UAE leads Middle East in digitisation push amid pandemic

The country is listed among 'standout' economies, defined as digitally advanced and exhibiting high momentum

epa08860191 The Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, is illuminated in the colors of the UAE flag in celebration of the 49th UAE National Day, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 03 December 2020. The UAE National Day on 02 December marked the unification of the seven emirates, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman and Umm al-Quwain into the United Arab Emirates, and freedom from the British Protectorate.  EPA/ALI HAIDER
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The UAE is leading Middle East economies in an accelerated global push towards digitisation spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Digital Intelligence Index developed by Tufts University in partnership with Mastercard.

Gulf countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – with their high levels of education, young populations, and access to expatriate talent – are well positioned to carry out their ambitious digital plans, the Digital in the time of Covid report said.

Mena economies have made "impressive" progress in reducing digital inequalities, bringing millions more online and empowering previously digitally disadvantaged people to participate in the digital economy, the report said.

Some improvements are being made in reducing geographic and gender disparities, with more women and rural citizens online than ever before, but "large gender-inclusion gaps" remain, it said.

"The pandemic may be the purest test of the world’s progress towards digitalisation," said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School in Tufts University.

"We have a clearer view on how dynamic digital economies can contribute to economic resiliency during a time of unparalleled global turmoil and can be positioned for recovery and change.”

The Digital Intelligence Index is a data-driven evaluation of the progress of the digital economy in 90 economies.

It combines more than 358 indicators on two scorecards: digital evolution and digital trust.

The framework shows the state and pace of digital evolution and identifies implications for investment, innovation and policy priorities.

The digital evolution scorecard divides 90 economies into four categories: stand outs, stall outs, break outs and watch outs.

Among the standout economies, which are leaders in driving innovation, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Estonia, Taiwan and the UAE are consistently top performers on the index.

They have shown “nimbleness, adaptability to change and institution-led support for innovation”, the report said.

The report said the UAE is highly advanced when it comes to digitisation and exhibits high momentum.

“To stay ahead, these economies need to keep their innovation engines in top gear and generate new demand or run the risk of stalling out,” the report said.

“Moreover, users in standout economies are observed to hold more sceptical attitudes towards technology, digitisation and the future.”

In addition to global digital development, this year’s index sheds insight on key factors driving change and momentum, and analyses what this means for economies during and after the pandemic.

Among the key takeaways, the study found that “more data privacy protections and less data protectionism” were common trends for digitally evolved economies.

Policymakers should measure, monitor and understand the value of their gross data product, or “the new GDP”, the report said.

“In order to unlock the full of value of the new GDP, economies must encourage an openness to data flows, while providing adequate privacy protections for their citizens,” it said.

It also found that while mobile internet access is necessary, it is insufficient. Countries were urged to improve access, lower costs, raise the quality of mobile internet and invest in more broadband access and better devices to unlock the full potential of digitisation-driven economic growth.

The report said “digital entrepots” such as the UAE, Hong Kong and Singapore act as linchpins for global and regional digital advancement by attracting investment, talent and demonstrating to the rest of the world what the future may look like.