Posted on April 30, 2001 in Washington Watch

A new poll released in Cairo and New York last week provides an honest and yet somewhat optimistic view of the state of information technology (IT) in today’s Arab world.

The survey was conducted by Zogby/Artoc Research and Development among participants at the Arab Information and Technology Conference held in Cairo, March 18 and 19. The conference was sponsored by the World Economic Forum and was entitled “Information Technology and Tech Communications in the Arab World: Toward New Horizons.”

Ninety percent of the 210 participants in the survey were from Egypt and the Arab world and represented a wide array of IT-related businesses.

It is well known that IT is only now developing in the Arab world. Slow in starting, Internet access is growing. Currently, there are more than 1,000,000 Arabs on the Internet, but this figure represents only three percent of the Arab world’s population.

Nevertheless, while some Western critics chided the region for its backwardness or its restrictive policies that have slowed its entrance into the internet age, the conference and its participants took a long, hard look at the progress made to date and the work that remains to be done to advance IT and e-commerce in the Arab arena.

They noted activities taken by several Arab government to facilitate internet access and observed some positive initiatives in the private sector to promote the development of IT and e-commerce. Areas where both serious problems and impediments to growth existed were also the subject of frank discussion.

Despite the slow start and remaining difficulties, conference participants told the Zogby/Artoc survey that they were optimistic about the prospects for the development of IT in the Arab world. A solid majority of 57 percent said that they were optimistic, while only 13 percent said they were pessimistic about the future. An even greater majority of 61 percent of those surveyed indicated that they were optimistic about the “prospects for more cooperation between the nations of the Arab world.” But 35 percent indicated that they did not share that opinion.

Even with this positive view of the future, the participants were clear in their negative assessment in the current state of affairs. When asked to “rate the Arab world, as a whole, in terms of its IT developments,” only 13 percent gave the region a high mark. 53 percent gave it low grade. A much higher 39 percent rated positively “current efforts in the Arab world to develop IT,” with only 29 percent viewing these efforts negatively.

And when asked to rank the Arab world’s IT development against that of other regions in the world, an average of only 15 percent reported that the Arab region was better off than Eastern Europe, India and South East Asia. More than 50 percent felt the Arab world measured poorly in comparison to these regions. Only when compared to central Africa and South Africa and Pakistan did the participants give the Arab world better grades.

When asked to assess the Arab world’s principle weaknesses in planning IT development, the participants offered the following reasons:

Lack of planning/strategy 16%
Lack of Arab cooperation/unity 10
Lack of technological know-how 19
Lack of financing 7
Politics/Bureaucracy 7
Lack of infrastructure 5
Language problems 2
Incorrect thinking/Bad leadership 6
Lack of cooperation with outsiders 3
Other 16
Nothing in particular 8

Conversely when asked to assess the principle strengths that the Arab world can bring to its planning for IT development, the conference participants suggested as the region’s attributes:

Human resources /trained personal 30%
Financial resource 12
Common language 10
Arab market 6
Scientific/technological progress 5
Cooperation between Arab countries 7
Natural resources 4
Other 10
Nothing in particular 19

Finally the conference’s participants were asked to look into the future and assess the prospects for a number of developments. While not optimistic about the prospects for peace in the next five years (only 32 percent were optimistic, against 56 percent who were pessimistic) in most other areas the participants were quite hopeful.

61 percent were optimistic that there would be more cooperation between nations in the Arab world, only 24 percent were not. As an extension of this, 56 percent expressed optimism about prospects for a regional economic market or regional trade association among Arab nations. Pluralities were hopeful that there would be regional sharing of resources and a reduction in the gaps between rich and poor in getting Internet access in the Arab world.

The survey results are significant in that they provide insight into the thinking of an important sector of Arab professionals who are working on the cutting edge of a world-wide technological revolution. They understand its importance, see its benefits and recognize that although the Arab world is currently lagging behind other regions in IT development, it has the human resources and the potential to move forward.

In this regard, both the conference and the survey are useful tools that can help to inform policy and spur action.

The survey, as noted, is a product of Zogby/Artoc Research and Development. It represents a partnership between Zogby International of New York, one of the United States’ leading polling firms and the Artoc Group for Investment and Development, one of Egypt’s leading companies.

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