A quiet revolution has been taking place in Qatar over the last decade. While the gas-gushing Ras Laffan Industrial City and its trebling exports were seizing headlines, other government enterprises were concentrating not on pipelines but phone lines. A more connected Qatar, the logic went, could boost technology literacy and help form a robust information technology (IT) sector. Results so far show promise: in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Development Index, an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ranking of countries by their ICT muscle, Qatar is the only Arab country to make the top 30.

State Regulator

Though the sector’s accomplishments so far are formidable, authorities are keen to keep up the momentum. The sector’s regulator, the Ministry of Information & Communications Technology, was formed under the leadership of Hessa Sultan Al Jaber in June 2013 after the Father Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, passed the throne to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Al Jaber had led the ministry’s antecedent, the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology (ictQATAR), for nearly a decade before her appointment by the current Emir. ictQATAR, itself founded by emiri decree in 2004, was charged with regulating telecoms and nurturing the spread of ICT throughout Qatar. Under Al Jaber’s leadership, ictQATAR had laid out policy priorities through 2016, resting on five principles: competition, regulatory clarity, spectrum management, consumer protections and industry development.

The new ministry has its hands full. To encourage competition, it wants to introduce new providers into the telecoms market, either in infrastructure or services. It plans to review policies and fees on mobile spectrum allocation, and begin lining up a schedule to release new frequencies. A new set of regulations on quality of service, meanwhile, will aim to enhance service and provide consumers with more information.

Gadgets & Gizmos

Technology adoption in past years has grown quickly. In the World Economic Forum’s “2013 Global Information and Technology Report”, Qatar rose five ranks on the previous year. Among Arab countries, it was named “most networked” – and 23rd in the world. State authorities attribute this jump to regulatory reforms and new government e-services.

Technology adoption in the past five years has spiked.

Computer penetration more than doubled between 2008 and 2012, from 32% to 67%, while internet usage grew from 36% to 69.3%, according to “ICT Landscape 2013”, a nationwide survey conducted by ictQATAR through 1880 interviews of residents 15 and older. A small 5% dip in computer penetration between 2010 and 2012 is probably due to smartphones and tablets displacing desktops and laptops. Indeed, smartphone penetration in Qatar is among the highest in the world: two-thirds of Qataris and more than half of long-term expatriates own smartphones, according to the survey.

Those numbers are on par with GCC neighbours like Saudi Arabia (60%) and the UAE (61%), and higher than developed economies in Europe like the UK (51%), the Netherlands (43%) and France (38%), according to Think Insights, a research unit at Google. Tablet adoption has also been brisk – 20% of Qataris and 7% of expats report owning one in the survey.

Global Conferences

The way to keep up this momentum, authorities believe, is to ensure fast web connections for these devices. To do so, the government is trying to attract global partners to Qatar by hosting international conferences. Attended by heads of state, ICT ministers and big private-sector players, such meetings explore ways to help spread ICT in developing countries, and help stakeholders link up. One such event was the ITU Connect Arab Summit held in Doha in March 2012, which focused on telecoms and IT infrastructure, Arabic digital content, human capacity building, cyber security and ICT innovation. Another on fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) services, the 4th annual FTTH Council MENA regional conference held in December 2012, discussed how to finance fibre networks, what they imply for IT and where the best investments are.

A New Network

While conference-goers mingle, the sketch of a new network is appearing. Government authorities have thrown their weight behind fibre optics to deliver high-speed – and widespread – web access. A big step towards this goal came when the Qatar National Broadband Network (Qnbn) company was formed in March 2011. While other countries have left the building of broadband infrastructure to the free market, Qatari authorities have opted to invest in fibre upfront, as private funds can take time to materialise.

The targets are specific. With investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Qnbn plans a network delivering speeds of 100 Mbps for downloads and 50 Mbps for uploads to 95% of the population by 2016, according to a draft plan submitted in May 2013. For schools, hospitals and government agencies, it will be faster still – 1000 Mbps, download or upload. “The speed of connectivity which we will bring to Qatar is at least 10 times faster than conventional broadband for downloading, multi-tasking and optimal streaming,” Mohammed Ali Al Mannai, CEO of Qnbn, told OBG.

Such a network would give ICT companies in Qatar an edge in global markets. Many countries, both in MENA and elsewhere, still rely for broadband access on flimsy copper wire that was originally installed for use by landline telephones. These services, known as digital subscriber lines (DSL), make sense where telephone wires are already ubiquitous: providers save on up-front costs by piggybacking on existing lines.

However cost-saving at first, though, using telephone lines is comparatively out of date. Even the fastest DSL technologies are far outpaced by their fibre counterparts. Fibre-optic cables use photons of light to send data through bundles of transparent filaments barely thicker than human hair. Acting as “light tunnels” wrapped into cables of about the diameter of a pen, these bundles zip data around at vastly higher speeds.

Progress has been steady. In August 2012, Qnbn received a 25-year government licence to operate as national fibre provider. In the first half of 2013, Qnbn concluded preliminary wholesale agreements with the country’s two telecoms operators, Ooredoo and Vodafone. Qnbn plans to build the national fibre backbone but leave retail services to the two operators. As of early 2014, roll-out has been completed along the North Road, South Road and West Bay areas.

Retail Providers

Qatar’s telecoms providers have big plans. Each is offering some fibre services ahead the Qnbn’s full roll-out. Ooredoo has 36,000 homes on its network and is working on another 131,000, according to its 2012 annual report. That year it also began exploring how to produce fibre revenue streams beyond internet connections. One way is by activating its Mozaic TV service, which uses the infrastructure to deliver high-def television and on-demand video. It plans partnerships to produce original programming for this service. Vodafone, a relative newcomer to Qatar’s fixed segment, was awarded the state’s second and only other fixed-line licence in April 2010. The following July, it launched fixed internet services in The Pearl at speeds up to 5 Mbps. In 2012, the company began serving fixed-line customers using Qnbn’s fibre backbone in Barwa City, West Bay and at Qatar Foundation (QF).

Under The Sea

Qatar has laid fibre not only underground and within its borders, but also under-sea and across them. Gulf-based subsea cable operator Gulf Bridge International (GBI) has installed a carrier-neutral network in the Gulf, linking Qatar with its neighbours and to the wider world. GBI’s investors include QF Knowledge Ventures, the Qatar Investment Authority and the Kuwait Investment Authority. “Most subsea highways go past the Gulf but not through it,” Ahmed Mekky, CEO of GBI, told OBG. “The idea is to make this region into a data transit hub.” Having launched a $600m network in February 2012, the company in April 2013 finished expansions linking the Gulf to Europe via Iraq and Turkey. Such direct connections mean more data storage and faster transfer rates. They also overlap with global lines, a safeguard against outages.

Supporting Innovation

Several players have emerged in support of the small-but-growing IT research sector. QF, for one, has driven tech innovation by supporting IT institutions. In 2004 it completed the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), a $600m free zone for research and technology that hosts international companies like Microsoft, Cisco, GBI, GE, Vodafone and Huawei. As a free zone, QSTP offers perks like tax breaks, 100% foreign ownership, the ability to sponsor expatriate staff and unrestricted repatriation of capital and profits. QF also underwrote the creation in 2010 of the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), a non-profit that fosters IT innovation through research in Arabic-language technology, social computing, analytics and cloud networks.

By supporting innovation, QCRI aims to build up Qatar’s stock of intellectual property (IP). As of 2013, scientists at QCRI have filed more than 65 patent families in the US, in the UK and with the World IP Organisation’s Patent Cooperation Treaty system. Five were granted. It has also created software licences, worked on open license software, launched Data Tamer, a US-based start-up, and formed relationships with top international institutions including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boeing, European Media Laboratory and Wikimedia, as well as Al Jazeera.

QCRI has also found commercial applications for its research work. In February 2013, QCRI collaborated with MIT to sell licences for data analytics kit to Data Tamer, which was launched with seed funding from Google Ventures and US venture capital firm NEA.

Intellectual Property

Protection of IP ensures that inventors have incentives to create. To this end, the government is working to reduce software piracy. There were 15 cases brought against businesses and individuals using software without a licence in 2012, and Qatar’s software piracy rate is about 50%, according to a 2011 study from the US-based Business Software Alliance (BSA), a trade group. That rate is lower than the 58% average for the Middle East but higher than the global rate of 42%.

The government is also working to promote legal content-sharing. In 2010, ictQATAR signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Creative Commons (CC), an international non-profit that supports creating the legal and technical means for content-sharing. Both major media organisations like Al Jazeera and local photographers alike have licensed works under the CC. Over time, CC Qatar aims to build up a large content library licensed with CC by urging filmmakers, museums, universities and other rights-holders to allow the reuse and reproduction of their content.

Educate & Include

Authorities also want to spread technology literacy, so that a bigger chunk of the population can add to the sector’s growth. Digital inclusion is one of 11 programmes outlined in the National ICT Plan 2015, the state’s vision for Qatar’s digital future. The spread of computer literacy, it says, will allow demographics with lower rates of technology use to catch up. To this end, the state has been pushing a national education programme to boost digital inclusion. In April 2013, former regulator ictQATAR signed an MOU with Intel, a US-based computer hardware manufacturer, to collaborate on the programme. Intel will provide copies of its Easy Steps Learning Programme, a curriculum in basic technology literacy for adults. The programme, to be offered in Arabic and English, is designed to bringing students with little or no computer experience into proficiency with web search, email, word processing, spreadsheets and multimedia.

In addition to this, the Qatar Assistive Technology Centre (Mada), a non-profit founded in June 2010 by ictQATAR, provides technologies to those with hearing, visual, learning, or physical impairments. The organisation also installs tailored devices in schools and classrooms, workplaces and homes (“assistive technologies”), helps fund the machines (“universal loan programme”) and teaches them and their caregivers how to use them (“intensive training”).


Qatar’s ICT sector is moving forward on a sound footing. Metrics like web connectivity and mobile broadband consumption indicate a population that is increasingly plugged-in, and willing to shell out cash to stay that way. Support from state institutions and QF is encouraging entrepreneurs and researchers to build their ideas into sellable products. Early successes like those from QCRI point to future potential.

Even so, challenges are not absent. While mobile connectivity has surged, the fixed sort still awaits a boost from Qnbn, whose launch cannot come soon enough. For developers of apps and software, the country’s less than 2m people constitute a small domestic market, though this obstacle is negligible if innovators focus on exports. Being a late-comer to IT also makes it hard for Qatar to foster local talent, given the size of the global pool. The trick for authorities is to draw talent from all over, yet lift the skills of Qataris over time.