eGovernment meets digital literacy

Information and Communication Technology has never been more important to the Qatar economy. Dr Hessa Al Jaber, minister of information and communication technology has the lowdown. Pamula MacRan reports

Al Jaber is an engineer, academic and politician and is the first-ever minister of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Qatar following the formation of the nation’s new Cabinet by emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani in 2013. She is also the third Qatari woman to assume a ministerial position in the state.

The role of the ministry is wide indeed. “We are the policy maker for the ICT sector. We are responsible for eGovernment, for part of the cyber security, Q-Post and we oversee the telecoms regulator,” says Al Jaber (pictured) who is justifiably proud of the industry-leading state of the ICT sector in the country. “We are number one in the region in terms of network readiness. When it comes to the penetration rate of mobile and 4G we have covered almost the whole of Qatar. So overall we have very advanced mobile communication. Eighty five per cent of households are connected to a very high speed fibre optic network. We have set very clear targets that by 2016 we will have 50 meg for uploads and 100 meg for downloads and this will deliver us a very speedy infrastructure,” Al Jaber says.

This enviable level of development is aimed at servicing every sector from small and medium enterprises to big business through to government and residential users. In terms of open data, the ministry is in the process of creating a back end that will govern all public data and will be accessible to anyone in the nation and facilitate innovation. “We already have an economic portal that has been there for almost six years and we have all the government services and now we are really enhancing it with information,” says Al Jaber. “We have the policy and regulation covering open data, eParticipation policy, privacy laws that will be issued soon. This is where we are at now and for the next 10 years we have set very clear targets. ICT will play a major role in the government’s objective of diversification away from hydrocarbons.”

The recurrent theme of all government and business in Qatar at present is the issue of diversification away from over-reliance on hydrocarbons revenues, and the ICT sector is playing a major role in this. However, Qatar is realistic that the world of ICT is truly a global one and to find the best-of-the-best means inviting collaboration and participation from players from around the region and around the world. “Around the globe ICT is developing around a small number of themes: Big Data, Cloud Computing, the Internet of Things and so on. Now, we don’t develop these technologies but this is what will be driving the ICT space in Qatar. If you aim to be the leading knowledge economy in the region by 2020 and this is our aim, can we do this? Yes, we can do this because we have the right infrastructure and the right policy and the right regulation,” says Al Jaber. “We are working very hard to make sure that our regulation sits in line with international best practices.”

Dr. Hessa Al Jaber, Minister of Information and Communications Technology

Dr. Hessa Al Jaber,
Minister of Information
and Communications

It is easy enough for Qatar to attract foreign capital and expertise in its lucrative gas sector. But is it so easy in the lower-profile ICT sector? “There is no geographic boundary to technology so if we do nothing to make sure that we have the right environment to attract, retain and encourage the creation of companies here in Qatar, then these companies will simply do so overseas. This is all part of becoming the leading knowledge economy in the region by 2020,” Al Jaber says. “We know that cyber security is very critical and this is the number one growth market in the Middle East. If we don’t provide the right environment for small companies to grow then we will end up dependent upon other countries in 10 years’ time.”

With much of the west still in financial meltdown after the global financial crisis and with the USA only just beginning to crawl out of recession, Qatar is looking increasingly like a very comfortable oasis in the middle of an economic desert. “When businesses come to Qatar, they are thinking about two things: overall profitability and trust. If they are forming a partnership with someone here they need to be able to trust them. We have the telecom regulatory website, the ministry website, we have the eGovernment website where people can come and get information. Policy is something that can be changed, but law is much harder to change and in Qatar we have already issued a number of laws and are working on others just to reassure foreign partners,” Al Jaber says. “Our privacy laws are now almost in their final stage. We are also working on a written media law. People like Google know that the future is about data, it is about digital content and people need to know that they will own the digital content that they create here and the law should be very clear for them.”

Indeed the entire public and private sector in Qatar is only too aware that partnership, collaboration, JVs and the sharing of expertise are the only safe routes to success in a sector that is as fast moving as ICT. Al Jaber is sanguine about this, “We will always depend on international companies in ICT but I really don’t want to see a situation where only 10 per cent of the revenue will stay here and 90 per cent will be repatriated. I want to see it help to build Qatar. I am a big believer in being realistic about what we can do. The Qatari population is around 300,000 and only 50 per cent is of working age and this will help define the proportion of Qataris in the workplace.”

With such a small indigenous population, it is increasingly important to make sure that the next generation is as technologically savvy as possible and ready to take up the reins of business and government when the time comes. Al Jaber’s ministry already has a plan for this. “We also need to make sure that young Qataris work as hard as they can and that are stretched as much as they can to achieve the best results. To really make a difference you need to know how smart you are. If you cannot compete with the best of what is coming from abroad, then you will lose. It is very important to develop the right skills. I work with a lot of young Qataris and many of them are highly motivated to change the world. We need to make sure that the working environment drives them to their maximum potential. Only by doing this will we become the leading digital economy in the region by 2020 and I really believe that we can achieve this.” And these efforts seem to be paying off. “We have a huge number of very well educated Qatari youngsters: don’t underestimate the quality of the education that we have to offer. Graduates of Qatar University can go to any university in the world to pursue their studies. They are amazing.”