In 2000, a digital revolution emerged from an unexpected corner of the world: Estonia, a small nation in the northeast of Europe. They boldly declared internet access a fundamental human right, paving the way for an impressive journey to becoming one of the most technologically advanced societies globally. Today, its 1.3 million residents live in an almost entirely digitised society, where government bureaus only see their citizens in person for marriage, divorce, and property transactions.
The country’s innovative digital initiatives have streamlined administrative processes, reduced bureaucracy, and attracted foreign investment. As a result, this small Baltic state has witnessed significant growth in its digital economy. It is now home to tech unicorns and private companies valued at more than $1 billion per capita than any other small country.
Imagine, if you will, the efficiency and productivity, the innovation, and the sheer ease of living in a world where bureaucracy is digitised, streamlined, and seamless. Estonia’s transformative journey is not just a fascinating story of digital ascension but a blueprint for countries worldwide, specifically for the ‘Digital Sprinters’ of the MENA region, who are on the cusp of similar breakthroughs.
Despite high internet penetration and social media users, the major challenge facing some countries, including the UAE, will be translating digital transformation into economic progress.
Technology is only one part of digital transformation
It is no longer enough to be a digital consumer today. To maximise the numerous economic and social benefits of the digital frontier, countries must also create the necessary technology and human capital. Consumers in the Middle East have accepted digital technologies; therefore, the challenge is incorporating digital into all aspects of Middle Eastern society, including business and government.
Unless we shift the focus from simple digital penetration to enabling an active digital economy with digital workers, businesses, innovators, and government, we won’t be able to unlock the full potential of digital transformation and leverage it for sustainable economic progress.
Fuelling economic growth is only possible if nations are willing to go beyond mere digital adoption. We have enough evidence by now that building a digital economy is not just about technology. Technology is only one part of digital transformation. To fully capitalise on the benefits of digitalisation, tackling issues like the digital divide, cybersecurity risks and regulatory frameworks is essential.
Inclusion and equality as the cornerstone of digital transformation
A recent study by Roland Berger comparing 80 countries across the globe to trace the rate of digital inclusion and how it corresponds with social and economic inequalities found that MENA is slightly behind the global average across all four components of digital inclusion – accessibility to digital equipment, affordability of digital access, ability to understand digital tools and processes and attitude to adopt a digital life.
The rapid acceleration of digital transformation projects in the region, while aiming to bring about positive change and economic growth, has inadvertently widened the gap between those who have access to digital resources and those who do not. The concentration of digital infrastructure and investments in urban areas has left rural and remote communities underserved, deepening the divide between urban and rural populations.
Addressing the digital divide in MENA will require a multi-faceted approach focusing on improving infrastructure, reducing costs, enhancing digital literacy programs, and promoting inclusive policies. But without human talent, the changes are not possible. Therefore, the skills required in this process go well beyond the technical ability to design and implement technological systems.
Every digital advancement comes with its risks
Inevitably, as the digital economy grows, so does cybercrime. Millions of attack chances are being created with the growing number of online and mobile interactions. Many of them result in data breaches that endanger both persons and corporations. At the present growth rate, the annual cost of cyberattacks will be around $10.5 trillion by 2025 (Mckinsey).
Very recently, the Head of the UAE cybersecurity council Dr Muhammad al Kuwaiti, announced that the council cooperates with varied stakeholders in deterring over 50,000 cyber-attacks per day, which target national strategic sectors. This figure underscores the need for establishing a strong cybersecurity culture within the country at all levels.
From creating a robust cybersecurity framework and conducting regular security assessments to promoting awareness programs and sharing threat intelligence and best practices, emerging digital economies must prioritise cybersecurity preparedness to mitigate the risks brought on by digitalisation.
Policies that help realise the promises of the digital age
For many GCC countries, digital governance is now recognised as facilitating national agendas, diversifying the economy, and developing a more sustainable future. With technology reshaping markets and altering distributional dynamics, our policies must ensure that our markets remain inclusive and provide broad access to new opportunities. The innovation environment, digital infrastructure, workforce development, social protection frameworks, and tax policies are all areas to watch to capture the potential of economic growth truly. The strength of our digital society finally lies in the foundation of such policies that pave the way for equitable access, safeguarding sensitive information, and fostering trust in an interconnected world.
Our digital future is not just reliant on technology but our collective ability to utilise it in a way that enhances our society and empowers human achievement. The UAE is on the right track to build a truly resilient and prosperous digital society for all and with concerted action by companies, governments, and, indeed, individuals, an advanced and empowered digital society won’t be a very distant reality.