The headline statistic of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) annual “Global Information Technology Report” for 2012 brought good news for Kuwait: the country jumped 13 places above its 2011 position to reach a ranking of 62nd out of 144 on the IT Networked Readiness Index, which assesses economies on their IT usage, acceptance and efficiency. The result brought the nation an honorary mention as the only significant mover in the WEF’s 2012 survey, a more favourable summation than that of 2011, which marked the country out as the only high-income economy that did not feature in the top half of the index. The good results continued into 2013, as Kuwait’s main indicators remain steady and show signs of continuing to improve.

However, the survey findings also reinforced an argument that is frequently heard within the domestic IT sector, maintaining that although progress has been made in the development of the nation’s IT base, there is plenty of room for improvement. With regional neighbours such as Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all making it into the top 40 in 2013, many believe that it is high time that Kuwait, with a modestly sized population of over 3m and one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world, at KD12,061 ($43,077) in 2011, realised its IT potential.

THE FINDINGS: A closer look at the latest report from the WEF shows how this might be brought about. The report reveals an interesting mix: areas of excellence combined with areas demanding attention. The WEF ranking is in fact an aggregate score based on seven “pillars” by which the organisation evaluates a jurisdiction’s network readiness, which are in turn divided into a number of sub-categories.

The country scored particularly well with regard to the business and innovation environment, topping the rankings for mobile network coverage and placing highly for electricity production (KWh/capita), the provision of secure internet servers and accessibility of digital content and the latest technologies.

It also performs well on affordability, placing 24th for mobile cellular prices and 28th for broadband prices, both in terms of purchasing power parity.

Individual usage of the internet is also considered a Kuwaiti strength, with the nation placing well above average for mobile phone subscriptions, individuals using the internet and households with a personal computer, although it slipped to 98th position for broadband internet subscriptions per capita. Business usage shows a more middling result, scoring well for firm-level technology absorption (41st), but moderately for business-to-business internet usage (72nd) and poorly for staff training (92nd).

CHALLENGES AHEAD: Government IT policy, however, emerges as one of the most challenging areas for Kuwait, with ratings for both ICT promotion (129th) and importance of ICT in government vision (119th) revealing structural weaknesses. This is reflected in the WEF’s assessment of the political and regulatory environment surrounding IT in Kuwait as well, where the nation scores poorly in laws relating to ICT (128th) and the effectiveness of law-making bodies (83rd). Capacity for innovation also revealed a potential weakness, ranking 113th.

The business and innovation environment is identified as a hindrance to the sector in some respects, particularly the quality of management schools (102nd), procurement of advanced technology by government (123rd) and the number of procedures required to start a business (126th). The combined effect of these weaknesses is to limit the social and economic impact of IT and its benefits, which represent the seventh and eighth pillars of the Networked Readiness Index. Kuwait ranks 84th in terms of ICT’s impact on new services and products, 129th for its effect on new organisational models and 115th in its impact on government efficiency.

RESPONSE: While the challenges facing the sector are real, the breadth of the WEF report’s coverage leaves little room for detail regarding government efforts to combat them, and recent pronouncements suggest the sector’s difficulties are well understood by concerned parties. In April 2013 Abdullatief Al Suraie, the director-general of Kuwait’s Central Agency for IT (CAIT), highlighted the importance of boosting the nation’s IT capability, citing it as a requirement for enhancing communication between the member states of the GCC. Speaking on the sidelines of the 2013 Bahrain International e-Government Forum, he told press that authorities across the GCC are keen on building greater connectivity.

While the latter project remains at the planning stage, CAIT’s efforts to improve the nation’s IT base have taken on a more practical hue. The state body was established by decree in 2006 and answers directly to the minister of state for cabinet affairs. Its duties are far reaching, and include planning national IT strategy, supervising and implementing consequent regulations and policies, boosting IT coordination between government departments, establishing common standards and methodologies, and increasing public awareness of IT and its uses.

Its most visible contribution to the national IT landscape has been the creation and management of the official portal of the state. The Kuwait Government Online Portal provides information on both government and business sectors to citizens, residents and visitors in both Arabic and English. It is also a platform for a range of previously disparate departmental services that can now be accessed in one place, such as recording newborns or domestic staff, registering companies, acquiring licences and permits, querying traffic violations and the status of vehicle records, and applying for government tenders. By the close of 2012, 22 government ministries or departments had between them made more than 50 different services available through the portal, while a government e-payment system hosted on the site (Tasdeed) was, by the first quarter of 2013, accommodating thousands of transactions per day on behalf of government bodies such as the Ministry of Communication, the Ministry of Justice and the Public Authority of Civil Administration.

“The e-Government initiative calls for our judicial and legislative systems to regulate electronic-related activities such electronic transactions, electronic signatures, cyber crimes, copyright, data privacy, etc,” Al Suraie told OBG. “There is no doubt that this is an important step to raise the level of confidence that can attract more business ventures.”

LIMITATIONS: However, while ordinary Kuwaitis have become accustomed to utilising a web connection to research issues of law, contact government officials, inquire about bills or pay a traffic violation fine, much of CAIT’s effort to boost the nation’s IT capacity is less visible. One of CAIT’s most significant contributions to the IT sphere is its provision of training programmes for both government employees and the private sector which, according to its own definition, are aimed at raising employee efficiency through instruction in the disciplines of systems and IT so that they might “keep up with the rapid development with the field of computers”.

The courses take a number of forms. Career courses aim to help employees gain qualifications that will open up new job titles across a wide range of skills groups, such as Oracle Database 11g, Oracle SQL Developer, Microsoft MCPD certification and International Institute of Business Analysis credentials. Another training programme allows participants to apply for approved leave to gain qualifications from an exterior source, inside or outside Kuwait. A third group of courses offers skills enhancement instruction in fields such as storage management, JAVA, the z/OS environment, Microsoft Exchange and distributed networks through a series of lectures and opportunities for lab work.

CAIT’s effort to bring courses based on global standards and accreditations to both public and private sector employees directly addresses one of the principal challenges identified in the WEF report: a low level of staff training hinders efficient usage of IT by businesses. IT solutions and software services firm ITS has also played a part, with a long history working with universities on socially integrated solutions and participating in internship programmes to foster IT career interests in young Kuwaitis, giving them an opportunity to gain field experience.

Clearly, many of the more central issues identified by the WEF are long-term challenges that will only be fully addressed by legislative change: the promulgation of a universal ICT law which incorporates both telecoms and IT services will do much to boost Kuwait’s ranking in future assessments, as will the anticipated creation of a regulatory authority.

However, in the meantime the government is taking steps to bolster the sector in the areas of education and public interaction, while initiatives being conducted by the municipalities in e-services and data centre solutions continue. The results of these efforts should become evident in the coming years.