Gulf States Kick Tech Investment into High Gear
Lagging behind other GCC members in technological infrastructure, Oman bolstering efforts during coronavirus pandemic
Many Gulf countries, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have delineated long-term plans to move away from carbon energy as a major – and even sole – source of income and toward more diversified revenues.
A core pillar of many of these plans is support for start-up ecosystems and general technological advancement. Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, for example, announced a directive in mid-June to create a Cyber Defense Center.
In a recently published piece by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington titled “Oman Jump-Starts Its Slow-Moving Technology Initiatives,” resident scholar Dr. Robert Mogielnicki argues that Omani state investment in tech programs is a financially sound move. He cites the country fiscal’s health as suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and record-low oil prices.
Oman’s actions last month are noteworthy as the country is not as advanced when it comes to government-spearheaded technology projects.
“For many years, Oman adopted a very cautious, risk-averse approach – in terms of both speed and form – to economic development,” Mogielnicki told The Media Line.
“State-led investments in new technology-related initiatives pose risks,” he explained.
“Oman’s finances have also hampered technology investments,” he added. “With fewer financial resources than many of its Gulf neighbors, certain technology initiatives and related capital expenditures have taken a back seat to more urgent social and economic spending needs.”
These neighbors include countries like Bahrain, which has had heavy government spending in the tech sector.
“The government of Bahrain has been one of the pioneers in the world to recognize the importance of utilizing the technological developments for the benefits of its constituents, which are citizens, residents and businesses” Noura Alzabie, strategic planning and project manager at the Bahrain chapter of the Global Social Media Club, told The Media Line.
Mogielnicki explains in his report that Oman has yet to create its own “technology-related niches” as part of its future goals, unlike much of the region. As examples, he cites: “Smart cities and artificial intelligence in Dubai; cryptocurrencies in Abu Dhabi; autonomous logistics infrastructure in Qatar; and data-hosting and fintech in Bahrain.”
Alzabie is well versed in Bahrain’s tech expertise, which developed around the commercial importance of the capital Manama.
“In keeping with the kingdom’s status as a regional financial hub… a particular area of focus for start-ups and other new IT initiatives is financial technology,” she said.
“Some fintech applications are already taking off in the kingdom, including mobile payment and wallet services, of which four are currently available,” she explained. “The Central Bank of Bahrain is working on an initiative to ensure their interoperability, which is expected to boost its uptake among the population.”
Even though Oman has been laggard when it comes to public funding of tech programs, the economic blows of both COVID-19 and low oil prices have been felt by all Gulf countries, which has underscored the importance of putting the long-term goals like technology into place.
“The coronavirus outbreak has renewed interest in broad, ongoing smart-city initiatives across the region,” Mogielnicki said. “The UAE has been pushing smart-city agendas for some time, and Saudi Arabia has accelerated efforts since 2017.”
The coronavirus outbreak has renewed interest in broad, ongoing smart-city initiatives across the region. The UAE has been pushing smart-city agendas for some time, and Saudi Arabia has accelerated efforts since 2017
Thus, Oman is not the only Gulf country to boost government-sponsored tech initiatives during the crisis.
“Through the COVID-19 period, the Kingdom of Bahrain developed the e-learning system in the private and public [governmental schools] and provided a series of training and workshops to improve the academic personalities’ tech skills,” Alzabie said.
“Moreover, Bahrain is supporting the success of many smart business apps and companies like… Alrawi, an Arabic audio marketplace that allows users to earn a living by recording voiceovers from anywhere, which has surged in popularity among the kingdom’s self-isolating population,” she explained.
In order for Oman to catch up, Mogielnicki argues that Muscat will need international cooperation and funding, which the country already needs in order to develop.
“The value proposition for foreign investment is something that Omani economic policy-makers really need to work on,” he noted.
Yet change is afoot in the country, he says.
“There is a tremendous sense of urgency,” he said. “The economic transformations taking place under Sultan Haitham will create new and immediate opportunities for those foreign investors willing and able to support the government’s agenda.”