Qatar is planning to improve further its information and communications technology (ICT) services through a public access government portal, while encouraging the wider use of advanced technological applications by the public in their dealings with the state, business and leisure.
Qatar has long been a regional leader in promoting the use of ICT in government services, establishing the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology (ictQATAR) in 2005 to oversee the development of the country into a fully integrated information-based society.
ictQATAR, which also serves as the country's independent telecommunications regulator, is fostering the state's Integrated E-Government Programme (i-Gov), which aims to improve the provision of state services, raise levels of transparency and accountability, and reduce costs through the use of ICT.
Central to the i-Gov initiative is Hukoomi, Qatar's online government portal, launched in February 2008. Currently, more than 300 online services can be accessed through Hukoomi, a total Qatari officials intent to expand significantly over the coming year, with up to 80% of all public services scheduled to be available online by the third quarter of 2010.
According to a government White Paper issued in June this year, there is a growing acceptance by the public and private sectors for conducting official transactions online. In the 11 months of 2008 in which Hukoomi was operational, some 1.4m e-service government transactions were carried out, more than the 1.3m processed in the previous five years.
Though the White Paper said that Qatar's i-Gov programme was still in its early stages, it has already, "established itself as integral to the national development of Qatar through its use of ICT, helping to realise the country's ambitions".
Thanks to the state initiative, and the resulting pick up by the private sector, the country's ICT industry is expected to maintain high levels of growth for the foreseeable future. Estimates are that Qatar's ICT sector could expand by up to 11% a year between now and 2012, with the size of the market reaching $550m by the middle of the decade.
Qatar's advances in increasing access to and promoting the better use of ICT was acknowledged in the World Economic Forum's (WEF's) latest Global IT Report, with the country moving into the top-30 for the first time. The report, released at the end of March, ranked Qatar 29th out of the 134 countries assessed, and showed that the emphasis being put on ICT was having an impact in both the public and private sectors.
Significantly, the report placed Qatar eighth in the category of successful government promotion of ICT, while as far as importance of ICT to the state's vision of the future, Qatar scored even better, coming in sixth globally.
One area where Qatar did not score highly was capacity for innovation – the ability to develop new applications or usages for systems, rather than relying on existing ones – where it was ranked 60th.
However, this is expected to change, according to Chan Meng Khoong, the executive director (ICT development) at ictQATAR. There is going to be an increased push to provide content in Arabic, rather than in English as is often the case, Khoong said in an interview with the Gulf Times on October 1.
"We recognise the fact that there is a huge opportunity to develop online content in Arabic and use it for competitive advantage," he said. "From there we can develop moves, games and analytical tools for business intelligence that are based on Arabic content. All of these are new opportunities. We have to look ahead quickly because we are not alone. Everyone else will be thinking along the same lines."
Not only is Hukoomi going to be made more innovative, its already strong interactivity with the private sector is going to be reinforced in the coming year, said Khoong. With further changes to the platform, tourism services such as locating hotel accommodation or restaurants will be made available through the portal. Though many of these services are already available online, Khoong said by integrating them on the Hukoomi portal, access will be improved.
Though generally a leader in ICT utilisation, one area where Qatar could be doing more, and that is in combating the notoriously tricky area of cyber-crime according to Ranjit Rajan, senior research manager for software of information technology firm IDC Middle East.
There was a need to put in place stronger laws to deal with cyber crime in Qatar, Rajan said during a seminar on IT security in Doha on October 14.
IctQATAR, however, is moving towards strengthening measures against ICT crime, and has set up QCert, Qatar's centre for information security, to monitor and improve ICT security systems, address cyber security risks and protect sensitive information.
While there may be a possible weakness in legislative protection, this would not be a problem only experienced by Qatar. With the explosion of ICT usage over the past decade, many states have struggled to ensure their rules and regulations keep pace with changes in technology and applications. Having moved quickly to comprehend the implications of the new wave of ICT, it is likely that the Qatari government and its agencies will bring the country's laws up to the level required.
If so, and if the state continues to implement reforms at the rate it has been following to date, Qatar could further climb up the WEF's rankings next year.