Collaboration key to build Middle East digital economies
The International Monetary Fund has released its growth forecast for the Middle East and North Africa region as countries continue to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. The report highlights how digital infrastructures dependent on ICT solutions, products, and services are playing a pivotal role in strengthening economic recovery. Meanwhile, research from the GSMA suggests that upgrades to 5G networks alone could add more than $600 billion a year to the global economy by 2030, which will ultimately support in overcoming the remaining effects of Covid-19.
More than ever before, the true value of digitisation has emerged. It has changed ways of business productivity, education, and cooperation during the pandemic, particularly as data traffic continues to spike globally. Such infrastructure will ultimately support us in the Middle East to overcome the effects of Covid-19 and return to normal life. Likewise, innovations in the ICT realm will add new value to our daily lives.
Today the UAE, along with other governments in the Middle East, are keen on investing in ICT infrastructure to accelerate socio-economic development. Analysts predict that due to the many contracts signed in 2020, the total spending on ICT could rebound to pre-pandemic levels in the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa region, surpassing $209.5 billion in 2021.
As new investments emerge, trade competition will inevitably arise. In the past few years, however, we have witnessed a stronger political influence on technology matters. This is most visible in the tensions between the US and China around cybersecurity. This global confrontation has led to the obstructing of free trade and the global supply chain. That in turn has snowballed into various other issues, such as a global shortage of semiconductors affecting various sectors — the automobile industry being just one example — and their future.
Typically, conflicts between the world’s most powerful nations will affect the Arab world. We live in advanced stages of globalisation where cross-border interdependence is high. Moreover, the Middle East is swiftly becoming a global nexus for joint innovation, the exchange of information, and creative industries. It is, therefore, not in the Arab world’s interest for the East and the West to be divided. Future development plans for the region depend on balanced relations between the world’s most powerful and advanced economies.
The necessity of balanced relations is especially evident when looking at China’s rapid expansion of its national tech industry. China recently surpassed the US in its number of patent applications globally. Many agree that the East, led by China, has taken the lead over the West represented by the US in the technology sector. China is now sharpening its national strategy around R&D for the coming years. The country’s leadership has, for example, provided various tax facilitations to contribute to the development of the semiconductors sector following US sanctions.
Despite the challenges caused by US sanctions, Chinese tech giants such as Huawei have risen as a global leader in 5G technology. The company is now focusing even more on investments in critical areas such as AI and cloud computing solutions, while maintaining a global patent lead for the fourth consecutive year, and becoming one of the biggest investors in R&D globally.
In the Middle East, we need to take advantage of this technological progress. That requires following an open approach to international engagement, focusing on constructive dialogue, cooperation, and exchanging expertise with countries worldwide. We need to be fair in doing so. We should evaluate all digital platforms using a scientific approach and international standards, avoiding geopolitical influences which have infiltrated recent technology matters.
To that end, transparent regulatory frameworks and cybersecurity laws are vital elements to strengthening global cooperation in the digital era. Ensuring cybersecurity and data privacy is not the responsibility of one company or one country. Instead of diving into politics, governments, technology companies, and other stakeholders need to cooperate on unified frameworks to protect the digital economy. Considering the UAE’s regional and global position, many experts believe that the nation can become a global hub for cybersecurity that spearheads scientific research and innovation. This also ensures fair access to innovations that can serve future generations, especially in crucial areas such as education.
Political limitations to modern technologies hinder the ability of the Middle East to build local ICT ecosystems that contribute to the provision of the digital economy. For example, the ‘Future of Jobs’ report published by the World Economic Forum in 2020 expected our reliance on emerging technologies to only increase. A skills shortage would likely emerge as innovation outpaces talent development. Many Middle Eastern countries have now adopted plans to develop digital skills as part of their national strategies for transformation. Open collaboration with the international community to promote this knowledge exchange is crucial to strengthening local digitisation initiatives — be it sending a space probe to Mars, the One Million Arab Coders initiative, or launching the world’s first graduate-level, research-based AI university.
Education, in particular, is highly dependent on technology. Research conducted by UNICEF highlights that around 40 percent of families have expressed concerns about the pandemic’s effects on education. Thankfully many countries, including the UAE, have experimented with remote education systems, and adopted various e-learning programs long before the pandemic. The International Telecommunication Union commended the UAE’s efforts in providing digital services while bearing their costs, which have allowed remote education to continue seamlessly. But remote education is not everything. Technology innovations still require developing new education systems and curricula. Countries in the Middle East need to engage international technology companies who can contribute to this, regardless of their origin from either the East or the West.
It is this spirit of openness and cooperation that will spread knowledge and stimulate innovation. It is a spirit that will strengthen economic recovery, nurture new sectors, and support local talent, in turn contributing to the next 50-years plan. The UAE government is in parallel prioritising the preparedness of future generations, recognising the visions set by talented Emiratis to spur innovations that overcome future challenges.
Collaboration and joint innovation in digital infrastructure will fundamentally help us to seize these opportunities, to do so effectively, and achieve progress for the future of humanity.