Magazine article The Middle East

ICT: The Arab World's Bright Hope: As Many Observers in the Middle East and North Africa Have Remarked Recently, the Successful Protests in Egypt, Never Mind All the Others Still Going on, Were Not Actually Made by Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. It Was the People Who Did It, Not the Technology of Silicon Valley

Magazine article The Middle East

ICT: The Arab World's Bright Hope: As Many Observers in the Middle East and North Africa Have Remarked Recently, the Successful Protests in Egypt, Never Mind All the Others Still Going on, Were Not Actually Made by Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. It Was the People Who Did It, Not the Technology of Silicon Valley

Article excerpt

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Nevertheless, the readiness of many young, digitally-savvy Arabs to turn to social media as a means of communication and organisation to express their political discontent is now apparent to the entire world. What is not so clear to some Arab officials, and those abroad who could help to facilitate it, is the extent to which the internet, mobile phone technology, telecoms networks, state-of-the-art hardware and innovative applications could help to provide a new basis for economic and social progress, as well as for political reform, in the Arab world. In other words, how information and communications technology (ICT), could lighten the burdens on millions of Arab households, not to mention its huge potential to create tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of vitally needed jobs over the next decade or two.

Countries like Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have the human talent, in the form of large numbers of highly educated, but underutilised, graduates and skilled workers that the sector needs. Other states, such as Qatar and the UAE, have the wealth required to purchase the most advanced equipment and services as well as the research and technical expertise required.

The fact that global telecoms and ICT leaders such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Cisco, Vodafone, Ericsson, Nokia, Intel and Hewlett Packard are now setting up shop, or are already operational, in MENA--along with the big international media companies such as CNN, CNBC, Rupert Murdoch's SkyNews and the Wall Street Journal--is testimony to the drawing power, and potential, of ICT in the region.

Figures produced by the industry-respected website, Internetworldstats.com, for the end of June 2010 show that Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia lead the Arab world in internet usage, with a combined market of more than 37 million people. This covers those who have both access to the internet and the knowledge to use it. Adding Algeria, Sudan, Syria, the UAE and Tunisia brings that total up to almost 58 million, with another five million accounted for by Jordan, Oman, Kuwait and Lebanon.

While this compares poorly with figures for North America at 266 million, Europe at 475 million and Asia at 825 million, analysts and marketing managers are keen to point out that the growth rates for internet usage in the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries far outstrip those of many of the more-developed countries in the West and even of the fastest-growing emerging markets in Asia.

The website's figures, drawn from statistics compiled by the Geneva-based UN organisation, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). the US ratings agency, Nielsen and other global and national authorities, show that in the 10-year period between 2000 and 2010, internet usage grew by a phenomenal 14,000% in the Sudan; 13,000% in Syria; more than 10,000% in Morocco and 9,000% in Algeria; almost 5,000% in Saudi Arabia and between 3,000 and 4,000% in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

In contrast, the growth rates for this decade in the US and Canada amounted to less than 150%. Although Europe and Asia scored higher, with rates of about 350% and 620% respectively, these pale in comparison to the MENA region. In the case of North Africa, for example--including Egypt, Sudan and Mauritania as well as Libya and the Maghreb, the average growth rate from 2000 to 2010 amounted to 6,500%, more than double the already impressive average of 2,400% for the continent of Africa as a whole. China, which is seen by many as the future powerhouse of global markets, had a growth rate for the decade of less than 1,800%, while for India the figure was just over 1,500%.

What's more, the potential for expanding internet usage in MENA also vastly outstrips that of North America and Europe. This is due in part to the region's relatively later adoption of information technology and the delayed opening up of its telecommunications sector to the internet. …

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