Middle East tech: What does 2019 have in store?

Experts set out their predictions on the tech trends to watch in the Middle East and North Africa this year.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor

5G to transform Middle East mobile market in 2019

Jawad Abbassi, head of Middle East and North Africa region, GSMA

The Gulf states are set to be global leaders in the deployment of 5G networks, with many expected to launch commercial 5G services in 2019. According to a recent GSMA Intelligence report, 5G will account for 16 percent of mobile connections across the six Gulf states by 2025 -- slightly ahead of the global average.

Early 5G offerings in the region are likely to focus on enhanced mobile broadband services and 5G-based fixed-wireless -- especially in regions with limited fiber penetration.

However, there is also an opportunity to use 5G to drive developments in immersive reality, e-sports, and enhanced in-venue digital entertainment.

On the enterprise side, 5G will enable operators and governments to collaborate on smart city initiatives, focused, for example, on addressing population-related challenges. Oil and gas, mining, and tourism -- each particularly relevant to the region's economy -- could also benefit from 5G networks.

Key to success will be the availability of the right type of harmonized 5G spectrum. The recent decision by the Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG) to release the use of the 3.3GHz to 3.8GHz band for mobile broadband was therefore an important step in accelerating 5G rollout across the region.

Encouraging investment at home and abroad

Sevag Papazian, partner at Strategy&, part of the PwC network

Last year, the region experienced several developments, especially in terms of setting the foundations of its national digital transformation. Some examples include:

  • Investments in infrastructure -- Saudi Arabia deploying fiber broadband to more than 700,000 new households; 5G deployment in Saudi and UAE. In Saudi, Al Khobar was the first city in the region to test a 5G network.
  • Investments in talent -- Misk Foundation's 'Saudi codes' program training and Dubai's 'One million coders' initiative. The Hajj hackathon has broken the Guinness World Record for the highest number of software developers in a single location.
  • Government digital transformation -- Abu Dhabi launched the TAMM platform to offer omni-channel government services across digital and physical channels. Several end-to-end journeys are being redesigned to improve the user experience.

However, to enable large-scale socio-economic transformations, the region needs to see inorganic growth by having the large players invest in the region.

The region is investing abroad, for example, the Vision Fund -- a partnership between Saudi's Public Investment Fund and Softbank -- has invested in more than 65 companies including $4.4bn in WeWork, and $2.5bn in Flipkart. But the region needs to use such investments to establish capabilities in-country, to expand operational, R&D and innovation capabilities.

There were initial discussions last year with large tech multinationals, such as Google and Amazon. These have slowed down lately because of the geo-political situation. They will have to resume, as the region needs new types of capabilities that can help it step up services and solutions at large scale, and help drive the innovation agenda.

Dawn of digital payments

Racha Ghamlouch, Innovation and Business Adviser

2018 saw the dawn of online payments in the UAE, Saudi and Egypt. Even countries like Morocco and Jordan are witnessing a fintech awakening.

Financial technology sandboxes in Abu Dhabi, Manama, Dubai, and Doha have allowed for experiments with the possibilities and limitations of financial technology, easing regulators into legalizing previously banned services.

Global partnerships have also been aiding this growth, such as: Dubai's Fintech Hive's partnership with Cyberport, Hong Kong; and Bahrain's BEDB partnership with the Maharashtra government in India

While Saudi Arabia doesn't have a similar sandbox, Mada -- governed by Saudi Arabia's Monetary Authority -- has been working to get SpuxeApple Pay into the kingdom, which is already launched in the UAE, and has launched a Mada-supported payment gateway to ease previously banned online payments.

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)    

In turn, this move has stimulated the private sector. Jordan's Al Ahli bank fintech accelerator and Arab Bank launched a fund and public API, followed by UAE's Emirates NBD launch of a public API.

Emirates NBD announced support for Fitbit and Garmin Pay, shortly after Google Pay launched in the UAE supported by UAE's Network International, whom in turn now supports AliPay, an indicator of the increased Chinese footfall in the country,.

Egypt's tech sector is being revitalized. Its central bank has rolled out support for online payments via the locally issued Meeza card, followed by a supporting payment solution. Egypt is also getting its own Startupbootcamp fintech accelerator.

The real relief the region has been waiting for is P2P payments: Saudi Telecom Company (STC) STCPay is a digital payment and P2P wallet, a regional first. However the real winner is Careem, by launching CareemPay which allows users to send P2P credit, given its mass scale, it is effectively the first cross-border P2P wallet in the region

The competition is fierce and the players are ready for 2019, so it will be exciting to watch.

AI, Cloud and plugging the skills gap

Jaime Galviz, COO and CMO at Microsoft Middle East and Africa

Over the past year, we've seen tremendous growth of intelligent cloud and AI solutions across the region. In fact, it's predicted that AI could further increase the UAE's GDP by $96bn by 2030.

However, 2018 was the year that not only demonstrated the infinite applications for AI in the Middle East but also highlighted the need for more qualified workers in the field. Indeed, 2018 was also the year that showed us how advanced technologies are creating new and different jobs, rather than eliminating jobs as many feared.

According to recent research conducted by IDC and Microsoft, cloud computing will potentially generate more than 515,000 jobs across key markets in the Middle East and Africa between 2017 and 2022, and these are not confined only to the IT profession.

Moving forward into 2019 and beyond, we must continue to take an active role in equipping the region with the skills needed to fill these jobs and evolve along with the new world of work.

This goal requires collaboration at national and regional levels to encourage governments and schools to provide all students with access to computer-science education to ensure that they are adequately prepared for jobs of the future.

SEE: IT jobs in 2020: A leader's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

For example, in the UAE, the One Million Arab Coders initiative is helping a million young Arab programmers develop digital and coding skills in areas like AI, robotics, cognitive and biological sciences, and programming.

Recognizing the unprecedented opportunity for digital transformation in the region, in 2018 we also announced plans to open data centers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the first in the Middle East, empowering organizations, governments, and businesses to achieve more.

This announcement marked the second data center expansion for Microsoft in the Middle East and Africa in less than a year. We see enormous opportunity in the region for cloud technology to be the key driver of economic development, while providing sustainable solutions to many pressing issues such as youth employability, skills development, education and healthcare.

We will continue to work with governments and organizations across the region to equip the workforce with the skills needed to accelerate digital adoption, and we are excited about the role these new data centers will play in this transformation.

Middle East's startup scene continues to expand and mature

Christopher Schroeder, co-founder Next Billion Ventures and author of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East

This has been a fascinating year in startups in the Middle East. More money has entered the early stages with angel networks like Dubai Angels expanding and deploying, and 500 startups closing their fund and aggressively investing.

The region's anchors, Wamda, Beco, MEVP, have deployed most of their capital and are raising and warehousing in parallel; STV (Saudi Telecom Ventures) has made a big splash in the size of their ability to fund later stages, and serious investments, most recently in Careem, Unifonic and Vezeeta, among others.

Rapidly growing companies, like Property Finder and Swvl in Egypt, have found interest from global investors. Growth capital -- B rounds and later -- remain a need. Saudi Arabia, always a coveted market, is the great question as some very interesting startups, and investment capital, are rising there as well.

Entrepreneurs have become more sophisticated, based on five to seven years' experience and the combination of greater access to the newest technologies in blockchain and AI, solving problems not only for the region but for nearby rising markets.

And investment is crossing borders, such as Wamda's investment in Nairobi logistic tech company Twiga, not only as these markets grow, but such companies will also seek opportunities in the region's markets with time.

Similarly, China has begun to look closely at tech startups in the region. E-commerce juggernaut Jolly Chic has had a significant value as a customer and investor in Fetchr, and Chinese venture capital has come to tour the UAE and more. Beyond Amazon's acquisition of Souq, AWS and other cloud providers have made real inroads in the region.

The story remains success breeding success and the significant market and massive mobile penetration attracting investment from within the region, with more global tech companies exploring ways to enter.

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