Magazine article The Middle East , No. 375
"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. …