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Sun 13 Jan 2008 12:04 AM

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What took you so long Bill?

The Arab world holds huge potential for the information technology industry and Microsoft's competitors refuse to be left behind, says Arabian Business's Claire Ferris-Lay.

Next month marks a first for Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates. The well-traveled technology entrepreneur will make his first visit to the UAE as keynote speaker at the Government Leaders Forum in Abu Dhabi.

The computing giant opened a regional office in Dubai in 1991 and was the first to launch an international portal player to serve a regional market, in the form of MSN Arabia in 2002. But Gates himself? Never been.

So what took you so long Bill? And why have you decided to come now, just months before you are due to step down from your daily role at Microsoft?

The answer could the realisation that this region, like many of its other business opportunities, from real estate to mergers and acquisitions, is perfect territory for the technology giants to battle it out for the next big market. The Middle East may have been slow on the technology uptake - currently just 15% of the world benefits from computer technology - but it is fast catching up with its western counterparts.

Google - the world's largest advertising agency and Microsoft's longstanding rival - has already recorded a 77% increase in its internet penetration in this region from Q2 2006 to Q2 2007, and has noted that with the correct technology and government support, the figure will double or even triple in the coming five years.

And for those who pride themselves on being at the forefront of the business and technology worlds such as Gates, the potential for this technology battle is not only being recognised but being acted on in the most aggressive way. "This is a very computer advanced society in some ways and in others there are a bunch of opportunities for improvement," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer before adding that the IT market in the Arab world is "the fastest growing globally," overtaking both India and China during his trip to Qatar last year to sign "one of the most significant deals in the GCC." The MoU he signed formed the basis of a strategic partnership with the country's policy making and regulatory body for information and communication technology, which is set to transform its economy into a knowledge-based one. It's the type of deal that just cannot be done in the western world.

The Arab world holds huge potential and Microsoft's competitors refuse to be left behind. Google isn't cowering in the corner and claims its chairman and CEO, Eric Schmidt "walks the corridors talking Arabic."

Whether he is taking Arabic lessons or simply recognising the potential of the Arab region, it is exactly these comments and its relatively new UAE presence that may have encouraged Gates to take a trip to the capital to prepare himself to battle and to take his "Next Digital Decade", the subject of his well-documented speech at last week's Las Vegas International Consumer Electronics Show, to the Middle East.

We may have been waiting 17 years, but make no mistake, the Bill Gates show is ready to roll in the Middle East.

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