Economic Update
Having been an early convert to the cause of information and communications technology (ICT), both as a tool of the economy and a sector in its own right, Dubai is looking to maintain its edge over regional rivals

The emirate has long recognised the importance of integrating IT into the economy, having invested heavily in infrastructure to ensure that there is a strong communications backbone. This is evidenced by the government’s policy of providing as many of its services as possible via ICT channels, with at least 90% of these to be available online by the end of next year.

The second part of Dubai’s ICT policy has been to promote investment in the sector, either through encouraging overseas companies to base themselves in the emirate or by putting in place the means for local firms to grow and start-ups to take root.

The sharp end of this push is the Dubai Internet City (DIC), established in 2000 as an ICT hub, allowing both foreign and local companies to operate in a free trade zone environment.

The DIC can point to some notable successes, with international ICT players such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems, IBM, Dell, Siemens, and Sun Microsystems currently working out of the cluster.

According to Malek Sultan Al Malek, the executive director of DIC, so far 2009 has been a real test of strength for business models in the technology industry, though the sector has remained resilient.

“The Middle East has set an example for growth momentum in the technology sector as reflected by the interest shown by global brands in regional companies,” he said on September 24 when announcing the DIC would be the strategic sponsor for the GITEX 2009, the Gulf’s largest IT trade fair.

However, that growth momentum has left a number of firms along the wayside, with a few companies based within the DIC closing their doors.

While there may have been closures, the DIC seems to have shrugged off the global downturn, with some 1400 companies now operating out of the hub.

While Dubai was at the forefront of adopting IT, the emirate’s lead in the field has been whittled back as some of its neighbours have also established ICT clusters of their own, seeking to both attract foreign firms and foster domestic start ups.

Meanwhile, it is telling that a recent report on study options at higher education institutions across the UAE found that 19% of all courses focused on IT and computer engineering, second only to the 25% devoted to business administration.

Though critical of the fact that there was a dearth of humanities courses on offer, the study by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, released at the end of August, underscored both the importance in which ICT was held and the apparent belief that it offered a strong career path.

Rather than debate the perceived imbalance between various courses on the curriculum, Al Malek believes ICT is a central cog of the economy and therefore of education.

“Dubai has developed the fastest in the region, being the first to create a diverse knowledge-based economy. Technology is the core from which other industries can grow, and I have confidence that working with the education and IT sectors will make technology the most powerful and positive force in people’s lives today,” he told a conference in late June.