Top 10 Middle East stories of 2018

Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 Middle East enterprise IT stories of 2018

The Middle East region and its economy are built on oil. But this foundation cannot be relied on for ever. Governments in the countries that make up the region, which stretches from Europe to Africa and Asia, understand this and have decided to diversify their economies.

IT is playing a major role in this. With money to invest and well-educated populations, the region is using advanced technology to enhance business as well as the quality of life.

In the process of doing this, the region is becoming a global leader in creating new digital-based industries. Take it from the man heading up GE’s digital strategy. Bill Ruh says the Middle East is one of the most enthusiastic regions when it comes to creating new business models through digital technology.

Look at the UAE, for example. The country has even announced the world’s first-ever minister for artificial intelligence. And in Bahrain, the government is laying the foundations for a world-leading fintech hub.

Read this top 10 for more examples of digital transformation in the Middle East.

1. Middle East hungry for digitisation, says GE’s Bill Ruh

The Middle East is one of the most enthusiastic regions about GE’s new digital business model, according to the man heading up GE Digital.

Around five years ago, former GE CEO Jeff Immelt took the decision to move the company into the digital age. This involved building intelligence into its products and creating a service-based business model. Today, the man charged with steering this vast digitisation endeavour is Bill Ruh, CEO of GE Digital and GE’s chief digital officer (CDO).

Since 2015, when the GE Digital business unit was formed, one of Ruh’s goals has been to link the products sold through its international business units to GE’s Predix power services that use predictive data analytics.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Ruh describes the Middle East region as one of the most enthusiastic customers of GE’s digitally powered offerings. “It’s one of the reasons the Middle East is the territory I’ve visited most this year. I’ve been three times already,” he says.

2. UAE makes artificial intelligence leap

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) wants to be at the heart of the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution and is already testing its mettle as a global tech advocate and innovator.

In 2017, the country created the world’s first “minister of AI”, along with an AI strategy that is leading the transformation of multiple sectors, such as transport, education and healthcare. The UAE has reportedly poured billions of dollars into AI investment and tech startup incubation funds, including its $270m Dubai Future Endowment Fund.

“We think the UAE has the strategic need, leadership vision, deep resources and small enough population to potentially become the centre of disruption in the AI arena,” said Sam Blatteis, founder of research firm The MENA Catalysts and former Google head of public policy for the Gulf. “AI may be a way to help solve some of the UAE’s greatest challenges and inefficiencies and get it off the oil-economy rollercoaster.”

And the UAE’s AI landscape is developing at lightning speed. Abu Dhabi government-owned investment company Mubadala and tech giant IBM recently brought in IBM Watson technology to help serve MENA’s clients and build an ecosystem of partners and developers; the state-backed Khalifa University has a Robotics Institute exploring AI in manufacturing and AI conferences; New York University-Abu Dhabi is working on several AI-related research projects; and Abu Dhabi Police has introduced AI-powered traffic management control.

3. How Turkish mobile operators are helping the vast Syrian refugee population to help themselves

Turkey is home to the largest refugee population in the world, with 3.4 million Syrians – including 1.5 million Syrian children – according to Unicef. Meeting the immense humanitarian needs of this vast population requires the Turkish government, which shoulders most of the financial burden, UN agencies, charities and commercial businesses – particularly telecoms companies – to work together.

Turkish mobile network operators (MNOs) are redefining the role that telecoms should play in tackling humanitarian crises. There are three elements to this: ensuring the telecoms infrastructure is in place, tailoring mobile and internet contracts to Syrians’ requirements, and offering tools that help the refugees settle into life in Turkey.

To start with, the MNOs are building out the telecoms infrastructure to provide reliable communications services in the refugee camps and southern Turkish cities, to ensure that humanitarian agencies can coordinate their response and communicate with the Syrian communities, and that the displaced people can communicate with each other across borders and access essential information.

4. Smart Dubai platform is the backbone of the city's transformation

Following the launch of the Smart Data platform, the Smart Dubai Office has revealed it is working with key technology and business partners to develop “UAE Pass”, a digital ID and digital signature which is being touted as one of the foundations that any city needs to transform.

Dubai is already pioneering smart city initiatives in the Middle East and is increasingly becoming a global leader.

In 2017, Smart Dubai was selected by the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union to develop a global index for smart cities starting with pilots in the emirate.

5. Tech boosts sales at Abu Dhabi’s Healthpoint

As the population of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continues to grow in tandem with its expanding economy, there is a pressing need for medical providers to plug the country’s healthcare supply gap.

Founded in 2013, Healthpoint is just one of the many new health clinics in the UAE’s capital emirate Abu Dhabi. Owned by local government investment arm Mubadala, the hospital brings together four medical centres: Abu Dhabi Knee & Sports Medicine Centre, Wooridul Spine Centre, the Bariatric & Metabolic Surgery Centre, and the Plastic & Cosmetics Surgery Centre.

Saif Al Siksek, CIO for healthcare technology across the group, said technology is “deeply embedded” in the organisation and affects every business function.

Al Siksek, who manages 16 IT staff, said Healthpoint is using automated and interoperable healthcare information systems to “improve medical care, lower costs, increase efficiency and reduce error.”

6. How Bahrain plans to become a regional fintech hub

Bahrain’s government wants to make the country the go-to place in the Middle East for financial technology companies (fintechs). With the dawn of the digital age, it hopes to capitalise on its banking know-how to establish an ambitious fintech “ecosystem”.

Bahrain currently hosts about 400 domestic, regional and international financial institutions. According to Khalid Al Rumaihi, CEO of the country’s Economic Development Board, there is a “national keenness to explore collaboration between banks and fintechs to adopt innovative solutions”.

“Key factors supporting the fintech ecosystem include Bahrain’s human capital, a highly progressive and liberalised ICT infrastructure and our increased push to drive entrepreneurship,” said Rumaihi.

Globally, the fintech sector attracted 1,824 investment deals totalling $14.2bn of venture capital investment in 2017, according to the Bahrain fintech ecosystem report 2018. Within the Middle East, the number of fintech startups is expected to reach 250 by 2020, said the report.

7. Dubai transport authority maps city to support autonomous cars

Here Technologies, the former Nokia mapping service that is now owned by a consortium of German auto-makers, has joined up with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) to map the city with high-definition technology in support of Dubai’s wider goals around self-driving, autonomous vehicles.

The emirate hopes to have a quarter of its public transport system converted to self-driving by 2030, and to accomplish this, HD maps are a must.

Initially, the RTA and Here Technologies will run a number of tests to enable Here’s map for autonomous cars, HD Live Map – a self-updating map designed to give users accurate information about road conditions – in the city’s public service vehicles.

8. Middle East faces IT talent crunch

Demand for skilled IT professionals is increasing rapidly in the Middle East to meet the needs of expanding economies and major IT projects that are being implemented.

And although the region’s IT sector has gradually moved from a nascent to a more mature stage, finding and retaining talent to maintain growth remains one of the key challenges.

A recent survey by UAE-based recruitment specialist Robert Half shows that customer relationship management (CRM), security, mobility, analytics, datacentre and project management skills are most in demand across the Middle East.

Gareth El Mettouri, associate director – Middle East at Robert Half, said that generally across the region, there is an adequate supply of talent in certain roles, but there are skill shortages in some areas, including project management, business intelligence, enterprise and solutions architects, applications, network managers and database developers.

9. Middle East gears up for 5G

Futurists have been selling a vision in the Middle East of a time when people, organisations and machines can all seamlessly access whatever they like, wherever they want.

But the reality is often far from this ideal, with consumers enduring long waits to watch a video or suffering service breakdowns at crucial moments, especially if a lot of other people in the area are trying to access the same service.

But 5G, if the hype is true, will enable greater speeds to move more data more quickly, and will connect a much greater number of devices, such as sensors and smart devices.

“It is anticipated that some 50 billion devices will be connected to mobile networks worldwide by 2020, and a large proportion of the communications will be between machines rather than humans,” said Saleem Al Blooshi, chief infrastructure officer at Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, the holding company behind UAE operator Du.

10. Autonomous taxi trials under way in Dubai

As Dubai continues its smart city transformation journey, the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) has revealed that plans to introduce autonomous taxis are in the final stages, with the initiative expected to launch in early 2019.

According to the RTA, the strategy to make autonomous passenger taxis available to the public is part of a broader vision to transform Dubai into a global driverless mobility leader by 2030.

Speaking ahead of Gitex Technology Week 2018, where the RTA showcased a range of smart projects and integrated apps, Mattar Al Tayer, director general and chairman of the board of the RTA, said: “The RTA used participation at Gitex to start the test run of the first autonomous taxi in Dubai, designed in partnership with Dubai Silicon Oasis and DG World.”

Al Tayer said the vehicle, which will be tentatively run on dedicated routes at the Dubai Silicon Oasis, meets strict safety and security standards, and is equipped with cameras and sensors that fully view traffic and road conditions, control the vehicle and avoid collision.

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