When I am asked to sum up the most important technological developments supporting prosperity in the Middle East and North Africa, I of course point to growing smart device ownership, the spread of high speed wireless connectivity, and advances in data management and analytics. However, I believe that cloud computing has the greatest potential to fuel economic transformation, as it underpins mobile productivity and big data. It’s also a game-changer for businesses that want to scale but lack capital, and for public sector organizations looking to improve services during times of budgetary constraints.

Unfortunately, adoption of cloud technology in the region has been somewhat restrained partly as a result of long-standing concerns about security and privacy. It is the responsibility of the ICT sector to assuage these concerns so that the region fully benefits from cloud technology’s remarkable promise. Time is of the essence in terms of fostering this trust.

In looking at the commercial sector, it’s fair to say that the success of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) is absolutely critical to the region’s economy. In fact, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development they account for between half and three-quarters of all employment. In Egypt, for example, 98% of businesses have fewer than 10 employees, according to the World Bank.

And the cloud arguably has the greatest potential to impact small businesses above all others, which would really boost growth in the region. Effective implementation of cloud technologies creates a level playing field for business of all sizes, so that even the newest businesses can benefit from the same cloud-based software that big multinationals use – including anytime, anywhere work capabilities. Moving to cloud-based technology can also lift a significant burden off smaller businesses, which no longer have to waste time and resources maintaining IT infrastructure. Further, cloud-based solutions eliminate the need for capital expense, which is a huge benefit for cash-strapped businesses.

To illustrate this point, research from the Boston Consulting Group has shown that SMEs adopting modern IT, like cloud-based technology, were rewarded with 15% faster revenue growth than those that didn’t. It also found that the businesses grew almost twice as fast in terms of job creation – delivering social and economic benefits to local economies in the region.

Looking at the public sector, there is a tremendous opportunity for organizations to modernize through cloud implementation, allowing them to improve services while optimizing efficiencies. With growing urban populations, the need for modernization is all the more pressing.

The Ministry of Health in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia offer a great example of the cloud’s impact in the public sector. By deploying Microsoft Lync, the ministry attained productivity gains of up to 30%, mainly because its employees were able to communicate via video conferencing, instant messaging and desktop sharing. Further, municipalities across Turkey have used cloud-based technology to offer anytime, anywhere work capabilities for employees, and to improve communication and transparency with citizens.

And yet, despite demonstrable success stories and third-party studies, trust in the cloud remains a fundamental impediment to wide-spread adoption in the region. This is understandable. When a company chooses a cloud service provider, they are giving away one of their most precious assets: their data. So, concerns about security, privacy and compliance are absolutely appropriate.

How do I know my data is safe? Who has access to it?  Will it be exploited for advertising?  How can I best ensure I’m staying compliant with applicable privacy laws?

These are all valid questions, and the impetus is clearly on cloud service providers to earn that trust.

Cloud customers deserve to know where their data resides at all times, who has access to it, and how it is used. Customers should also have peace of mind knowing their cloud service providers value the security and integrity of customers’ data as highly as their own, and work continuously to help keep them compliant with all applicable standards and regulations.

But earning trust is not about making bold proclamations that cannot be backed up. Cloud providers must be willing to match their claims with clear contractual commitments. The onus is also on them to secure third-party validation, like ISO/IEC 27018, an international standard that is designed to offer a single, uniform approach for protecting data saved in the cloud.

For both the public and private sectors, the cloud offers tremendous promise – from small businesses looking to scale internationally to local government looking to best serve citizens while cuttings costs. The full potential of the cloud, however, will only be realized when people trust it. It requires a long-term commitment from cloud service providers to offer technical excellence, acknowledge that data belongs solely to the customer, and offer contractual assurances.

The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 takes place at the Dead Sea, Jordan, from 21-23 May.

Author: Leila Serhan is the General Manager of Microsoft North East and Pakistan.

Image: A women holds her laptop as she walks in front of a cloud computing logo at the booth of IBM during preparations for the CeBIT trade fair in Hanover, March 9, 2014. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch