Technology development is central to Kuwait’s longterm plans to diversify the economy, with the government attempting to position the country as a regional leader in ICT and financial services. The competition in those spaces across the GCC is fierce, as countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are making concerted investment in ICT infrastructure and financial technology (fintech). The highly competitive local telecommunications market is proving beneficial to Kuwait’s plans, as is the country’s active and engaged consumer market, particularly in the mobile sector. Consolidation has been a trend in recent years as the country’s major tech players move to strengthen their market positions and diversify their services.
Meanwhile, the government has rolled out several initiatives to finance small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups, in recognition of their centrality to sector innovation and agility. The government has also invested in the digitisation of its own internal processes and public services, markedly increasing efficiency. The fact that Kuwait moved early to launch its 5G network has afforded the country a strategic regional advantage, and its major network providers continue to invest in their ability to offer next-generation services to local and multinational enterprises. Heading into 2023 the country is in a strong position to move forwards with its adoption and implementation of the technologies of the future, including cloud computing, the internet of things (IoT) and advanced artificial intelligence (AI).
Kuwait is following a long-term development vision, New Kuwait 2035, the goals of which include diversifying its economy and reducing its dependence on hydrocarbons and related activities in response to the global transition towards renewable energies. At the heart of New Kuwait 2035 is the aim of utilising the country’s strategically advantageous location on the Gulf to transform Kuwait into a commercial and financial leader in the GCC and beyond. The country plans to harness ICT development to enable job creation and support its progress achieving the goals of New Kuwait 2035, with the cross-sectoral digitisation of services and production a crucial component to the development of a modern and efficient economy.
Kuwait plans to inject an estimated $10.1bn into its ICT capacities by 2024, with a significant part going towards strengthening the country’s 5G, big data, cloud computing and IoT capabilities. Hydrocarbons-related industries, which are largely government-controlled, are likely to remain the backbone of Kuwait’s economy for the foreseeable future. Because of this, up to 45% of the expected investment is set to go into those industries to boost output and lower emissions, with advanced technologies being implemented to make oil, gas and petrochemicals activities more efficient. Furthermore, a number of the country’s banks have partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS), utilising cloud computing to drive data and analytics capabilities.
Structure & Oversight
In line with the goals of New Kuwait 2035, the country aims to restructure and modernise its government bodies and policy frameworks. One example of these efforts is the Communication and Information Technology Regulatory Authority (CITRA), which was established in 2014 and assumed responsibility for overseeing and regulating the ICT sector from the Ministry of Communications in 2016. CITRA works with government ministries and authorities to create a robust and clear regulatory framework for the ICT sector.
Ensuring a safe marketplace for companies and consumers, and drawing private investment to Kuwait’s digital transformation initiatives are among CITRA’s core directives. Incentivising market entry for entrepreneurs, start-ups and SMEs is another priority as the government seeks to strengthen the ICT and broader business ecosystems. In 2019 CITRA launched the Kuwait Internet Exchange, which serves as a centralised, local digital connection point through which network, cloud and content providers are able to exchange data and information.
Another public entity with a key role in the sector’s development is the Central Agency for IT (CAIT). Established in 2006 to enable government e-strategies and initiatives, it has been instrumental in implementing and delivering technology-related training programmes for public-sector workers. There is also the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS), which was established by Emiri decree in 1976 as a private non-profit organisation. Private shareholding companies operating in Kuwait donate 1% of their annual net profit to KFAS as part of a pledge to fund its activities. KFAS’ stated directive is to stimulate and drive the development of science, technology and innovation-related capabilities for the benefit of Kuwaiti society, research and enterprise. Since its inception, KFAS has played a leading role in establishing multiple research and education centres of excellence, as well as its own publishing arm, making it integral to the dissemination of ICT-related knowledge and information in Kuwait.
On September 21, 2021 CITRA published the Cloud Computing Regulatory Framework, in light of the growing prominence of and need for cloud solutions in business and consumer activities. Along with the main policy document, CITRA released several supporting documents, including the Data Classification Policy, Cloud First Policy, Data Privacy Protection Regulation, Cloud Service Providers Regulations and Commitments, Subscribers Guide to Cloud Services, and Cloud Migration Guide to present a transparent and thorough framework.
Building on that, CITRA’s new Data Privacy Protection Regulation came into effect on July 1, 2022 after both public and private entities had been given time to train their staff and adapt their operations in accordance with the new provisions. Under the regulation companies that operate in Kuwait or that process the data of Kuwaiti citizens or residents must provide user-friendly access to their data policies, explain the purpose for collecting data and how it will be used, protect the data, and ensure appropriate processing and encryption procedures are in place.
Furthermore, the rise in business transactions done online for activities such as ride-hailing and food delivery saw the Ministry of Interior establish Resolution No. 724 of 2020 Regarding E-Applications. Under the new mandate all companies and facilities that conduct commercial activities through electronic applications or mediate transport activity through said applications must acquire licences from both CITRA, and the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, as well as obtain approvals from the General Department of Traffic and the Criminal Investigation Department. Through its coordination with CITRA, the General Department of Traffic has the authority to control, supervise or block relevant applications.
Kuwait’s competitive mobile segment is forecast to record a compound annual growth rate of 20.5% through to 2024, according to a September 2021 report by the Kuwait Direct Investment Promotion Authority (KDIPA). The country’s three mobile telecommunications companies are Zain Kuwait, Ooredoo Kuwait and stc. Zain was the Middle East’s first mobile network operator upon its establishment in 1983, and its operations have expanded across Kuwait’s borders the years since, with the company offering services in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Sudan and South Sudan. Zain also holds a 15.5% stake in Inwi, one of Morocco’s leading telecommunications companies.
Ooredoo Kuwait is part of the Ooredoo Group, a multinational communications company operating in MENA and South-east Asia. In May 2022 Ooredoo Kuwait became the first telecommunications company to obtain a Cloud Service Provider licence from CITRA. stc, established under Emiri Decree No. 187 in 2008 and listed on Boursa Kuwait in 2014 with a share capital of KD50m ($164.5m), has been expanding its operations and services, acquiring Kuwait’s leading internet service provider, Qualitynet General Trading and Contracting Company, in 2019 and the country’s leading ICT services provider, e-Portal Holding Company, in early 2022. Qualitynet now operates under the name solutions by stc.
Meanwhile, fixed-line and fibre-to-the-home broadband providers such as Fasttelco, KEMS, Mada and United Networks Company compete in a crowded marketplace. In January 2022 it was reported that Kuwait’s fixed broadband penetration was the lowest in the GCC. However, the government plans to strengthen this area in order to support smart infrastructure development, as well as activities and enterprises with high growth potential such as e-commerce and tech start-ups. Indeed, Fasttelco announced in February 2022 that it had become the first company in Kuwait to provide 200-Mbps internet speeds to residential customers.
Size & Performance
According to the Central Statistical Bureau (CSB), the telecommunications sector recorded solid growth throughout 2019 despite slight fluctuations, and was valued at KD374.1m ($1.23bn) at current prices in the first quarter and KD394.1m ($1.3bn) in the fourth quarter. Sector performance dropped off during the first quarter of 2020 to KD355.2m ($1.17bn) before declining more sharply to KD315.3m ($1.04bn) in the second quarter of 2020 as the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic became apparent. However, economies around the world adapted to the new reality, and telecommunications became more central to economic activity. This led to a rebound in the sector during the second half of 2020, with revenue of KD370.6m ($1.22bn) and KD421.9m ($1.39bn) reported for the third and fourth quarters of that year, respectively.
More recent data shows that Kuwait’s leading communications companies underwent significant growth in the nine months ending September 30, 2022, with stc announcing revenue for the period of KD249.4m ($820.8m), a 16.6% year-on-year (y-o-y) increase from the KD213.8m ($703.6m) it registered in the same period in 2021. stc’s shareholders’ equity increased by 7.2% to KD231.6m ($762.2m), while total assets reached a value of KD424.3m ($1.4bn). During the same period, Zain Group’s revenue and net income both rose by 12% y-o-y to KD1.3bn ($4.3bn) and KD152m ($500m), respectively. The company saw double-digit expansions in revenue and net profit across its operations in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The flagship Kuwaiti business reported KD258m ($849m) in revenue in the nine months ending September 30, 2022 from a customer base of 2.6m.
Ooredoo Group’s total revenue for the nine months ending September 30, 2022 reached KD464.8m ($1.53bn), a 4% y-o-y increase from KD448.5m ($1.48bn) in 2021, while net profit was up by over 144% y-o-y from KD13.4m ($44.1m) to KD32.8m ($107.9m). Kuwait was one of several markets driving Ooredoo Group’s growth, with domestic revenue up 13% y-o-y to KD176.6m ($581.2m). Ooredoo’s Kuwaiti customer base grew 19% y-o-y in the nine months ending September 30, 2022 with 2.7m subscribers.
According to the CSB, the telecommunications sector accounted for about 20.6% of all distributed foreign direct investment (FDI) in Kuwait in 2020, the highest amount for any sector after investment companies topped the same list in 2018 and 2019. However, the value of FDI in the sector, KD729.8m ($2.4bn), was around 3.4% lower than the KD755.3m ($2.49bn) invested in the sector in 2019. In terms of distribution by economic activity, the sector was valued at KD730.2m ($2.4bn). This figure was second only to that of the finance and insurance sector’s KD772.4m ($2.5bn), which also accounted for the largest portion of FDI by economic activities in both 2018 and 2019.
The KDIPA was established in accordance with Law No. 116 of 2013 Regarding the Promotion of Direct Investment in the State of Kuwait. Under the law, 100% foreign ownership of a business operating in Kuwait is permitted in certain sectors and activities. Among these sectors and activities is ICT services, which accounted for approximately KD401m ($1.3bn), or 33.3%, of the cumulative total investment of KD1.2bn ($3.9bn) approved by KDIPA in 2015-21. That investment figure is the highest for any sector, with oil and gas, and construction receiving the second- and third-largest amounts at KD326m ($1.1bn) and KD218m ($717.4m), respectively. KDIPA approved nine direct investments in Kuwait in 2021, one of which – a KD3.6m ($11.8m) deal with AWS for IT and technical services – went to the ICT sector.
Infrastructure & Implementation
Kuwait’s population as of January 2022 was 4.4m, of which 4.3m were internet users, putting the country’s penetration rate at around 99%, a 1.3% y-o-y increase. The highly competitive market, coupled with the government’s digital transformation agenda, has led to rapid improvements in Kuwait’s digital infrastructure. According to Datareportal’s July 2022 global report Kuwait had a median mobile download speed of 104.47 Mbps, a y-o-y improvement of 78.7% and notably higher than the global median speed of 30.37 Mbps. Likewise, the Speed Test index reported in May 2022 that Kuwait’s median download speed for fixed internet connections was 105.07 Mbps, significantly higher than the global median of 64.7 Mbps.
A September 2021 report published by KFAS in collaboration with Ooredoo, stc, Zain and other industry players found that the bulk of ICT investment in Kuwait in 2019-24 was slated for the development of 5G, blockchain, AI, IoT, cloud computing and advanced cybersecurity capabilities. However, at the time the report was published those technologies were yet to be harnessed to their full potential, and their use by businesses in Kuwait was nascent. Significant progress has been made in subsequent years. 5G provides the foundation for the implementation of other advanced technologies, and as such telecommunications companies are working to develop not only their 5G infrastructure, but also their business models and services. In 2021 internet speed test provider Ookla awarded Ooredoo the title of Kuwait’s fastest 5G provider, with the company having invested around $250m in upgrading its infrastructure since the beginning of 2020. In May 2021 stc rolled out its commercial standalone 5G infrastructure. In June 2022 Zain announced that it had completed the region’s first trial of an open and cloud virtual radio access network, which aims to enhance both the company’s cloud capabilities and the integration of AI into its operations and services. stc has partnered with Virgin to launch the country’s first virtual network – a significant development for the Kuwaiti and other GCC ICT markets (see analysis).
Propelled by the pandemic and the subsequent increase in demand for online services and robust cybersecurity systems, Kuwait’s telecommunications companies reported that growth in business and consumer 5G uptake was a key driver of revenue in 2020 and 2021. During the second half of 2020 the number of 5G mobile phone connections in the Middle East rose by 350%. By September 2021, 5G user penetration in Kuwait had reached nearly 17% – the highest of any GCC nation – while the country also accounted for 45% of 5G fixed wireless access in the Middle East. Furthermore, during the 12 months preceding September 2021, 5G-to-business leased lines across the region expanded from 230 to 12,000, with Kuwait accounting for 40% of additional demand.
Building on those positive developments, Zain announced in January 2022 that it had enlisted Swedish telecommunications provider Ericsson to upgrade its business support systems to support 5G standalone charging. In March 2022 stc launched its Quick Pay digital channel, streamlining bill payment for its business-to-business customers.
In 2021 CAIT partnered with Microsoft to assess and identify gaps in government authorities’ online services and procedures, offering insight on how those bodies’ digital transformation could progress, with a specific focus on advancing cloud migration. In addition, through the Microsoft Enterprise Skills initiative, the global tech firm plans to help certify up to 1000 government employees in Microsoft cloud technologies. Microsoft’s further involvement was announced in July 2022, with CITRA giving the company permission to deliver its cloud computing services across Kuwait.
CAIT also partnered with Chinese ICT provider Huawei to upskill public-sector ICT workers in the fields of cloud computing, AI and other advanced technologies. Several hundred employees from 29 government bodies had already signed up for the programme as of January 2021. In September 2021 Huawei expanded its role in strengthening Kuwait’s human capital by signing an agreement with Kuwait University to help teach its ICT students.
ICT development in Kuwait has continued at pace in recent years, even as infrastructure development across other sectors of the economy has slowed. Although there remains room for improvement in terms of equipping sector players with the tools and knowledge they need, there are opportunities for the scope of the recently introduced regulations to be widened to help address these issues. This has helped Kuwait attract foreign and domestic investment in ICT services and infrastructure.
CITRA is building a foundation that should enable the type of regulatory agility needed to keep pace with rapid technological change. In addition, the country’s robust and expanding 5G infrastructure – competitive by regional and global standards – could prove key in attracting further investment into Kuwait’s ICT ecosystem, allowing the country to increase the efficiency of services across key economic sectors and support job creation, ultimately leading to the accomplishment of the New Kuwait 2035 targets.