Working towards implementing digital transformation in all Arab countries, the AICTO has prepared a thorough agenda on top of which are strategies aiming to promote innovation in the region. Telecom Review spoke to Eng. Mohamed Ben Amor, Secretary-General of the Arab ICT Organization (AICTO), who further explained the role of the AICTO in achieving digital economy, detailed the technology trends that have a great impact on the region such as IoT, AI/data analysis and 5G and whether Arab countries are ready to adopt 5G.
You have just been reelected as the Secretary-General of the Arab ICT Organization (AICTO). What do you wish to achieve during this new mandate?
Indeed, I was re-elected unanimously by all member states, as the Secretary-General of the Arab ICT Organization for a second mandate 2020-2023 during the extraordinary meeting of the General Assembly held in Tunis- Republic of Tunisia, on the 23rd of September 2019.
This reelection is both an honor and a responsibility; on one hand, I’m honored by the confidence given to me by the Arab states at a personal level, on the other hand, I feel that my responsibility is bigger to meet all expectations and to overcome the challenges.
The achievement during this new mandate should be based on the follow up of the achievement of the first mandate and also taking into account the priorities of the Arab region and the technological development happening at the global level. Our starting point is always our strategic vision “Towards a harmonized Arab digital society based on the creativity and innovation, boosting the Arab-Interregional complementarity and contributing efficiently to the development of the global sustainable digital economy”. For the period 2020-2023, we will continue our efforts to serve the Arab region in the ICT field within the cooperation with all stakeholders in the region and worldwide. The focus will be on three main pillars:
- At the structural level: Completing structural and organizational reforms;
- At the regional level: Framing reference positions and common general policies in the region;
- At the international level: Strengthening the positioning of AICTO regionally and internationally.
What are some the major projects the AICTO is currently working on?
In order to achieve its strategic vision, AICTO is working currently on a “4D strategy”: digital transformation, digital innovation, digital inclusion, and digital trust. This strategy is implemented through many projects and programs. The main projects for AICTO:
- AAECA-Net: the Arab & African e-certification authorities network
An Interregional multistakeholder network for e-trust in the Arab and African regions having the specificity to be open internationally to all interested stakeholders.
- Unifying and Harmonizing the interregional legal framework related to e-transactions and e-trust services based on international experiences and best practices;
- Working on the interoperability and the mutual recognition between the Arab and African e-certification authorities, as a first step, and between the countries of the two regions with the rest of the word in a further step;
- Establishing interregional (multilateral) conventions ensuring the interoperability and the mutual recognition of the e-trust services between the countries of the two regions and with other foreign countries.
- Smart agriculture for sustainable development
Within the scope of this project, we have launched a permanent/yearly forum called: “Interregional Smart Agriculture Forum” (ISAF©). Amongst the goals of this initiative:
- Appraising the “smart agriculture” role in bridging the digital divide within the two regions;
- Empowering Arab farmers and workers through ICT use, to improve their practices;
- Promoting joint “Arab action” towards building a common strategy to achieve “regional food security” including ICT as a key factor for sustainable agricultural development;
- Boosting the interregional and international cooperation in the field of smart farming in an endeavor to coordinate efforts and come up with sustainable solutions for the future of the agricultural sector.
- The Center of Excellence “China-Arab BDS/GNSS Center-AICTO”
This center of Excellence was established within the scope of the bilateral relationship between the League of Arab States and the People's Republic of China and the cooperation agreement between the Arab Information and Communication Technologies Organization (AICTO) and the China Satellite Navigation Office (CSNO). It was inaugurated on the 10th of April 2018.
- The “China-Arab BDS/GNSS Center-AICTO” role is to provide an open platform for Arab users to acquire deeper understanding about BeiDou/GNSS technology through a set of activities such as: training, exhibition, testing & assessment, joint researches etc… and to boost and strength the Arab-Chinese cooperation in the field of Satellite Navigation and related services and applications.
- The excellence center is an important facility because it represents a window for comprehensive exhibition and an open platform for cooperation in the navigation satellite field between China, the Arab States, and African countries.
- “Financial Inclusion” program
Under the framework of its program on “Financial Inclusion”, AICTO is hosting the “Digital Fiat Currency Lab” for the Arab Region in partnership with the DFC Institute with the active participation of Stanford Advanced Financial Technologies Lab.
The Lab will propose among others capacity building actions, technical assistance missions, trial projects implementation, showcases and live demonstrations...
In your opinion, what are the technology trends that are having the greatest impact on the region?
Although having its own specificity with some exceptions, the Arab region is not isolated from the rest of the word; if something has an impact on the world, it will for sure impact the Arab region either from a positive or negative point of view. It is obvious that globally, many technological trends are happening and evolving with a very high-speed rhythm. This fact is leading the world to be in the midst of the “4th industrial revolution” were some technology trends are changing totally our way of living and working.
In my opinion, there are at least 3 top technology trends that we consider in AICTO will have a great impact on the Arab region: IoT, AI/data analysis and 5G. As we all know, the Internet of things, since its advent, has connected many devices, making life easier and more convenient. With the prediction of the number of connected devices to reach 50 billion by 2020, it seems that the future will be for the Internet of Things technology based on the expected significant benefits for humanity. When combined with the 5G networks, they will be a key driving factors for the socio-economic development in the region through the smart applications and services they will provide in all sectors: agriculture, health, education, security….
Artificial Intelligence and data analysis, by a step behind, will likely sooner or later gain the ground in the Arab region. But I have to mention here that if we all agree that AI is impacting the entire economy in a positive way, it is generating both excitement and concerns. So, we have to keep a vigilant eye on the global market before embarking on heavy investments, as the physicist and cosmologist Max Tegmark said, “Everything we love about civilization is a product of intelligence, so amplifying our human intelligence with artificial intelligence has the potential of helping civilization flourish like never before – as long as we manage to keep the technology beneficial.”
Besides, these 3 technology trends, I would like to put some lights on the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) technologies. Since it’s been rising over the past several decades, the (GNSS) industry has transformed businesses and people's daily life worldwide through innovative products and services across industries and sectors. GNSS has a direct impact on the economic growth for many countries in a positive way as being used in many areas and fields as smart cities, agriculture and fishery, precise machine control, transportation, public security, disaster alleviation and relief. I think the Arab countries should invest more in R&D in the satellite navigation field and take advantage of its huge potential.
How does the Arab region compare to the rest of the world in terms of 5G readiness? What is the role of the organization in the context 5G deployment?
As I said before, AICTO is aware of the importance of 5G technology and its impact on the digital economy. In order to make some proactive actions, in the middle of 2018, we have launched a study about the “readiness of Arab countries regarding 5G”. In the lights of the results of this study, we will draw our action plan for the way forward. For the moment, the first step is to raise the awareness about this issue through the organization of forums and workshops dealing with 5G uses and benefits (as increasing the profitability and efficiency) and the ways of its implementation.
In a step ahead, I expect that AICTO will play a major role in the 5G deployment in the Arab region, as it has the specificity to be open on the regional and global cooperation opportunities, which could facilitate the transfer of experiences and best practices based on the connectivity that 5G is bringing in some countries where it is already deployed.
In what way can the AICTO help Arab countries achieve a digital economy? What are the challenges here?
All AICTO strategic goals are revolving around helping Arab countries to achieve a strong, trusted and sustainable “digital economy”.
The following goals will be translated into actions and initiatives boosting efforts of Arab countries to move from the traditional economies to digital economies.
- AICTO-SG 1 : Ensuring the transition of Arab countries to the All-Digital and enabling Arab citizens to benefit from innovative digital services
- AICTO-SG 2 : Achieving the Arab complementarity and bridging the digital gap within the Arab region
- AICTO-SG 3 : Unifying and coordinating Arab positions serving their own strategic interest within international organizations/at the international level
- AICTO-SG 4 : Boosting the Arab countries’ contribution to the implementation of sustainable development goals 2030 while enhancing their inclusion in the global digital economy
The implementation of these strategic goals is guaranteed by the annual action plans containing commitments and actions as: regional programs and projects, working groups, think tank groups, capacity building, technical assistance, studies, and researches …. All these actions are accessible to all stakeholders from the Arab region.
In the near future, AICTO is going to boost its role in achieving “digital economy” in the Arab region based on the recommendations of the main organs of the League of Arab States:
- Resolution of the 4th session of the Arab Economic and Social Development summit held on January 2019: About the assignment of AICTO to be part of the committee in charge of the development of a common “Arab vision in the field of ICT, digital economy and cybersecurity”
- Recommendation of the Executive Bureau of the Council of Arab Ministers of Communication & Information in its 45th session held in Cairo on 28/07/2019 on activating the launch of the initiative “Arab Digital Capital” :
- The Arab Organization for Information and Communication Technologies (AICTO), is invited to propose a mechanism to be adopted for the selection of the “Arab Digital Capital” for the year 2021 and beyond in coordination with the Members States
- AICTO should coordinate between Arab countries to implement this initiative in the future
- Resolution of the 104th session of the Economic and Social Council on contributing to the initiative of His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Emir of the State of Kuwait, to establish an Arab fund in the field of technology and digital economy under the management of the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development: AICTO is invited with involved stakeholders to setup the foundations and the mechanisms for the management of this fund and the implementation of this initiative giving its importance to support startups and the ICT sector within the Arab region.
The challenges are mostly related to the coordination between all Arab countries giving the differences and the gaps between all Arab countries both on technical and legal levels. Our challenge is bringing them all closers despite their differences, in order to achieve some complementarity and positive synergy between them.
What are the main pillars of the organization’s strategy aiming to promote innovation in the region?
Innovation is at the heart of our strategic vision. We consider that innovation and ICT are the great seeds of development. Innovation has been needed since always and will be forever and humanity has profited from it starting with the invention of the wheel till the emergence of the internet and its related services. Innovation has become “the Ideology of the 21st Century” according to Jan-Evert Nilsson - Blekinge Institute of Technology.
Digital innovation was one of the 4 pillars of the AICTO strategy. During my first mandate from 2016 to 2019, we have launched many initiatives and actions aiming to promote innovation in the Arab region and dealing directly with the youth employment issue:
- Project: “The Arab Youth Empowerment Network: Empowering Arab youth to change their future with ICT & entrepreneurship”
- Employment creation: Raising awareness amongst Arab youth about the ICT potential for job creation;
- Entrepreneurship: Encouraging the entrepreneurship, inventiveness, and creativity among youth in the Arab region;
- Equal opportunity for all: Giving the chance for all Arab youth to take advantage of ICT opportunities.
- “Arab youth creativity” Award
The purpose of this competition is to honor outstanding Arab youth who have valuable and innovative initiatives, concepts and projects in the ICT field.
- AICTO Technology Academy ATAC
Considering that ICT capacity building is amongst the major components of the sustainable development. The Arab ICT Organization (AICTO) has devoted a whole chapter of its action plan to building Arab capacities and identifying Arab skills in ICT. Besides, and to consolidate this activity, AICTO has re-structured the training activity by launching the AICTO Technology Academy (ATAC).
ATAC mission consists of offering training services based on the latest technologies including a special program for professional training sessions which covers the latest developments related to computer security, e-certification and e-transaction security, spectrum management, among others…
- Developers World Forum
- The forum brings together the best minds in the region who are passionate about web and mobile development, design, computer engineering and software publishing;
- DWF is an opportunity for each developer to develop his skills, his relationships and update his technical knowledge and his cognitive means in order to carry out his projects or his missions;
- DWF is a platform of communication, information, instructions and networking by focusing on the creativity and innovation for constructive and fruitful exchanges.
The AICTO had launched last year the first edition of the Arab Digital Banking Excellence Award. How do you see the status of digital banking in the region? Do you think that Arab consumers have embraced digital banking or are they still reluctant?
The Arab Digital Banking Excellence Award was launched in partnership with the Union of Arab Banks with the aim of appraising the innovative services provided by the Arab Banks and FinTech companies and disseminating them amongst the region. It also aims at achieving the digital financial inclusion within the Arab region namely in the least developed countries and highlighting the role of the technological development in the access of all citizens to the financial services. The ADB-Excellence Award - 2018 is composed of 5 main categories:
- Award of the Best Digital Bank in the Arab region
- Award for the Best Digital Service
- Award of best Mobile Banking Application
- Award for the Best Banking Website
- Award for the Digital Financial Inclusion
The first edition of this Award ceremony has witnessed the participation of only 11 banks from 8 countries. Although great efforts were done by some financial institutions in the Arab region in order to include the digital component in their services, we can make 2 major statements: First, Miles are still to be walked in that field in the Arab region. Efforts have to be doubled and joint in order to keep up with the global progress being done at the international level. Secondly, the gap in the field of digital financial services is very huge between the GCC countries and other Arab countries. But to keep a positive spirit, we cannot overlook some success stories all around the region and we hope that in the near future, we can talk about fully digital banks in the Arab region.
Arab consumers are much divided in this matter, most of them are looking for a modernized and digital bank with innovative and inclusive services. But the main concern is security and personal data privacy. At this level, I think that the financial institutions/banks have to give more focus on making their services more trustworthy with the balance of innovation with consumer privacy.
What message would you convey to industry stakeholders operating in the region?
First, I would like to highlight the fact that ICTs are considered as a strategic tool for the socio-economic development, through the opportunities they are offering in many areas of fighting poverty, addressing issues of social and economic inequalities, natural disasters and other challenging problems and issues governments and people around the world are facing.
The message I would like to convey to industry stakeholders operating in the region is that active coordination between all actors is the best way to ensure complementarity and avoid overlap. AICTO, as an ICT regional representative is willing to play its role as “regional coordinator” at the fullest. We have created an open platform for all involved and interested stakeholders in the region and we will be always focusing on building strong regional & international partnerships leading to global sustainable development.
If you would like to work within a collaborative approach with the input from all key stakeholders in the region and beyond, with a win-win relationship, join AICTO and participate with us to shape a multilateral sustainable model based on the interconnection of three main pillars: sharing, coordination and convergence. In the Arab region, we all share the same concerns, let’s start sowing the seeds for a better tomorrow for all Arab citizen through ICT.