Closing the Tech Gap in the Middle East

Stephen DeAngelis

May 8, 2008

When my partner Tom Barnett first published his New York Times best-seller The Pentagon’s New Map, the Middle East was near the center of the disconnected group of states he labeled the Gap. Countries in that region (with some exceptions, like Israel) have been slow coming on line, but that may be changing according to a short article in BusinessWeek [“Playing Catch-up in Tech,” by Jennifer Fishbein, 28 April 2008 print edition].

“To diversify their economies, Mideast nations have been increasingly investing in technology. According to the latest annual Global Information Technology Report, high-tech readiness has improved more in these countries, some of them major oil producers, than anywhere else.”

Tom has argued that it is important for the Middle East to diversify and open up so that it can hold a conversation with the world over something other than oil and terrorism. During the peak of the Ottoman empire, Muslim culture was often the center of the world’s dialogue. Everything from Middle Eastern architecture, to poetry, to mathematics was admired and copied. Getting on-line is the first step down a path that could help recapture some of that historical luster. According to experts interviewed by Fishbein, leaders in Middle Eastern countries understand that the current flush times cannot last if they don’t take advantage of the current glut of oil money pouring in to prepare for the future.

“‘They’re realizing the current oil shock is indeed the last one,’ says Bruno Lanvin, executive director of the eLab at INSEAD, the French management school, that, along with the World Economic Forum, released the study.”

According to Fishbein, the Global Information Technology Report assesses the economies of 127 participating countries on a myriad of topics ranging from Internet bandwidth and the cost of mobile calls to the quality of higher education. Even with marked improvements, Middle Eastern countries still have a long ways to go.

“No Mideast nation ranked anywhere near the top. (Denmark and Sweden took the No. 1 and No. 2 spots. The U.S. was No. 4.) But Egypt (No. 63), a minor oil player, rose 14 places from its rank last year—the biggest jump in the sample—in part because of its efforts to become a locale for outsourcing tech operations. Saudi Arabia, participating in the study for the first time, made it to No. 48.”

In a post I wrote last November [Education in Saudi Arabia], I noted that one of the oft-leveled charges against the royal house of Saud is that is has generally failed to invest its vast oil wealth in infrastructure that will help the kingdom and its people once oil revenues start to decline. The post, however, was about King Abdullah’s multi-billion dollar bid to catch up with the West in science and technology by constructing the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Although the University will be gated community, life inside the walls could well point the way to further cultural breakthroughs there. Fishbein reports there are other efforts in Saudi Arabia as well to become more tech savvy.

“In January, Cisco Systems agreed to provide the tech infrastructure for a ‘knowledge economic city’ in the country’s Al Madinah province, which hopes to attract high-tech multinationals.”

Although these are small steps, they are backed by big bucks. The movement is in the right direction and that should be encouraging for people both in and out of the region.