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Dynamic ICT sector on track to beat 2015 National ICT Plan’s ambitious goals

Interview - July 1, 2015

Dr. Hessa Al Jaber is the first-ever Minister of Information and Communications Technology in Qatar following the formation of the nation’s new Cabinet by H.H. the Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani in 2013.

She is the third Qatari woman to assume a ministerial position in the state. In 2013, Dr. Al Jaber was listed among the 500 most powerful Arabs in the world by Arabian Business magazine, then ranked 20th on the 2013 Arabian Business’ list of 100 most powerful Arab women.

More recently, the Internet Society inducted her as one of eight international Internet leaders to the 2013 Internet Hall of Fame Advisory Board. Moreover, Mashable, which covers global social media news, named her among the eight most impressive women working in technology throughout the world during the 2000s.

Here, she speaks to Upper Reach about the huge potential in Qatar’s ICT sector. 

DR. HESSA AL JABER, MINISTER OF ICT
DR. HESSA AL JABER | MINISTER OF ICT

Ranking the world’s fourth largest economy, the MENA region generated a combined GDP of approximately $3.6 trillion in 2012. Undoubtedly, the region has emerged as a major global player competing with traditional European and North American markets. What role will the Middle East play in shaping future investment and global economic trends in the mid-term?

Indeed the MENA region is a major global player and there is a great deal of room for growth in the future. One area of focus, for example, is in e-commerce.

In the Middle East, consumerism is big, there is a large shopping culture, and the Gulf has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

With high Internet and smart phone penetration, e-commerce in the Middle East should grow.

In addition, there are huge opportunities in the localization of content and services, particularly in taking global services and creating new businesses that are unique to the local context.

One example is Makhtoob, a Jordanian company that was bought by Yahoo. Others are souq.com MarkaVIP, etc.

Probably the most iconic symbol of globalisation is the Internet. With complex networks, mobile phones, smart phones, and social media, this global system touches nearly all of us. In fact, many economic experts define our era as the information society, because a great bulk of socioeconomic interaction revolves around ICT. Would you share with us your opinion on this?

In my opinion and that of many others, we are now witnessing what some call a second digital revolution and a time of industry transformation.

The future shape of ICT seems more ambiguous and complex now than ever before.

Technology is moving at such a rapid pace that it is even difficult to understand how our society and the ICT sector will look like five years from now.

But we see the exciting opportunities ahead. Cloud computing, the Internet of Things, hyper-connectivity and big data analytics are providing opportunities at affordable costs that we could not have imagined a few years ago.

The success of ICT at home and at work has meant that citizens now have access to powerful smart devices wherever they go.

We have the ability to apply technological innovation to our environment.

It will not only help address the problems that we see in our cities today – like congestion and wasted energy – but also offer exciting new consumer experiences and convenience, and help to stimulate economic growth and job creation – something that is extremely important to Qatar’s goal of diversifying the economy.

The challenge for policy and decision makers is to ensure that we capitalize on these new and emerging technologies and address issues such as regulation, industry structure, business models, policy and security.

The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ictQATAR) was established within the new Cabinet formation announced in June 2013, with a very ambitious blueprint. Would you please highlight for the readers the genesis and development of ictQATAR, and how has your strategy evolved from 2013?

A decade ago, Qatar’s leaders realized that the future belonged to those countries that could harness the power of ICT for social and economic good.

They envisioned the Qatar of 2030 as an advanced society capable of sustaining its own development and providing a high standard of living for future generations.

Toward that end, in 2004, the Supreme Council of Information and Communications Technology was formed as the nation’s ICT policy and regulatory body and as its ICT champion.

In 2013, the Council was elevated to a cabinet-level Ministry in recognition of the critical importance of ICT to the nation’s future.

Since 2013, our strategy has focused on several core priorities: continue building next-generation infrastructure; accelerate digital government programs, putting 100% of government services online by 2020 and streamlining and automating government processes; developing a comprehensive approach to keeping people and networks secure; ensuring our people have 21st century ICT skills; and strengthening the ICT sector and increasing its contribution to Qatar’s GDP.

The government's ICT-2015 strategy will create opportunities. There have been more new IT tenders in areas such as e-government and healthcare, following on from a series of new IT projects in 2010 from large organizations such as Qatar Steel and Qatar National Bank. As per the IDC (International Data Corporation), the growth in IT spending in Qatar is likely to be confirmed as being around 14-15% in 2014. This kind of growth is healthy considering the growth in previous years in IT spending was around 10-11 percent. To what extend is the ICT sector spearheading the development of a competitive knowledge economy in Qatar?

As the world moves toward knowledge-based economies that rely on production distribution, and use of knowledge and information, ICT plays a fundamental role.

As you note, the National ICT Plan 2015 set a course for spearheading this effort. The government and private sector’s investment in next generation infrastructure and telecom market liberalization helped propel growth.

The data tells the story of great progress:

  • In 2015, Qatar ranked 27th out of 143 developed and developing countries – and second in the Arab world – on the World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index, up from 32nd in 2007/08.
  • The nation’s ICT market is expected to grow 10% annually, reaching approximately QAR 24.7 billion in 2016 (Booz & Company).
  • We are making great progress. Our 2015 National ICT Plan called for doubling the ICT sector’s contribution to GDP (US$3 billion); doubling the ICT workforce to 40,000; achieving ubiquitous high-speed broadband access for households and individuals (95%); achieving mass ICT and Internet adoption by all segments of society (90%); and achieving wide accessibility and effectiveness of all key government services (160 online services.) By the end of 2015, we will have achieved all of these and more except for doubling the ICT workforce.
  • The 2014 ICT contribution to the GDP is expected to reach QAR 13.06 billion, and steady future growth is anticipated.
  • The telecom market in Qatar remains healthy and dynamic, growing at a pace that is outperforming population growth, with 2013 revenues increasing by 11%.

One of the main priorities for ictQATAR is advancing the Qatari business society in terms of ICT adoption; and advancing the ICT sector itself by enlarging the market and enhancing the quality of service. What role will the SMEs play in Qatar’s ICT development?

In developed markets, SMEs are the key drivers of economic growth employment and prosperity.

Within the ICT sector itself, innovation is most often centered on small companies that can innovate quickly and adapt more easily to change. These SMEs are needed to spearhead new technologies and innovation.

In the new emerging digital economy, SMEs have not just local competitors, but regional and international competitors as well.

As SMEs increasingly adopt ICT in order to stay competitive, they will increase the overall demand for technology companies in Qatar and, thus, help grow the ICT sector.

ictQATAR facilitates the broader SME markets adoption of ICT through various programs and initiatives such as the ICT SME Toolkit that encourages the adoption of web, cloud and eCommerce technologies.

We have also been engaged in the incubation of entrepreneurs interested in developing new digital products and services. 

Finally, on the legal and public policy landscape, we have published an e-Commerce Law and are in the process of pushing for new changes to further promote e-Commerce in Qatar.

A thriving SME sector is a healthy sign that the economy and wider society is growing sustainably and ICT is a big part of that.

Qatar announced one of the most ambitious investment programs in the world with analysts estimating that over US$200 billion will be spent in preparation for the FIFA 2022 World cup. In fact, US$140 billion will be spent on infrastructure, which undoubtedly will have a positive spillover effects for multiple sectors. How is Qatar harnessing the power of ICT to enhance World Cup experience?

The World Cup in 2022 promises to be the most technologically sophisticated World Cup ever.

Of course, state-of-the-art infrastructure is the foundation for providing a truly innovative and enhanced user experience by employing big data analytics, sensing technologies, and the like.

The 2022 World Cup will be an important showcase for Qatar, and an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the advanced ICT infrastructure within the state to the rest of the world.

It can be reasonably anticipated that demand, for example, for broadcast and Internet connectivity will have continued to grow in the intervening period, so adequate preparation to build the infrastructure for this event will be of paramount importance.

Clearly, the World Cup has been a big impetus for moving quickly on and investing in this next-generation infrastructure, which will indeed spill over to and a positive effect on Qatar’s economy and on individuals and businesses.

Ooredoo’s customer base has exceeded 100 million people across its footprint in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia, and in Qatar it clocked over 3 million customers. The company achieved this milestone in the fourth quarter of 2014. To what extent is Ooredoo’s achievement a reflection of the ICT potential of Qatar?

Qatar is the strongest country for the Ooredoo Group. This enables Ooredoo Group to grow aggressively on an international scale.

The resulting economies of scale e.g. when developing world-class telecommunication products in turn benefit companies and residential consumers in Qatar.

As part of Qatar’s vision for a vibrant ICT sector fuelling the development of the economy, competition in the communications sector has continually brought about advanced, innovative, and quality services to consumers.

Ooredoo’s achievement is testimony that strategic planning in the past years; as well as investments in significant initiatives and infrastructure are now doing good for all segments of the Qatari communities.

Establishment of the Communications Regulatory Authority as a fair and transparent regulator, reiterates the commitment by Qatar’s leaderships to continued competition in the ICT sector that would, we hope, increase customer benefits and meets the needs of consumers – both individuals and businesses.

In fact, we have been monitoring the state of the telecoms market, and the review from 2010-2014 shows that competition in the mobile sector has developed strongly as the service providers have brought international best practices and innovative products to the market.

Added to that is the deployment of high-speed, high-quality, affordable broadband; plus Qatar’s successful foray into enhancing broadcast capacity in the region through its own satellite; its emphasis on expansion of the quality of online services; a robust national cyber security strategy safeguarding Qatar’s networks and businesses from cyber threats – these are all ongoing initiatives that have pushed Qatar’s ICT potential to higher levels in the region as well as on the international platform.

The above infrastructural advancements, together with the government’s commitment to adopt even more efficient, open, transparent, and customer-centric approach are boosting the momentum gained by energetic and forward-looking initiatives by the private sector.

To conclude, the sector remains healthy and has maintained high investment levels, which bodes well for the future.

Vodafone being a British and Qatari joint venture is the largest mobile telecommunications company in the world excluding China, with 434 million subscribers as of the close of Q1 in 2014. When Vodafone entered Qatar in 2009, mobile penetration stood at approximately 111%. What significant changes has Vodafone Qatar brought to telecom landscape?

Competition brought in by the entrance of Vodafone Qatar has certainly increased customer benefits, with significant increases in penetration of voice and mobile data services.

The expansion of commercial offerings for both individual and corporate customers has increased customer’s access to the latest telecommunications technologies.

And with further development of competition in the fixed sector, we hope there would be additional benefits for the consumers.

Indeed, Qatar has one of the highest penetration rates in the world and one of the highest fiber-to-the-home penetration rates in the world.

Prices of international mobile phone calls have fallen since 2010 by more than 50% and prices for data-only plans are in line with the country’s peers.

With the continuous rollout of LTE we expect customers to have an even better experience.

While there may only be two telecoms providers in Qatar, ICT is actually one of the sectors the Qatari government has promoted and liberalized in recent years, underlined by the status given to the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology. Would you share with us your opinion on this?

From the regulator’s perspective, CRA (the Communications Regulatory Authority) requires all licensed service providers to fulfill their regulatory obligations.

As mandated by the virtue of Emiri decree (42), CRA strives to regulate the sector with the main objective of ensuring a healthy growth of industry as a major enabler for a digital economy.

And of course consumers’ protection forms a major pillar of CRA’s mandate.

CRA will continually support all sector development initiatives by the Ministry with the ambition of positioning Qatar as a leader in becoming a knowledge-based economy.

The UK’s ICT industry is worth 58 billion Pounds annually, and the ICT globalization index reports that the UK leads the world in the globalization of the ICT sector, ahead of Netherlands and Germany with the US in fourth place. With the largest mobile market in Europe, companies like Vodafone are always looking at new opportunities to develop mobile technology and customer experience. What potential for further partnerships with Qatar do you see for British SMEs?

There are new opportunities for UK businesses to expand into the MENA region in general, and in Qatar specifically.

The Ministry has recently announced the establishment of a Digital Cluster to be housed in Abu Fintas in Doha, Qatar, with the express purpose of attracting local and foreign small and medium-sized enterprises.

These enterprises will develop integrated solutions by harnessing the power of big data analytics, Internet of Things and other new technologies that will offer rapid and crucial solutions to sectors such as health, education, transportation, renewable energy and banking.

So there is a great deal of opportunity for foreign investment – and we are in discussions now about allowing 100% foreign ownership of these businesses. 

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