Last week, top government officials, industry executives, and other key decision-makers met in Jordan for the World Economic Forum on Middle East and North Africa (Mena). The leaders will work together to identify the path forward into the next era of our global and digital economy.
This is no small task. We are at the precipice of the fourth industrial revolution.
Advances in technology and the rise of the Internet of Things has transformed industries across all sectors — from smart cities to artificial intelligence, every industry is becoming more dynamic and personalised. This fourth industrial revolution is an incredible opportunity to generate economic growth and address humanitarian challenges we see in our world today.
While this new era in the global economy ensures rapid change and innovation, one thing will be constant: Connectivity will be an essential requirement for participation, with mobile the platform to deliver economic growth and expand the benefits of the digital economy to all. Today, according to GSMAi research, there are over 368 million unique subscribers in the Mena region, meaning that mobile reaches 64 per cent of the population.
This number will continue to grow, as will access to mobile broadband. The 218 million mobile broadband connections we see in the region today will climb to over 287 million by 2020.
Mobile’s crucial role in driving the fourth industrial revolution is already evident. As an industry, we strive to expand connectivity to empower individuals, companies, and entire industries to innovate and create value in new ways.
Much of this new era of economic development will rely on the Internet of Things and smart devices. Research from Machina indicates that by 2025, there will be 27 billion total connections globally, including 2 billion cellular and 3 billion Low Power Wide Area connections. The mobile ecosystem is advancing the development of IoT and enhancing the capabilities of industries and governments to create forward looking, smart solutions for the people.
By seizing the digital transformation opportunity, businesses can create value for our societies. We are facing the largest displacement of people in a generation, with 21.3 million refugees worldwide.
The challenge is particularly impactful in the Mena, which is home to three countries hosting the greatest number of refugees — Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Mobile operators have launched initiatives and pursued partnerships to provide connectivity to the refugees.
In Iraq, ZainCash supports the distribution of humanitarian transfers to internally displaced people, with 2,500 ZainCash agents available across Iraq and 30 cash-out locations in Mosul. In other parts of Mena, we have seen Turkcell mobilise resources to expand mobile broadband coverage to over 25 refugee camps.
The importance of this connection to refugees cannot be overstated as it helps them connect to crucial opportunities for health, economic, and educational assistance.
Connectivity will also expand the reach of who is able to participate in the new economy. In the region, 60 per cent of the population does not have access to formal financial services. However, there are now 20 live mobile money services in seven markets, enabling convenient and efficient payments, international transfers, and expanded commerce opportunities for millions.
By working to connect everyone and everything to a better future, we can help governments, businesses and society see gains in the new digital era. However, it is important to address the remaining barriers to connectivity, innovation and technological evolution the region’s governments require to achieve their visions for sustainable and diversified economies. Governments and decision-makers engagement with leaders of the mobile industry will develop an environment even more conducive to investment and innovation.
High mobile sector taxation continues to affect consumers and mobile operators in the region. Spectrum is a much needed asset to respond to the growing demand for mobile broadband. As leaders plan beyond the World Economic Forum, it is an opportunity for governments and mobile operators to build stronger relationships to help the GCC and wider Middle East push ahead in the fourth industrial revolution.
The writer is Head of Mena Region, GSMA.