Interview: Ali Al Shidhani

How can the expansion of the communications and IT sector support national development goals?

ALI AL SHIDHANI: The digital economy is expected to constitute 25% of global GDP by 2025, underscoring the importance of investing in the sector. Oman has been implementing digitisation strategies since the early 2000s, mainly focused on government services. However, the digital economy is becoming increasingly important to national prosperity. Reflecting this, the National Digital Economy Programme (NDEP), launched in 2021, is designed to achieve key performance indicators (KPIs) linked to Oman Vision 2040.

The NDEP is divided in five-year phases, with the objective of increasing the digital economy’s contribution to GDP from 2% to 10% by 2040. Each phase focuses on specific initiatives, projects, KPIs and timelines. The main theme for the 2021-25 period is digitising government services, with the objective of achieving 80% digitisation. Other executive programmes include artificial intelligence (AI), space, digital industry, e-commerce, financial technology, cybersecurity and industry.

An important focus is the shift from using technology as an enabler for other sectors to becoming a standalone industry. Similarly, Oman aims to move from technology consumption to production via the NDEP.

What is being done to foster innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly among youth?

AL SHIDHANI: The Digital Industry Executive Programme has three main areas: attracting foreign direct investment, upskilling youth and nurturing start-ups. The programme aims to upskill 10,000 young people by 2025 through bootcamps, competitions and specialised training. The programme also aims to create 4000 freelancers in the digital economy to propagate a culture of freelancing in the country.

Collaboration with entities like the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority and the Oman Tender Board will help to support and provide investment opportunities for start-ups. The Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, for its part, is developing initiatives to produce graduates who can become future start-up founders in key areas such as space, retail, cybersecurity, AI and digital government.

Which emerging technologies and trends are likely to have a significant impact on the ICT sector?

AL SHIDHANI: As a technology-neutral market open to innovation, Oman has three focus areas for technology initiatives: cybersecurity, space technology, and AI and advanced technologies. Protecting sensitive data from online threats is critical, and we are working to improve cybersecurity measures. The government is also focusing on the development of data centres and cloud services to capitalise on the abundance of submarine cables connecting Oman to the world.

At the same time, we are working to accelerate the adoption of AI and advanced technologies across various sectors, with a focus on improving efficiency, reducing costs and accelerating growth. The AI action plan for 2021-25 supports adoption in areas including health, education and climate change.

In what ways can developments in the national space industry benefit the broader economy?

AL SHIDHANI: The space industry can be segmented into upstream and downstream categories: the former includes launching rockets and space missions, while the latter is more focused on grounding stations and leveraging satellite data to improve decision-making in various sectors. The focus of the Space Executive Programme is downstream, which constitutes around 90% of the market. Oman has a competitive advantage in this regard, with more than 20 submarine cables connecting it to the world. This makes it an attractive location for data centres and cloud service providers. By receiving signals from space and redistributing them horizontally on Earth, it can leverage this advantage.