Arab leaders tentatively embrace online world

Middle East leaders begin to strategise, albeit somewhat sceptically, for development of internet infrastructure.

    Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (L) and Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh were among the guests at the Connect Arab Summit in Doha [REUTERS]
    Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (L) and Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh were among the guests at the Connect Arab Summit in Doha [REUTERS]

    Doha, Qatar - When the secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) declared that the official end of the so-called Arab Spring would come to an end at an industry meeting, his statement was met with incredulousness by many commentators.

    Hamadoun Touré was referring to the potential for a pan-Arab strategy to develop information and communications technology, revolutionising societies and economies from Manama to Nouakchott.

    At this week's Connect Arab States Summit in Doha, Toure took a more measured tone, explaining that the social upheaval would not be over until leaders - including in the ICT sector - did more to promote a new era of growth and development.

    "We need to think about what we are going to do in order to help them exercise their right to be good citizens and to work," he said at the summit, which brought together political and industry leaders from 21 countries in the Middle East and North Africa between March 5 and 7.

    "In years to come, broadband infrastructure will become basic infrastructure."

    - Brahima Sanou, ITU

    The potential of ICT to transform the Arab world, experts at the conference said, would depend on governments playing an active role, adopting legal and regulatory frameworks, encouraging investment and stimulating job creation.

    Brahima Sanou, director of the ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau, said at a panel on Tuesday that infrastructure was critical, but must also be accompanied by the correct legal and political framework.

    "In years to come, broadband infrastructure will become basic infrastructure," he said. "The potential is yet to be tapped into."

    Paul Budde, an independent ICT consultant who specialises in high-level strategic advice, agreed that developing ICT can help foster an environment where young unemployed citizens of the Arab world could access an infinite number of opportunities.

    "If you've got a brilliant idea in a Libyan village, it can be picked up by a rich investor in Milan," he told Al Jazeera.

    Empowering citizens

    The innovative and surprising ways in which activists have begun using communication technology has forced governments everywhere to realise the extent to which freedom of information has empowered their citizens.

    Budde, who is an adviser to the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, a joint initiative linked to the ITU and UNESCO, said that world leaders had finally been shaken into awareness of the true potential of the ever-evolving communications technologies.

    "Now there is a widespread understanding among leaders in the world that this is real, and that this is a tool that people are going to use to engage in society and the economy," he said.

    He said that "ruling elites" across the globe had conflicted reactions to the profound changes that were taking place in the way people relate to their governments.

    "[Ruling elites'] function, their status, is threatened. Suddenly information is spread. Suddenly you can't hide from information. And that's what real democracies are."

    - Paul Budde, ICT consultant

    "Their function, their status, is threatened," he said. "Suddenly information is spread. Suddenly you can't hide from information. And that's what real democracies are," he said.

    Nowhere have rulers had to stomach this erosion of their own power more than in the Arab world.

    Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries where protesters succeeded in toppling their governments in early 2011, had the highest number of internet users in the Arab world, aside from the GCC countries. A quarter of Egyptians and more than a third of Tunisians had some form of internet access by 2010.

    Until he was ousted from power, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's former president, was arguably one of the most vocal advocates of the technology sector in the Arab world. Among his many projects to promote IT literacy and access was PC Famillial [Fr] - an initiative to push computer vendors to provide cheap and reliable computers to Tunisians.

    In the end, the very generation of tech-savvy geeks that Ben Ali fostered rebelled against him, frustrated and angry at his censorship and surveillance regime. But the censorship battles have continued in the country under the new government.

    For Budde, governments would be wrong to try to reverse the empowerment that comes with ICT development.

    "If you trust your people, if you educate your people, then you get people who start to think and start to participate," Budde said. "If you try to hold back a tsunami, then you will be a loser."

    Long road ahead

    If the Arab states are to usher in a new era of Pax Technologia, the ITU's latest report on the region - released during the summit - reveals there is much work to be done.

    There is a growing gap in ICT access between the oil-rich, and relatively stable, Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, and the rest of the region. And even in the richer countries, there is a need for a more concerted approach to ICT infrastructure, experts say.

    "The leadership has to come from the government, and has to come from the top of the government," Budde said. "Companies only want to invest if there's a clear vision and a clear strategy." 

    The statistics released at the summit showed a massive leap in the number of mobile phone subscriptions in the region. By the end of 2011, there was an average of 97 mobile subscriptions for every 100 people across the Arab states (the ITU includes 21 countries in the Middle East and North Africa in its statistics). This ranges from fewer than one subscription for every ten Somalis, to 1.8 for every Saudi.

    Along with Saudi Arabia, Oman, Libya and Kuwait have some of the highest mobile penetration rates in the world.

    "[Growth in mobile subscriptions] is going to create enormous social and economic changes," Budde said, giving an example of a farmer living in an isolated village who would suddenly have access to market information on prices and a way to potentially cut out profit-depleting wholesalers.

    Mobile broadband subscriptions across the region have increased significantly in recent years, from 3 million in 2007 to 48 million in 2011.

    Mobile broadband is available in all Arab countries, with faster 3G networks available in every country - aside from Algeria and Yemen. Moreover, mobile broadband subscriptions across the region have increased significantly in recent years, from 3 million in 2007 to 48 million in 2011.

    Susan Teltscher, head of the ICT Data and Statistics Division of the ITU, said that researchers were predicting that prices would drop and that mobile broadband was the technology that is going to continue to see the most growth in the coming years.

    "Wireless is going to grow rapidly," she said.

    When it comes to fixed broadband internet, however, growth has been much slower. By the end of 2011, only 2.2 per cent of the population had fixed broadband connections. This compares with a global average of 8.5 per cent.

    The only region with fewer fixed broadband subscriptions is Africa, with 0.2 per cent - while a quarter of people living in Europe have a connection of their own.

    Low investment in ICT infrastructure reflects autocratic governments' longstanding failures that go well beyond the technology sector.

    The biggest barrier to internet access, whether fixed or wireless, researchers found, is the relatively high price.

    "The fixed networks are somewhat limited in the region compared to elsewhere, and this is true not only for fixed broadband but also for telephone lines," Teltscher said.

    "That's one of the objectives of the summit, to give another push to the further deployment of the infrastructure."

    The best regional model for fixed broadband rollout is Oman, according to Budde.

    "Seventy-five per cent of homes are now passed by [fibre optic connections], with 51 per cent uptake, one of the highest in the world," he said. "If you make broadband available at an affordable price, it's a no-brainer."

    Many other governments have ambitious projects in the works. Qatar plans to launch its own sateillite, Es'Hail, which will provide communications services to the Middle East and North Africa, and is establishing Qatar Science and Technology Park as an educational hub and an incubator for start-ups, to encourage local innovation.
    Contradictory approach

    Despite the ambitious plans, many ordinary Algerians have recently found it increasingly difficult to get online, under security restrictions introduced after the Arab uprisings began.

    Moussa Benhamadi, Algeria's telecommunications minister, was chairing Wednesday's panel on how ICTs could be used by governments to meet the aspirations of millions of unemployed young people in the region, who are desperate for educational and employment opportunities.

    After the panel, he told Al Jazeera about the broadband commission his ministry has just launched.

    "Algeria has 60,000km of fibre optic cables, [and] that's nowhere near enough," he said. "We're in the process of expanding and securing these networks."

    Benhamadi said that his government is aiming to introduce 3G and 4G LTE wireless networks, and that, by 2015, he hoped that every Algerian household would be connected. Algeria has already introduced e-government services, making some administrative services available to Algerians anywhere in the world.

    Despite the ambitious plans, many ordinary Algerians have recently found it increasingly difficult to get online, under security restrictions introduced by the interior ministry after the Arab uprisings began more than a year ago.

    As many as half of the country's internet cafes - popular spaces where the young gather to browse Facebook or share videos - have been forced to close under the new restrictions, the Algerian daily, L'Expression, reported in January [Fr].

    While it is impossible to verify the number of closures, the minister acknowledged that many longstanding internet cafes had been forced to shut their doors in the lead-up to the country's presidential election in May.

    Asked how forcing the closure of the only places where many Algerians can go online fits with projects to expand internet access, Benhamadi said the new regulations were needed to bring some order to the "chaotic proliferation" of establishments that had bloomed over the past two decades.

    "The interior ministry has established a set of conditions, and asked the owners of internet cafes to respect these security rules, which concern physical safety, not to limit their access," he said.

    For Morad Memai, a 29-year-old Algerian doctor, the new regulations are hindering his ability to use a tool he considers as vital.

    Memai, who lives in a rural area near the northern Algerian town of Tizi Ouzou, said in a phone interview that internet service providers were unable to install a wired connection in the mountainous region where he lives.

    "I live in a location that's isolated," he said, explaining how he instead seeks out the internet where he can find it - mainly internet cafes or friends' houses.

    "It's become a basic tool for everything," he said, adding that the closure of so many internet cafes has made life and work more difficult.

    "It's had an impact on how long you can spend, how long you have to wait - internet cafes are now overcrowded," he said.

    He refused to accept the security-at-the-expense-of-rights explanation given for the strict new regulations.

    "Why don't they release official information about how many internet cafes they're closing, and why [they are being closed]?"

    Even for those Algerians who do have internet access in their homes, the connections are unreliable, he said.

    "These difficulties deprive us professionally, in our relations with the outside world."

    "If you close one internet cafe, something else happens on the street on in an attic. It is futile for countries to actually take that route, and hopefully the Arab Spring is showing that." 

    - Paul Budde, ICT consultant

    The ITU's statistics reveal that the vast majority of people living in Arab countries are in a similar position to Memai, relying on shared connections.

    While the low number of broadband subscriptions is low, the number of users who share those few connections (2.2 per cent) is relatively high. According to the ITU's figures, 29.1 per cent of the region's population use the internet, compared with 34.7 per cent globally, and 12.8 per cent in Africa. What's more, the number of users has tripled in the space of five years.

    Budde said that many governments, in the West as well as the Arab world, are using security as an excuse to try to restrict the way their citizens use ICT. With so many communications tools available, he warned that governments would be wiser to take a proactive approach.

    "If you close one internet café, something else happens on the street or in an attic," he said. "It is futile for countries to actually take that route, and hopefully the Arab Spring is showing that."

    "It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but the writing is on the wall and whatever they want to do with technology, it's unstoppable," he said.

    Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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