Countries of the GCC region have come a long way. In diversifying their economies away from oil, they have invested in a wide range of sectors. Over the past decades, regional governments as well as private sector players have channeled resources into digitalising systems to enhance productivity.
Governments’ efforts to support small and medium enterprises, coupled with local talent, can be credited for a crop of tech startups from the region, while global names have also established a presence.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have added smart city technologies to their infrastructures. Similar advancements are taking place in Oman, that is following suit with the Madinat Al Irfan smart city project in Muscat.
Private sector organisations in the region have also adopted the latest and most efficient technologies over the past decade. This trend has accelerated following the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to lockdowns and restricted outdoor access, banking and finance institutions across the region, for example, saw a major increase in people using apps. Existing apps had to be updated to ensure a seamless customer experience. A study by a US tech firm, Avaya, that specialises in cloud communications, pointed to the adaptability of the GCC region’s banking sector to drastic changes in environment. The study said that GCC banks showed a commitment to digitisation and a speed of modernisation that had not been seen before – to counter the aftermath of a downcast global economy.
Another promising trend in the Arab region’s tech space is a markedly higher number of women pursuing education in computer science compared to other parts of the world, according to research conducted by New York University Abu Dhabi.
In the US, for example, women account for 15-20 per cent of computer science students, in contrast to 40 per cent in the Arab region. In Saudi Arabia, 70-80 per cent of students in IT courses are women. A higher percentage of women in any workplace has been proven to be good for the organisation and the people who work there. Offices with a healthy gender balance lead to to enhanced collaboration between teams, boost job satisfaction for all team members, improve staff retention rates and in the long run, increase profitability.
The notably higher representation of women in computer science and tech-related fields is an enormous strength for the Arab region. We must work to create an environment that will enable them to reach their full potential.
The region’s youth is extremely tech-savvy, with millennials reporting close to 100 per cent mobile phone usage, according to a study published by Think with Google in 2015.
Furthermore, limitations resulting from the pandemic have made professionals and students adapt to increasingly digitalised systems and brought about more innovative thinking to suit the changing times.
As I have written before in these pages, youth is our region’s greatest asset. It will benefit the public and private sectors to harness their talent, resourcefulness and empower their minds. To an extent, it is even the responsibility of tech companies to channel the skills of the youth.
Tech leaders in the region – global giants as well as startups – stand to gain by engaging with young people in the region. Young people tend to have a plethora of ideas on how to develop new technologies. These can allow society to function at its best. The combination of the ideas of young people and technologies that emerge can help make economies healthier. It can also help the population of a region to transition to more prosperous times.
Public and private sector players can collaborate to run structured programmes that involve youth – professionals from technology-related fields as well as those with an interest in innovation.
The tech sector would greatly benefit from amplifying youth voices and paying special attention to female graduates of computer science programmes. There are opportunities to provide formal and informal mentorship, host entrepreneurship workshops, teach professional skills, create spaces that support innovation and invest in up-and-coming businesses in the tech space. Also, as businesses have moved a large percentage of their operations online, there has been a growing trend in the past two years towards international collaboration. Our region must continue to look beyond borders to build synergies with established and emerging players in the global tech arena.
We cannot deny the setbacks that the economies of the GCC region have faced during the recession following the coronavirus outbreak. However, we must remain committed to the larger goals of diversification away from oil. People of the region and young talent have always been our greatest assets. I am confident that with the right planning and optimal use of resources, we will empower them to reach new heights and lead our region into the next era of the digital age.