First Published: 2005-09-16

The Digital Divide in the Middle East

The Arab world will suffer serious problems if it fails to take advantage of the emerging information technologies and bridge the digital gab, warns Abdelnasser Abdelaal.


Middle East Online

Pervasive computing and communication has become essential to conduct our daily affairs. However, a considerable portion of individuals do not have access to these technologies. This is referred to as “The Digital Divide”. This problem is growing to become quite serious on a global level, especially, in the Arab world. According to 2005 projections, the average Internet usage rate in Africa is only 1.8%. This rate is roughly 8.3% in the Middle East and 14.6% for the whole world. Probably, this digital gap may create a new kind of poverty, “knowledge poverty”. This type of poverty is creating an even larger gab between the haves and have-nots, digitally speaking. Bridging this digital gab has become a matter of human and civil rights in several countries. For example, the primary goal of the e-Japan initiative is building a knowledge emergent society. This society is a connected nation where all individuals have access to information technology. Europe has decided to establish a society founded on knowledge and information dissemination. Accordingly, The European Space Agency (ESA) is investing in satellite communications to bridge the digital divide gap. Moreover, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has granted $4 millions for the Advanced Internet Satellite Extension project whose business mission is to bridge the digital divide in remote areas. The partners of this project are North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T University, University of California, the University of Illinois, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The Arab world will suffer serious problems if it fails to take advantage of the emerging information technologies and bridge the digital gab. The current rise of oil prices could be used to fund such investment in human resources. This is to say that the Arab world is in great danger of falling behind, if it does not allocate enough resources and give high priority to invest in this area. The region is endowed with natural resources such as oil and tourism attractions leading to a narrow economy focusing mainly on these natural resources. Indeed, oil and tourism industries could play as driving engines for information technology because both need very robust information systems and communications channels because of the mobility of tourists, their high purchasing power, and the multi-national sphere of the oil industry. Investing in this field will lead to a sustainable economic growth driven by knowledge not commodities. Of course, it is obvious that oil, which is considered the prime engine of growth and wealth creation in this area, will not last for long.

Although two thirds of the international oil supply comes from this area, only six countries have been classified as reach, and the other 18 Arab countries have been considered poor in 2004. Currently, more than 50 % of the GDP in the major developed countries is based on developing and distribution of knowledge. Actually, the future ideal economy is knowledge-driven not commodity-driven. The Malaysian government is a ware that knowledge and information technology are the engine for sustainable economic growth and they are racing in this regard. Some Arab countries such as UAE authorities are aware of that too, so they are investing in different areas including information technology. Actually, they are working to make Dubai the main e-commerce hub for the region, including south Asia.

The low density of Arab inhabitants, because of their locations in remote areas, vast deserts, mountains, and forests, prevents building a full coverage of wireline communications infrastructure. Fortunately, broadband satellite communications, especially GEO satellite systems, can provide high speed internet, digital TV, mobile phone service, and other wireless services for such areas at an affordable cost. A combination of WiFi technology and satellite receivers could provide connectivity without a need for wire line infrastructure. In addition, broadband satellite communications have several advantages over wireline communications such as global coverage, multicasting capability, bandwidth on demand, flexibility, and broadband capability. Therefore, they are an excellent solution to bridge the digital divide in the Arab world and provide broadband Internet access to disadvantaged and remote areas.

This disparity of Arab inhabitants necessitates the need for e-government, e-learning, e-health, e-commerce, and m-commerce services. Again, this could be achieved by providing broadband satellite communications to achieve digital inclusion for the Arab world. Technically speaking, three GEO satellites are enough to cover the whole globe at any given time. That means one GEO satellite is enough to cover the whole Arab world at a very affordable cost comparing to terrestrial communication infrastructure. In addition, covering the Arab world with wireless communication infrastructure will promote e-commerce and accelerate the economic growth in the area as well. Therefore, the Arab countries need to cooperate and invest in broadband satellite communications especially the new generation of BGAN satellite systems.

Unlike European Union, the Arab countries have several common factors and a better foundation which could act as drivers for establishing a homogeneous society based on information dissemination. These factors are, but not limited to, the common language, culture, and religion in most cases. For example, Pakistanis, who work in the gulf countries, Europe, and USA, are closer to Indians than to Arabs because of the language although they are enemies back home. Arabs should rely on the common language in this regard. Information dissemination improves economic, social, and political inclusion for remote and disadvantaged areas. This will help to eliminate the ethnic problems and marginalization in different areas of the Arab world such as south Sudan, north Iraq, south Morocco, south Libya, and north Syria, etc. in addition, information dissemination will help to eliminate terrorism and promote democracy and human rights in the region.

Abdelnasser Abdelaal

Wireless communications Specialist

University of Nebraska at Omaha, USA


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