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French Version

Study points to digital divide between Arabs and world

Arabs make less than one percent of the world’s 500 million Internet users. In Jordan, five percent of the population uses the Internet.

The development of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector in the Arab world is unlikely to be solely determined by market-led logic. And Arab public sectors are not proactive to formulate their own agendas concerning the development of ICT in their economies.

A recent research on the ICT sectors in the region sounds the alarm that Arab nations still endure serious digital divide with their international counterparts. It is not the matter of being well educated or computer literate, but the increasing rates of people who lack the ability to have a personal computer.

The research was conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton for management consultations and published in January. It indicated the digital divide as obvious among nations and geographic regions. The firm said its research is "a reflection of deeper socio-economic inequalities between countries and regions of the world."

The BOH research mainly focused on the ups and downs of the ICT development in the Arab world, taking into account the challenges it faces to bridge the digital divide, and keep closer to the developed nations.

Arabs account for five percent of the world’s population, and they produce only two percent of total GDP. Regarding the ICT, Arab countries suffer noticeable variances among them in their efforts to adopt efficient ICT tools and develop IT-based economies.

Nine Arab countries were chosen by the BOH research to highlight the scope of ICT-maturity in the region. They were preferred on the basis of sub-regional representatives and due to their reliable and comprehensive data availability. Besides Jordan, the research also covered Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Egypt and Morocco.

The challenges in developing Arab ICT markets prove a significant gap between the Gulf States and other Arab countries, especially in enhancing computer-based teaching strategies.

"Internet penetration ranges from less than one percent in Syria to more than 34 percent in the UAE," said Karim Sabbagh, the BOH’s vice-president. "This gap is due to the endorsement of the right policy framework in the UAE that allowed the ICT sector to flourish."

The research compiled a comprehensive data about the Arab ICT sectors. It underscored three main layers necessary for the ICT development: The Environment, Readiness and Usage.

‘The Environment’ describes the conduciveness of the settings for ICT development, while ‘Readiness’ tells the ability of a country’s economic stakeholders to finance the opportunities of a strong ICT environment.

The ‘Usage’ category, on the other hand, outlines the uptake of on-line services, the volume and process of using the Internet. The research separated the nine Arab countries into three levels: Fast track, emerging and developing markets.

Jordan is among the emerging ICT markets with inefficient readiness and defective access to the Internet. According to the research, only 3 percent of Jordanians were having PCs in 2001.

In Jordan, dialing the Internet is relatively expensive compared to the annual per capita income here, which is estimated at JD 1270. The Internet uptake is slow in view of the high access costs at $29 for every 30 hours dial-up per month.

In Egypt, dialing the Internet for the same stake worth $10, while Syria is most expensive where the 30-hour stake on the Internet cost $47 a month. "Internet penetration is gradually increasing [in Jordan] due to the various initiatives taken by the government in this respect," the research pointed out, noting that Jordan has a strong ICT agenda backed by His Majesty King Abdallah.

The spread of Internet cafés in Jordan improved ICT readiness. Internet, however, remains accessible to individuals and government-run departments, while the private sector in Jordan still lacks the Internet services.

Using the Internet in businesses can be stimulated through advanced policies that help in building skills and promote the diffusion of ICT tools. The small/medium enterprises (SME) are the real potential for Arab governments to enhance the efficiency of ICT awareness among the private sectors.

"Governments must recognize the role of SMEs in the national economy, and aim to target them directly through ICT-usage building programs."

Yet, the level of competition in the Arab telecommunication markets differs from one country to another. Almost all the domestic and international telecommunications in the region are monopolies. Jordan Telecom Co is the Kingdom’s sole fixed-line provider of domestic and international long-distance service until 2004.

"The Internet and data markets reveal the monopoly of higher income countries like the UAE and Oman," the study pointed out. "However, lower income markets like Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan exhibit some form of managed competition, whereas some higher income markets appear to have partial or limited competition."

Developing human resources is certainly fundamental to put the Arab world on the right ICT track. "There is a broad consensus that schools and the education system are the basic tools needed to provide gradual greater comfort with the digital environment," the study said. It noted later that many IT companies choose Egypt and Jordan as their regional headquarters, mainly because of these countries’ human resources.

Still, creating an awareness of Internet usage requires efficient initiatives to facilitate people’s access to the web. Lacking an Arabic content is a factor deterring ICT usage in the region. "Arabic is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. But the share of Arabic content on the Internet remains as low as 1 percent."

The study calls on the Arab States to devise a clear and comprehensive ICT development plan supported by a political will. Such a plan should revise each country’s regulations and laws to help introduce an efficient ICT services to all citizens, businesses and governments.

"It is essential, however, to catch the ‘window of opportunity’ to stay in touch with the developed world. Hence, the need for Arab governments to act quickly to boost ICT development in their nations."

Ghassan Joha
The Star

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