E-GOVERNMENT IN THE ARAB WORLD: A VISION TOWARD REALITY

George K. Kostopoulos, American University of Sharjah, kostopoulos@aus.ac.ae, +971-6-515-2343

 

ABSTRACT

 

Extensive efforts are being made to capitalize on the cyber technologies in order to enhance the government to citizen service. The described cases are from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While the efforts vary in size and intensity, what appears to be common is the top level support the e-government initiatives are receiving, which offers them visibility and hopefully warrants their eventual success. The collective message delivered by the examined cases is that e-government is becoming an integral part of the respective countries life that will also contribute in the increase of the society’s cyber-literacy.

 

                      INTRODUCTION

 


The Digital Age, that has revolutionized the marketplace, as well as the business-to-consumer and business-to-business relations, is now changing the government-to-citizen, G2C, and government-to-business, G2B, interaction. Considering that governments are mainly information producers, rather than receivers, the Internet presents itself as the ideal intermediary becoming the 24/365 passive call center for government-citizen interaction. Governments, responding to the society’s continuously increasing cyber skills and wanting to capitalize on the Internet technologies, are funding numerous e-government  portal development projects aiming at enhancing their own productivity as well as that of their constituencies –  citizenry and business.  Government administrations have recognized that an e-government portal, the gateway to a  National Intranet, can serve two objectives – a national and an international one. The national objective of this intranet is operational and dual. On one hand, to be a Depository of Documents, and a one-stop information center; and on the other, to be a fully interactive service provider with call center capabilities functioning as the government’s Transaction Processing System. The international objective, however, is a strategic one, where its goal is to serve as a worldwide showcase and promoter of that country’s political, cultural and business aims.

 

SELECTED e-GOVERNMENT CASES

 

In that respect, the Arab world is not any different. Over the past two years, country after country, has initiated programs attempting to impersonalize the government-to-citizen and government–to-business interaction. As a result, similarly to the digital firm,  more and more  government employees are moving from the front office to the back office  of government service. Here, the e-government vision has being placed on the top of the government priorities with some very impressive results. The State of Bahrain has been first to introduce e-voting. During February 14-15, 2001, the 200,000 Bahraini voters participated in an e-referendum where they had the opportunity to express their position in a variety of national issues. As a voter’s registration identification card, their citizenship cards were used. The cards  have a significant amount of  personal information optically encoded and  ". . . contain securely encrypted data to guarantee consistency of the personal information and the eligibility of  the voter  in a matter of seconds”. Jordan,  Although Internet penetration stands at a disappointing three percent,  . . .” has embarked into a comprehensive e-government program making a two front start with the Department of Land and Survey and with that of Drivers and Vehicle Licensing.  The Emirate of Dubai stands as the undisputed leader in e-government, where the “. . . crown prince has launched his own web site, http://www.sheikhmohammed.co.ae, as a platform for Internet technology and digital medium  for facilitating contact between the leader and his people.”. In Dubai, among the numerous initiatives, one of the most ingenious ones is the use of the Internet for the completion of tourist visa applications, where the application when printed displays a computer readable two-dimensional bar code that represents the entered information. As a result the associated staff  was reduced to half, while the application processing time decreased from days to hours. “ In the high season this can run at over 3,000 visas per day”.  Qatar has launched a three year e-government effort “. . . designed to e-enable all government operations . . . “, where the starting point is a pilot program addressing the renewal of the resident permits. The project was implemented in two months, opening the way for similar initiatives in other government operations, such as passports and permits.  In Saudi Arabia, the most visible e-government effort is the creation of the www.babalumra.com/english/aboutumra/ website serving the informational needs of the Umra pilgrims. Its homepage starts with “The most important grace of God to this holy country is serving God guests.”. Initially designed as an extranet for use between the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and the travel agent and tour operators, it will eventually grow into a major portal for all related services, such as visas, and travel and accommodations reservations.