy and analysts expect it to reach maturity in the next five years. The benefits of the systems include improved productivity and customer relations, streamlined business processes, cost savings and increased competitive edge, according to global communications company Motorola.
It's seen by senior IT management in the US, Europe, and worldwide as among their highest priorities but it is a complex area requiring specialists in wireless networking, application developers, end-user interfaces and government regulations to co-operate with business visionaries. IDC reports that 80% of businesses in the Middle East have some level of workforce mobility but the proportion of workers considered highly mobile are in the range of 15-20%.
One company that expects to gain strategic advantage from mobile systems is the UAE national carrier, Emirates, which is due to roll out an in-flight information management system early this year. Its flight crew will be equipped with Lenovo tablet PCs, which will enable them to pass real-time information such as preferred drinks, meal choices, in-flight entertainment or special interests, to customer service systems on the ground.
"Investing in sophisticated technology gives us the capability to develop and implement innovative applications to deliver unique services to our high valued customers. The fast growth Emirates is experiencing today means that we should always be two steps ahead," says Ted Green, the airline's vice president in charge of business development.
The organising committee of the Arab Strategy Forum which took place in Dubai in December 2006 was planning to provide delegates with handheld computers, giving them instant access to session details and the facility to book places at seminars and lectures.
Maroc Telecom (Itissalat Al Maghrib or IAM) tops the list of TME's leading North African companies (January 2007) and comes tenth overall in the Mena region, with a value of $13.5bn, a third quarter 2006 profit of $899m and 2005 turnover of $2.47bn (16% growth). It is 51%-owned by French entertainments giant, Vivendi and was founded in 1998
In January, Maroc Telecom became the majority shareholder in Burkina Faso's main telecoms operator Onatel and the company is already the major participant in Mauritia's Mauritel.
IAM is the main telecoms operator in Morocco and employs over 11,000 people with 220 offices in the country. Its main products are landlines, mobile services and Internet access. Under its Menara brand, it has 98% of the country's web access market, with more than 325,000 broadband Internet customers halfway through 2006. At the same time, it had 8.9m mobile customers, an increase of 24.2% over the previous year, giving it a 67.4% market share. Its mobile network reaches 97% of the population. IAM's fixed customer base is 1.31m lines, a loss of 2.9% over the previous year mainly from residential customers. The company faces competition from two new fixed-line operators and the allocation of 3G mobile licences to Meditel and Maroc Connect.
In July last year, IAM signed an agreement with French telecoms company Alcatel, to develop a 1,600km submarine cable network linking Asilah in Morocco and Marseille in France. Scheduled for completion early this year, the $34.5m project will enable the company to handle the increasing number of digital subscribers and improve broadband access. It will also offer an alternative, high capacity traffic route to the existing Eurafrica system linking Morocco, France and Portugal.
The agreement follows in the tradition of previous pioneering telecoms installations involving the country, such as the first underwater cable in the Mediterranean, between Tetouan, Morocco and Perpignan, France, installed in 1967 and the first underwater fibre optic cable in 1992.
Also last year, IAM launched an Internet-based TV service just in time for the World Cup, which had collected 2,200 subscribers by June and 50,000 by the end of last year, offering access to 50 channels. By the end of this year, the operator hopes to offer 200 channels to 200,000 subscribers. In a July 2006 analysts' report, the organisation predicted continuing Internet and mobile growth and revenue increases of 8% for the year to come.
In a country of 27m people which is one of the fastest growing in the region and in a rapidly liberalising under-penetrated telecoms economy, there is everything to play for. Valued at $53.4bn, Saudi Telecoms is well-placed to exploit the opportunities. It is the biggest IT organisation in TME's i00 Top Arab Companies (January 2007), the third biggest company overall and the eighth largest worldwide supplier of landline services, according to its website. Its profit for the third quarter of 2006 was $2.7bn. The company is made up of fixed line (where it currently has a monopoly), mobile, data and Internet divisions.
Formed in 1998, the company emerged from the privatised Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones Ministry. The ministry laid the foundations of the Telecommunications Act of 2001 which provided for the liberalisation of telecoms services leading to the licensing of competing fixed-line, mobile and value-added service providers. The first competitor to emerge in the Saudi telecoms arena was the UAE's Ettihad Etisalat (Mobily) in 2004, with a 3G mobile licence, while a third cellphone permit is expected to be auctioned shortly and another fixed-line service will be authorised by 2008.
The challenges facing the company include a fixed-line voice market which fell by 4% to just over $2bn in 2005 and is expected to contract an average of 7.6% annually in the next five years, according to a report from research company IDC which puts the move down to the migration to mobile phones; and a market opening up to voice over broadband, stimulating further competition.
Operators will need to offer innovative solutions, says the firm which points out that the number of fixed-line connections should nevertheless grow due to increased demand for Internet access. But in a country of 3.8m fixed lines, 13.3m cellphones and 2.54m Internet users, there is room for plenty more.…