Arab countries embraced a political revolution during the Arab Spring. Now they are poised to embrace a technological revolution. The transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution holds the solution to many of the difficulties faced by countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), such as sluggish economic growth, high unemployment and security concerns. This change will not happen easily and will depend on a determined effort by governments in cooperation with the private sector in the region.

Uneven transformation

Countries in the MENA region are already engaged in digital transformation, but at varying paces. Saudi Arabia has embarked on an ambitious process to move away from oil dependency by developing non-oil economic sectors. It has two programmes underway that are part of its Vision 2030 – development of broadband infrastructure and establishing the tools and platforms of a digitized economy (cloud computing, blockchain systems) to enable massive change.

In Tunisia, 7% to 8% of university graduates annually find jobs in the ICT sector. The country is also positioning itself as an outsourcing destination for software programming. Egypt is moving at a slower pace and is cautious about the impact that technological transformation will have on unemployment.

Leapfrogging to the future

Peter Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Blockchain, USA, says that there is enormous motivation in the Middle East to drive technological change. The fact that countries are lagging in ICT is an opportunity for them to leapfrog current IT systems and adopt innovative technologies such as blockchain. The disintermediation on which blockchain technology is built has the potential to reduce costs significantly and drive GDP growth in these economies.

Creating the ecosystem

Key elements are necessary to create the right ecosystem for technological transformation in Arab economies – a conducive policy framework, good IT infrastructure, educational programmes and readiness of government and society, said Youssef Chahed, Prime Minister of Tunisia. Educational systems in the region do not adequately build skills sets that companies require, even among ICT graduates. The traditional way of teaching students is becoming obsolete and a fundamental shake-up in educational systems is needed.

Khaled H. Biyari, Chief Executive Officer of Saudi Telecom, Saudi Arabia, says that it is up to government and business to introduce fresh approaches and create the right ecosystem for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to take hold. Politicians and private entrepreneurs should spearhead a change in society’s understanding of how work will be transformed by the IT revolution and create the framework for youth to train in technologies of the future. Governments must adopt new regulatory approaches that respond more flexibly to technological change and provide for cross-border arrangements. More cooperation with other countries will permit sharing of best practices and capacity-building.

This is an exciting moment for Arab economies. While change brings some chaos, this should not be resisted but managed. With the right guardrails to guide the technological revolution, Arab countries can realize the potential of a digitally enabled future.