Since its establishment in 2006, the Information Technology Authority (ITA) has been focused on turning Oman into a sustainable, knowledge-based society through leveraging Information and Communications Technologies. What are the main steps you are taking to encourage this transformation?
In the beginning of 2003, the Cabinet approved the Digital Oman Strategy that we are implementing today, as part of the Sultanate’s economic vision that calls for economic diversification and job creation for Omanis. In each of our strategic tracks, we address the two important pillars of the Vision 2020 strategy. IT-literacy is very important nowadays, especially for our younger population.
Before we can implement our e-government and private sector initiatives, we must implement our Digital Oman Strategy in order to educate the population. Oman’s Digital Strategy, or e.oman for short, aims to provide appropriate services electronically to citizens, residents, the private and public sectors and the community; in order to transform the Sultanate into a knowledge-based community that is able to achieve the objectives of sustained development.
As part of the e.oman Strategy, we have 6 strategic pillar goals, divided into three different tracks. The tracks are capacity building; IT industry development, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises in this field, encouraging people to pursue ICT fields at university; and, enhancing e-government and e-services.
One key capacity building initiative we have, the Government IT Training and Certification program (GITTC), focuses on the government employees who play an important role, both as citizens who consume services and those who provide citizens with services. We are training nearly 50,000 government employees to improve IT literacy within the government. We train these civil servants in 8-week courses in a number of programs, applications and IT initiatives, so they can be certified. We work with different private sector companies, like Microsoft, in order to teach that curriculum.
A second initiative is the Community Knowledge Center (CKC). We started with four centers almost two years ago and now we have 19. Ten of these centers are for both men and women, but the other nine are just for women, run by the Omani Women’s Association. In the last five years we have trained more than 24,000 people at these CKCs. These centers are located within towns across Oman and they are free of charge to any citizen interested in learning about IT. These are the important initiatives, as we have to make sure that we are closing the digital divide. Again, the training curriculum is internationally recognized, such as the Microsoft curriculum.
We have a huge waiting list for this program. Each course lasts about 3 weeks, 5 classes a week, for two hours a day. Open from 8am until 8pm, people can also visit these centers to access the internet at no cost. The government is currently planning to expand the number of CKCs throughout the country. Looking ahead, we also aim to make these programs accessible to the handicapped and disabled individuals.
A third capacity building initiative focuses on courses of specialized training in various technologies, such as Oracle, Cisco, and other important programs and security software. This is available for both government employees and graduating students who need these skills for the job market. We match our training to provide what the industry wants in human resources. We have labs in cooperation with different technology partners to teach students directly within the universities; students do not graduate until they receive their certifications in certain technologies.
In order to boost employment, you have initiated an incubation program designed to prepare young Omanis to set up their own businesses in the market. Could you elaborate on this program?
We have a culture where people do not really consider opening their own businesses and young people are looking for jobs in the government and in the private sector. So we thought about how we could encourage these people to open their own businesses, create their own opportunities, and even create more jobs for other people. We are integrating all of our efforts and initiatives in technology and communications with the government, private sector and Oman Development Bank, to ensure that ICT becomes a focus area for the country’s young population. The objective of this program is really to create jobs and a culture of entrepreneurship in people’s mindset.
We are also partnering with an incubation program from the UK and linking with universities. Every university has a pre-incubation program, to direct its students in that arena after graduation. Four companies have thus far started as part of the incubation program, and we really think there is a lot of potential for this program in the future.
Young people in Oman are really talented; they just need someone to show interest in their aspirations. The government currently employs a large number of people, but we are trying to encourage private sector employment and are looking to privatize a number of initiatives to create opportunities. All of these infrastructure projects being implemented now are done in partnership with both international and local Omani companies. This is how we think the majority of business will be done in the future. A lot of government-run opportunities and facilities will be privatized. The services industry will boom, and SMEs should be able to find a lot of opportunities. Of course within the service industry our focus is ICT, but ICT adds value to many other industries. ICT is in the heart of everything we do. We want to increase the quality of life and opportunities available to the next generation.
We are looking at a timeframe of between one and three years of incubation before they are on their own. For the first phase of this project, we will be able to do this for 60 companies; 30 physical incubation, 30 virtual incubation. You need to complement the good ideas and technical solutions of these young people with market knowledge and business acumen. It is a partnership that will create value for everybody.
One aspect of the e.oman Strategy, capacity building, aims to eliminate IT illiteracy and prepare Omanis to embrace digital technologies. The National PC Initiative is an important e.oman initiative that aims to accomplish this. Can you give us more insights into the National PC Initiative?
An e.oman Roadshow was hosted in 2006, when we traveled to the different wilayats, towns and communities and listened to what people wanted. The National PC Initiative was one of many e.oman initiatives that came out of that roadshow. It took us almost a year to visit the entire country and we found that people did not have internet, nor did they have the PCs to access it. The government wants to put its services online and have more people interact with them through the internet, but people need the tools to do so. A lot of work has been done to open the internet market to competition, because we used to have only one telecommunications company. We know that a lot of people buy PCs and it has become a commodity, but certain segments of the population simply have other priorities.
The National PC Initiative started with a grant from His Majesty to give free PCs to three segments of the population. The first group comprises families entitled to receive social benefits and who have a child in the K-12 school system, which number about 16,000. These families also receive computer literacy training, as part of the initiative. Additionally, higher education students in these beneficiary families are also eligible to each receive a free PC, which total approximately 12,000 students.
The second target segment includes first-year college and university students, which number 32,000 students. The third group consists of public school teachers; if they receive certification through our government training, we subsidize RO 150 [$390 USD] towards the cost of their PC. That provides an incentive for them to take part in the GITTC training, and currently we are targeting about 5,000 teachers.
We have also started looking at other segments, such as retirees. In total the National PC Initiative targets about 115,000 PCs to be distributed between 2011 and 2013.
With all of the work ITA has done so far, how would you estimate the current IT literacy level in Oman, as compared to other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries?
I think we are doing very well. The e.oman Awareness program won an award from the United Nations in the areas of knowledge management and bridging the digital divide within society.
Some of the regional governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have realized this is a good idea and are launching their own programs this year. We feel comfortable to say that the people who really need to be trained and educated in ICT now have the opportunity to do so.
With the speed and amount of information that flows in today’s globalized world, cyber security has become a critical issue for all the governments. How do you approach cyber security in Oman?
We have several initiatives. The Oman Computer Emergency Readiness Team (OCERT) is responsible for monitoring the service principal market, the government, the national infrastructure and even individuals. They have a very good program to promote a secure environment. We have another initiative with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) on “Protecting Children in Cyberspace”. His Excellency Dr. Hamadoun Touré, the Secretary General of ITU, came here and launched our children’s online security website. We also held a joint conference with ITU on this topic.
We want to ensure that the entire government has the right security policy and measures in place, which is important for government services and infrastructure. We also conduct a lot of security awareness programs and specially focused training. We provide a lot of tools for the government and the private sector, such as antiviruses. This is one of the areas that is part of our infrastructure project that we provide for the government. Security is a challenge for every country, and we work very closely with international partners, organizations and different countries. We actually do a lot of work with banks as they are often targeted more than anybody else.
In order to facilitate the flow of foreign direct investment to Oman, ITA worked hand in hand with the Ministry of Commerce & Industry to establish a one-stop-shop for investors. From your point of view, how is the business environment in the Sultanate today? Why should someone come and invest in Oman?
We can speak about it from two areas. When investors come to any country, they want to see that you have enough talented young people with the capacity to work. If you have been in the region, you know that Oman is a country where people really work hard at all levels. We are responsible for attracting investors to ICT in Oman. Every investor also wants to see how easy it is to set up a business in Oman. In ICT, any international company can open an office in Oman without the need for a local partner. For instance, Microsoft and Oracle are both here.
People also want to be able to do business online, so now we are working with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to put services online. This project should be launched very soon. A lot of work and collaboration has also taken place with municipalities to put their services online. For instance, all of the approvals and licenses for building permits by Muscat Municipality are now submitted electronically. We are helping to create the right environment for both ICT businesses and other industries, by expediting online services.
As ITA, our role is to help government agencies to streamline their processes, and provide services online with our existing integration infrastructure, such as shared databases, data centers, and government network. This is really going to be one of our main focuses in our five-year plan. We want to make it easier for investors to come and do business here in Oman.
In his 2008 and 2011 annual speeches, His Majesty emphasized that we really need to facilitate and provide all of our services online. Last year he ordered the creation of a customer relationship management (CRM) system for every government agency, and the use of technology to implement that. In early February 2012, the Cabinet issued a directive to expedite those initiatives. By 2015, these systems should all be in place. This is actually part of the e.oman strategy, which is not just implemented by the ITA. It involves the entire government throughout the country.
As you said, one of your targets is to attract investment into the ICT sector. What are the most lucrative opportunities at this point in time?
ICT cannot be separated from any infrastructure project that is taking place in the country. That provides many opportunities in each sector, and we are involved in all of them. For example, the construction of the airports and ports is also a big ICT project. The trains that are going to connect the entire GCC region are also part of our five-year plan.
We also have a lot of business opportunities with the government, such as with the new data centers. We are targeting ICT to promote tourism, Oman’s history, culture and other areas. We are putting a lot of effort into doing everything through technology. Another advantage for companies looking to come to Oman – aside from our young population, stable environment, and the fact that ICT is integrated in every ongoing project – we lead a good lifestyle in Oman and you will enjoy being in our country.
From your experience of living and working in the USA, what do you think the world should know about Oman today?
I worked in Washington DC for five years from 1998 until 2003, during the time when 9/11 happened. I was listening to one of those radio talk shows, and the host was talking about a tiny country called Oman who warned their citizens not to travel to the US, because Oman issued a travel warning about the US at that time. He said, “This country used to be our best friend and only ally in the entire Gulf region.” We have always enjoyed a longstanding relationship with the US. Whenever we promote Oman, we want people to differentiate Oman from what is happening in the rest of the region. In the last 40 years we have been a very stable country, who enjoys a friendly relationship with all of our neighbors, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran.
Oman also has a rich history and culture of more than 5,000 years. Throughout history, Omanis have always traveled everywhere, from China to India, and governed Zanzibar for more than 150 years. Our people are used to travelling, experiencing, and living with different cultures; it is a part of our mindset. That is why you do not see any Sunni-Shia conflicts in Oman. We all pray together, and we do not even ask who belongs to which sect. In Oman we have churches and temples as well. His Majesty has underlined this point since the 1970s – you cannot talk about tribes or religion. These are personal things, and whether you are this religion, that religion, or do not believe in any religion, that is your personal issue. This has created the right atmosphere in people’s mindsets and thinking. You do not want to live in a country where your neighbor is your enemy because he belongs to a different sect, different religion, or different tribe.
Oman is also a wonderful tourism destination. You really need to go beyond Muscat and see the rest of the country. You need to visit some of the caves. Oman is home to the second-largest cave in the world. You can spend the weekend camping in very beautiful places, see the stars, and enjoy thousands of kilometers of beaches. If people come here for a holiday, there are really a lot of things for them to do.