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Sat 2 Jun 2007 09:00 PM

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Lighting the way

Qatar is investing heavily in its IT infrastructure, with energy and education at the forefront of its redevelopment.

Everybody knows much of the Middle East economy is built upon the region's vast oil reserves. Billions of US dollars are pumped into - and out - of the region in what is a lucrative energy business. In this respect, Qatar is like any other country in the Middle East. It sits upon the world's largest natural gas reserves, but like so many of its neighbours, it harbours regional, if not world leading, technological aspirations.

While Saudi Arabia markets itself as the world's premier oil producer, and Dubai portrays itself as the Middle East's business and media hub, Qatar is turning to IT to revolutionise its energy and education sectors as it works towards a knowledge-based society. Qatar has already channelled substantial IT investment into the energy sector with the ambitious Energy City Qatar (ECQ), but there is now a similar level of emphasis on e-platforms as the country looks to pump as much investment into education and its IT infrastructure as it is pumps out energy.

A recent memorandum of understanding signed between ictQatar and Microsoft saw Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer visit the country with the software giant pledging to provide assistance and expertise to Qatar as the country looks to establish an agile technology infrastructure and a digitally connected society.

"This is part of our goal to connect Qatari people to technologies that will enrich their lives, strengthen our economy and create better opportunities for our young people to realise their full potential. With valuable support from Microsoft, we will make positive steps towards becoming a truly digital society," says Dr Hessa Al-Jaber, secretary general of ictQatar.

ictQatar, a policymaking and regulatory body for IT in Qatar, was established in 1994 to aid the technological development of the country as it continues to work towards a knowledge-based society and economy. During that time, the organisation has strived to educate Qatari citizens in the values of IT and has overseen much of the technological transition taking place in Qatar.

However, the emphasis is not solely on utilising IT, there is also a concerted effort from all parties to foster an awareness and working knowledge of the benefits of technology. The recent MoU marked the latest agreement in a number of shared initiatives between Microsoft and ictQatar, with the vendor agreeing to set up a technology innovation centre as part of its ongoing relationship with the organisation. The centre will help build awareness around new technologies, demonstrate learning techniques through technology and share best practice in the effective use of ICT in education has also been promised. According to Mohammad Hammoudi, country manager for Microsoft Qatar, the software giant's pledge marks just one of the commitments Microsoft is making to the country as part of a bigger plan to help the country reach its objective.

"The foundation of our agreement with ictQatar has been in place for a few years for the use of Microsoft technology within the Qatar public sector. The recent agreement was signed to enhance the value of the technology in the community at large and it represents one stage of a three level plan," he says.

Microsoft's primary plan is to establish an infrastructure capable of delivering the services proposed in stages two and three, with an emphasis on educating citizens and creating digital learning platforms to work towards the target of creating a knowledge-based economy.

"The first element is providing the foundation for the delivery of this information to establish a new level of services the government are currently working towards. This is a very important factor, there is currently a lot of work around e-government, e-health: all these kinds of electronic services," Hammoudi says.

"The second layer of the three-tier project places a considerable emphasis on education with a number of projects centered on e-learning and digital learning platforms.

"We are looking to establish a learning ecosystem - from training and support to provision of learning materials - which will help us work towards the third aspect, which is establishing a digital society.

"Qatar wants to work towards a knowledge-based economy. As part of this, all these educational programmes, as well the internet, are tools to help the country achieve this," he says. If the level of investment in the education sector mirrors that of ECQ's - more than US$200 million will be invested into its IT infrastructure over the next three years - Qatar's vision for a knowledge-based society will soon become a reality.

It is a level of commitment that is symbolic not only the level of investment required for Qatar to establish itself as a technological leader in the region, but of the nation's willingness to adopt it.

"I believe the ECQ development is very important to the country; it will be an integral part of the transformation that is going to take place in Qatar," says Mark Fuller, director of IT at ECQ. "I think it will have an impact at a national level, in terms of the economic and social development perspective, and at an oil and gas industry level providing a unique experience as a connected community. From here, I think we can overcome some of the industry's existing problems and frustrations using the latest technology and applications, and with solutions tailored specifically to the oil and gas industry," Fuller adds.

Buoyed by the involvement of IT heavyweights such as Microsoft and Cisco in the ECQ project, a raft of initiatives aimed at establishing and implementing cutting-edge technology in the country are gradually taking shape courtesy of the companies' support and expertise. Both have unveiled a slew of projects aimed at providing Qatar with the solid technological backbone to further drive the country's economic growth.

However, Microsoft's Hammoudi, says that raising awareness and educating a country's citizens are just as important as establishing the right infrastructure.

"I don't think it's an issue of investment - it's more about educating users and creating traction around the existing plans. It's about creating an ecosystem around academia and providing accessible services to students and citizens so they don't have to go elsewhere. What we have seen in Qatar is a real desire to establish IT at the core of society; I think there are a lot of plans being prepared and I think very soon we will see a very proactive approach to implementing the right technology in Qatar," he says.

Cisco has also made its presence felt in Qatar. The networking giant has established a Qatar-based office to outline its strong commitment to the country.

"We launched our operation in Qatar a couple of months ago with 30 Cisco employees dedicated to the market in Qatar. That number will probably reach 40 by the beginning of next year. This shows our commitment to the country," says Hani Nofal, GM for the South Gulf region at Cisco.

Nofal says that a significant driver behind Cisco's decision to set up a Qatar office stemmed from the country's specific outlook and enabled the company to assess and directly meet the country's needs.

"A lot of what has been established in Qatar already is based on technology and education. I think having this initial set up will help achieve Qatar reach its objective faster because it's good that it has a crystal clear idea of what its objectives are and what direction it wants to take.

"We've recognised the potential for investment but we've also recognised the unique vision. There is potential in other countries in the region, but Qatar has set itself to be the region's technology leaders and we've been given the opportunity to provide support for this vision," says Nofal.

Much like Microsoft, Cisco is also embarking on its own initiatives in Qatar and has set up a series of networking academies in Doha to bridge the growing ICT skills shortages by providing a curriculum tailored to the industry's needs. "Our networking academies are very much part of the overall picture. Part of our commitment to Qatar was to bring education - ICT knowledge is something we are trying to bring to the country and part of that investment is through our academies," Nofal says.

Although a number of countries in the Middle East claim to be the region's technology leaders, it is perhaps surprising that Microsoft and Cisco would eschew more commercially viable countries such as Bahrain and focus on one of the region's less high profile destinations.

"Looking at the region from a macroeconomic perspective, Qatar is one of the fastest growing countries with a growth rate comparable to China," Fuller concludes.

It is a sentiment echoed by Nofal at Cisco who explains the company saw significant potential in the country to invest and underlined Qatar's rapid progression.

"What we've also seen is that programmes like ictQatar are strategically trying to promote these initiatives to the people and it's becoming increasingly visible in a country as small as Qatar. Things are moving very fast, they are attracting a lot of foreign investment - especially in the energy sector - and Qatar has the potential to continue to grow faster than other countries in the region," says Nofal.

Hammoudi says it was Qatar's clear plans to improve its infrastructure made it an easy and appealing decision for Microsoft to invest in the country.

"Qatar was chosen as a part of a process that every country had to go through to be chosen and the proposal that was put together enabled Qatar to be selected as one of the locations. A core component of this success was Qatar's determination to achieve their technological vision," says Hammoudi.

What is apparent is that Qatar is sending a very deliberate message not only to its neighbours in the Middle East, but also to the world. If large vendors continue to teach what is currently an eager, attentive audience, Qatar may establish itself as the region's true technological leader and the light at the end of the tunnel will burn just that bit brighter.

"We're looking forward to doing bringing and introducing concepts to Qatar and the Qatar e-market. We aren't just there to take advantage of the opportunity and existing projects, we would like to bring our concepts and experience to the country and this is already underway with projects like Qatar Energy City and the Qatar Foundation. We're hoping that with our presence here we can accelerate as many ideas as possible and raise overall awareness and availability of expertise in the market. We want to drive development in the future and make Qatar see the light," Nofal concludes.

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