e-Government in the Middle East: Setting the Course to Digitizing Government

George K. Kostopoulos, PhD

School of Business & Management

American University of Sharjah, UAE

 

 

Muhammadou M.O. Kah, PhD

School of Business-Camden

Rutgers University, USA


Abstract  There is a shift from the fear that the Internet and IT will  compromise the guarded religious, cultural and political values of the Middle East to a renewed optimism and a rapid adoption and investment in IT infrastructure. Governments in the Middle East are gradually transforming and digitizing their governments, enhancing and enriching services rendered to their citizenry. What is not clear from the efforts of the countries studied is whether this digitization of government services will eventually lead to the democratization of information, transparency and participatory governance and freedom of expression of citizenry on government policies. Certainly, this move is quite welcome and is expected to transform the existed rigid interaction of governments in the Middle East and their citizenry to  a much more dynamic relationship and partnership in governance and development. This study explores through cases developments and evolution of digitization of governments in the Middles East via e-government by specifically investigating  cases and efforts from Kuwait,  Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan and Lebanon. The cases investigated suggest that the adoption of  e-government platforms in the studied Middle Eastern countries is cautious and gradual, with a high degree of visibility and commitment by the leadership of these countries. This ensured the increasing success and acceptance. The cases also suggest progressive transfer into these e-government portals of selected services - either information acquisition or payment service – that increase public’s awareness of the portals. This has also helped in reducing any negative perception about information technology while increasing the public’s interest.

I. INTRODUCTION

  

        E-government is a dynamic concept of varying meaning and significance. Resulting from the application and implementation of emerging information technology to the performance of government responsibilities to her citizenry. There is  no doubt that, digitizing government processes and services, besides bringing them closer to citizenry,  have some positive implications to governance and economic efficiency. Given that the evolution of e-government by governments in the Middle East is relatively new and on-going, it is quite early to measure their performance. However, it will be useful to study the critical success factor of the on-going e-government initiatives as well as their performance and impact.

        This study through cases explores developments and evolution of digitization of governments in the Middle East via e-government adoption. The Middle-Eastern countries, studied here, have been gradually developing e-government web portals to serve their citizens and businesses online by providing a one-stop experience to numerous needed services. The often cited challenges faced in developing e-government portals are: lack of technology expertise, limited budget for purchasing state-of-the-art software and hardware, and complexity in implementation and maintenance.  Such obstacles or challenges do face countries in the Middle East, but to a lesser extent.

        The countries studied have adequate budgets and commitment, on the part of their leadership, for the undertaken development efforts. However, the challenges faced are lack of adequate local IT skilled personnel, as well as lack organizational culture of transparent processes and information sharing mechanisms.

        However, outsourcing and hiring of expatriates has been identified as the main way to address this challenge.  The second challenge is addressed through a high degree of commitment at the highest government level, with training and with technology awareness campaigns. Furthermore, in the government departments, there is a significant yet gradual change in management norms and processes transparency.

        These efforts helped transform the mode and protocol of interaction in extra-government and intra-government communications. The result of this transformation has been a new relationship in government-to-citizen, G2C, government-to-business,G2B, and most important in government-inter-agency, G2G, communications that is now Web based.

        Considering that governments are mainly information producers, rather than information receivers, the Internet presents itself as the ideal intermediary becoming the 24/365 passive call center for government-citizen interaction. Of course, nothing prevents it from being an interactive call center as well, and this is where the ultimate challenge is. Governments, around the world, and especially in the Middle East, responding to the continuous increase in society’s cyber skills and desire to capitalize on the Internet technologies, are funding numerous e-government projects aiming at enhancing their own productivity as well as that of their constituencies – citizenry and business alike.  Most projects are Web based, while others are high-tech telecommunications based.

        Government administrations have recognized that an e-government portal – serving as the gateway to a  National Web Depository - can simultaneously meet two important objectives, a national one and an international one.

               The national objective is operational and dual. On one hand, it is to serve as 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 offering tactical automation. The international objective is strategic and also dual. On one hand, it is to serve as a global showcase, and on the other, a permanent promoter of that country’s political, cultural and business aims.

        In that respect, the Middle East countries, rather lead   in   e-government   initiatives and   in  services delivery.    Over the  past  two  years,   country  after country, has  initiated  programs attempting  to  Web-enable the government-to-citizen and government–to-business interaction, thus, making it impersonal.  This is significant governance transformation that will only have a positive impact on the path toward a transparent G2C relationship. Table 1 list the typical objectives of e-government portals.

        As for the area of education, the information and communication technology has become a cornerstone,

and it is being identified as “…the one and only international language…” [1]

As a result, similarly to the digital   firm, more and more government agencies are digitizing their processes and moving employees from the front office to the back office of government service. Ultimately, the front office of government will be the Web and kiosks strategically located in areas of high foot traffic, as well as the SMS capabilities of the omni present mobile phones. While in most countries around the globe e-government is treated as a necessary evil, in the Middle East, the e-government vision has being placed on the top of the government priorities and with very impressive results. Often the e-government portals serve as a G2C interaction showcase. What is of special interest is that many e-government projects are remarkable strategic innovations, rather than merely online replicas of offline government services. Yet, in most cases, e-payments over e-governments portals and quality performance still remain a goal to be attained.

 

II. OBSERVATIONS AND CONCERNS

 

Despite the numerous advances in e-government, all across the Middle East - from Kuwait to Lebanon, with exceptional vision displayed in Dubai - there is a widespread fear that the digital divide will make the fruits of  e-government inaccessible to the majority of the society due to lack of cyber literacy.

Beyond the digital divide, an additional concern is also being expressed about another divide, namely the “… speed divide…” [2]. Here, the haves enjoy broadband access to the Internet  at 10Mb/s, while the have-nots will have a mere telephone modem connection of 56Kb/s at best. Consequently, the accessed content will be, respectively, rich and poor, at least when it comes to multimedia. In this region, “Unless these infrastructure deficiencies are eliminated, the surge in (new) Internet users … will definitely cause problems.” [3]. The general fear is that the Internet access facilitators - the backbone access providers and the Internet service providers – in order to maximize their return on investment will not meet  the public’s Internet access demands. As a result, the growth rate in Internet utilization may possibly decline.

Another concern is the way e-government projects are being reviewed and funded.  Such projects in the Middle East appear to be “…budget-based projects rather than being project-based budgets…” [4], and "to move from vision to reality, such a transformation needs a committed leadership,  a sound strategy, a seamless cross-coordination between various agencies and organizations as well as the know-how." [3].

Despite the various concerns, there is a very positive outlook toward e-government. However, many believe that the e-government initiatives not only will show that the “… government is too rigid…”[5], but will also serve as an agent for change. As a result, there is a high expectation for streamlining, modernization and reforms in the government processes. The implementation of the e-government projects requires skilled human resources that are hardly available within the governments themselves. Consequently, consultants and local partners are being contracted for assistance and most importantly for technology transfer.

 

III. SELECTED e-GOVERNMENT CASES

 

Kuwait has been very active in e-government with a variety of projects and activities, such as,

a. The development of a Judiciary Information Database, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme [6].

b. Organization of  Kuwait’s first e-Government Conference sponsored by the  Al--Faris Group “…to create awareness among business and IT executive … to deploy latest web technologies…”. [7].

c. The sponsorship of a large e-Government conference in Kuwait, in  April 22-24, 2002, with the support of Microsoft [8].

d. The participation of a wide range of consultants including the Al-Bared Group, which “… has committed itself to finding a workable solution for the implementation of an e-government infrastructure in the State of Kuwait. [9].

e.In collaboration with the Kuwaiti government, FAPCO is in the advanced stages of setting up the infrastructure of E-Government services and solutions for the State of Kuwait”. This project can be best defined as the first electronic public library in the Gulf, and will include more than 800 pages translated into six different languages. The website is an official source for all sort of information, public data, geography, history, photos, and references about the State of Kuwait.  [10].

Kuwait having realized the need for a comprehensive and strategic plan for addressing the issue of developing and maintaining an e-government service “…created the Secretariat for the Central Technical System…” within the Ministry of Planning. In Spring of 2002, Kuwait launched an international tender for proposals - based on detailed e-Government Project  Product Specifications” – seeking responses from e-government experienced companies [11].

Bahrain has been first to introduce e-voting. During February 14-15, 2001, Bahrain’s 200,000 eligible voters participated in referendum where they had the opportunity to express their position in a variety of national issues. As a voter’s registration identification card, their CPR card was used (Central Population Registration Card) was used. The card has a significant amount of information on it that is optically encoded in a two-dimensional  bar-code scheme. "The 2D barcodes on the card contain securely encrypted data to guarantee consistency of the personal information and the eligibility of the voter in a matter of seconds."  [12]. The scheme is based on a technology developed by Symbol Technologies, Inc. [13].

Saudi Arabia makes extensive use of the Web as a bulletin board, with the most visible e-government effort being the creation of a special website serving the informational needs of the Umra pilgrims. Initially designed as an extranet for use between the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and the travel agent and tour operators, it is eventually growing into a major portal for all related services, such as visas, and travel and accommodations reservations. The site’s mission is  “… to fully exploit the emerged driving force of the Internet technology …  for the logistical support of the Umra pilgrimage [14].

Qatar has launched a thirty month e-government effort designed to e-enable all government. The starting point is a pilot program addressing the renewal of the resident permits [15]. The project was implemented within two months, opening the way for similar initiatives in other government operations, such as passports and permits.  The Qatari vision goes beyond the Web replication of the G2C and the G2B operations aiming at including the Web delivery of “… e-knowledge …”. 

The Qatari government already has a large database with a single  view of the individual. This is, an individual’s file that contains all aspects of the G2C relationship. The objective is to extend access to such files to all government agencies, and to have all government agencies make relevant data contributions to that master database.      The vision includes the use of additional front end delivery channels, beyond the Internet, such as kiosks and SMS via mobile phones. While there is budget and determination to realize numerous e-government projects, “There is a curve involved … (and) more experience …(to be gained before) … rolling these systems out.”  [16].

United Arab Emirates is one of the leaders in e-government development and implementation in the Middle East. Among the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE),  the Emirate of Dubai, stand as the undisputed leader in e-government, where the  . . . 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.”.  The Vision of Dubai’s e-government focuses on easing the lives of people and businesses interacting with government and on contributing in establishing Dubai as a leading economic hub. Dubai has advanced her e-government initiative by automating the entire Government of Dubai for all of the shared service processes as well as municipalities. An example of one of the major e-government initiatives of the Dubai government is the single sign in e-government portal- http://www.dubai.ae. This provides a list of the major services provided by the government of Dubai.

Some of the online services provided are Dubai government paying bills and fines services; bills inquiry and payments of telecommunication services to Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (Etisalat)- the government run telecommunication company and the leading service provider in the Middle East.; Citizens view and pay bills online as well as monthly notifications  for services offered by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority; modification and cancellation of business license online through the Department of Economic Development as well as membership registration to the chamber of commerce by businesses as well as request of certificate of origin; 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[17].

                In Dubai, a program has been implemented where citizens can subscribe with the police department and receive “… up-to-the-minute traffic reports …” and other information via SMS (Short Message Services). Another high tech service is the department’s WAP site. Here, citizens can scroll through it, viewed on their cell phone, and find information needed on the road, such as the nearest police station. inquiry about traffic fines by the  department also has in its website link to the stolen cars database, kiosks located in shopping malls where motorists may find out if they have any outstanding speeding tickets entered by the radar cameras [18].

Dubai has also introduced an e-wallet called m-Dirham, after the name of its currency. In the scheme citizen deposit money in a third party financial institution from where they may transfer to pay permit fees and the like [19]. In an effort to integrate the woman in the mainstream of employment, several IT training programs are being implemented in the Arabian Gulf, including one in Dubai in cooperation with UNESCO, addressed to women. Indeed, “Technology presents immense opportunities for women to make productive use of their talents without breaking the conventions of society.” [20].

The above is only a sample of the long list of currently operational e-government projects undertaken by the Dubai police department. It is apparent that the Dubai e-government effort is one of the most citizen-centric serving as an example not only in the Middle East but worldwide.

Oman  is currently implementing a holistic approach to the e- moving “… towards (an) e-Oman (strategy), which consists of e-government, e-commerce, e-learning and other e-services,…”. A government taskforce, formed for that purpose, after having realized the breadth and the depth of the needed technological and change- managerial skills, has sought the services of international consulting houses to lead  them through the maze of e-government design. The taskforce is studying e-government implementation applied elsewhere in an effort to learn from the mistakes of others than from their own. The taskforce wants to “… remove the stupid rules and regulations and put the whole process on the Internet.” and serve as the e-Oman “godfather”. [21].

Addressing the issue of cyber illiteracy and digital divide, Oman has initiated numerous programs on computer and Internet literacy, especially for the Omani women, hoping to at least partially bridge the gap.

Jordan’s e-government vision focuses on creating a society where electronic government is a contributor to the economic and social development. The government of Jordan have moved from a conceptual state and planning stage to the initial stage of implementation in their e-government initiative. The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, as illustrated in Table 2, spearhead these efforts.  Massive efforts in awareness and training are continually being implemented. One of the plans in place in the e-government initiative of the government of Jordan is a plan to ensure that over 20,000 people receive the International Computer Driving License (ICDL) by the end of 2005.

Lebanon’s government has also launch several e-government initiatives funded and supported mostly by International organizations such as the UNDP and the World Bank as well as other regional funding agencies in the form of grants and loans. Through collaboration with the UNDP and the office of the Minister of the State for Administration Reform (OMSAR), a Technical coordination Unit was established and charged with the task of strategizing and promoting the e-government initiative.  Table 3 illustrates some of the current e-government initiatives in Lebanon.

 

IV. CONCLUSION

 

It is our view that, the development and implementation of  e-government platforms by themselves will not have any impact on the intended society and the citizenry. The proper environment to ensure access to the Internet, readiness and acceptance will have to be in place.  This requires a parallel commitment to training and awareness programs, as well as programs to improve the personal computer, PC, and Internet utilization. Table 4 is a snapshot of the ranking of the PC and Internet penetration levels in this region.

 

In studying the evolution of e-government in the Middle East, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates seem to be on the lead. There is a commitment of the leadership expressed in a variety of ways, especially by various decrees, that all ministries and departments have a presence in the national portal. The benefits derived are suggested in the Qatar and UAE cases discussed earlier. Operations are becoming faster and more efficient, while data sharing has increased among government agencies. These developments favorably compare to those in North America and Europe, but the pace of developments and commitment is not at the same level.

There are indeed regional issues that serve as an impediment   to e-government development. These are:

1. Change Management. How the old bureaucracies will give place to the e-technocracies? How the old rules and regulations that provided importance and job security to the mandarins of the ministries will be declared irrelevant in today’s globalization?

2. Cadre Creation. The realization of any e-government requires a hard core of techies to design, develop and maintain the e-government, as well as an army of IT savvy civil servants to use the e-government machinery. Where will the former come from and how will the latter acquire that IT savvy?

3. Public’s Cyber Literacy. When a government builds a superhighway, soon after its completion the motorists flood it; it is because they have a car and know how to drive. On the other hand, when a government builds its e-government superhighway will the citizens use it?

4. Strategic Alignment. In order for e-government projects to succeed and to fully realize the benefits of their investments, all related initiatives must be in alignment with a comprehensive e-government strategy. Minimal prerequisites to success follow:

(a)  A clear and comprehensive e-government vision.

(b)  A comprehensive government processes map,

(c)  Government Macro and micro strategies

(d) Understanding of the government’s organization, infrastructure and objectives,

(e) Effective government IT infrastructure.

A well-coordinated implementation plan for the entire government will facilitate the strategic alignment of development and implementation efforts. Developing an e-government in a less coordinated manner, with  by pockets of success, will only create problems and failure in the long run.

Therefore, it is necessary that e-government be fully integrated in every level of government in order to make a tangible difference in the quality of services rendered to the citizens. This coordinated and integrated approach will ensure that the various governmental agencies will have convergent architectures and infrastructures that are inter-operable within the overall system.

The cases studied suggest an improve access to government services; improve citizen-government interface; cost reduction and displays the potential of increase transparency of government operations and possibilities for greater role in citizens own governance. Furthermore, as highlighted in our studied cases, in this region, the e-government vision is gradually becoming a reality creating a trilateral win-win-win situation for all – the government, the business and the citizen. Our findings in the cases studied suggest that the Dubai e-government is the asymptote model all others try to reach. But how can an asymptote be reached when it continuously attains higher and higher levels?

 

REFERENCES      

 

[1] Al-Khalifa, Hessa, Keynote address, Eighth GCC e-Government, Internet & Telecommunications Forum, May 28-29, 2002, Dubai, UAE.

[2] Al-Shuraida, Ali, Where the GCC are Heading with the e-Government Projects? Eighth GCC e-government, Internet & Telecommunications Forum, May 28-29, 2002, Dubai, UAE.

[3] E-Initiatives in the GCC region

http://www.meib.org/articles/0012_me2.htm

[4] Gottipati, Madan, Managing e-Government Portals, Eighth GCC e-government, Internet & Telecommunications Forum, May 28-29, 2002, Dubai, UAE.

[5] Moores, Simon, e-Government Portals, Eighth GCC e-government, Internet & Telecommunications Forum, May 28-29, 2002, Dubai, UAE.

[6]  e-Government: Considerations for Arab States, United Nations Development Programme

http://www.surf-as.org/Papers/e-gov-english.pdf

[7] Al-Faris is sponsoring the Kuwait First e-Government Conference   

http://my.al-  faris.com/corp/press/presscenter.jhtml

?passval=2503egov

[8] Microsoft sponsors Kuwait's largest e-Government conference

http://www.microsoft.com/middleeast/press

[9] E-government, Al-Bader Group,    http://www.al-bader.com/newprojects.htm

[10] FAPCO – Kuwait e-Gov Project http://www.fapco.net/body_government.html

[11] Trade Leads Kuwait e-Government Project.

http://exportit.ita.doc.gov/ocbe/TradeLea.nsf/3bd0821046786c8d8525651a00640818/05717e23a369991485256b870072a454!OpenDocument

[12] Bahrainis Become Middle East’s First e-Voters.

http://www.symbol.com/news/pressreleases/pr_releases_inter_bahrain.html

[13] Symbol Technologies, Inc. 2D Barcode Readers

http://www.symbol.com/products/barcode_scanners/barcode_scanners.html

[14] Umra Performance  http://www.babalumra.com/english/index.html

[15] Qatar goes live with first-phase e-government project. www.itp.net/news/96814221678347.htm

 [16] Qatar builds e-government portal

http://www.itp.net/features/97556902273780.htm

[17] Dubai Naturalization and Residency Administration Implements E-Government with Symbol Technology

http://www.symbol.com/news/pressreleases/pr_releases

_inter_dubai.html       

Dr. George Kostopoulos is a Professor of Information Systems with the School of Business Management at the American University of Sharjah, AUS, in the United Arab Emirates. He holds degrees from the Arizona State University, Ph.D. and M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering, the California State Polytechnic University, M.S. in Economics, and the Pacific States University, B.S. in Electronics Engineering. His current research focuses on how the internet is use in education,  commerce and government.

 

Muhammadou M.O. Kah, Ph. D., is an Asst..Professor of ecom­merce and IT in the School of Business-Camden, Rutgers University. Dr. Kah’s current research focuses on how businesses and governments can effectively use information technologies and the Inter­net in particular to add value and the applications of real options in IT strate­gic decision making. His research also includes exploring ways in which advances in information communication technologies contribute to economic growth, development and quality of life for developing economies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[18] Dubai Police m-enables its officers with SMS

and WAP services

http://www.ducont.com/press_release/ACN_2000.htm

[19] 'Mobile Dirham' service launched http://www.gulf-

news.com/Articles/ News.asp?ArticleID=29361

[20] Dubai e-Government drives IT awareness

among local females

http://www.itp.net/news/102213156469882.htm

[21] Oman begins work on e-Sultanate strategy

http://www.itp.net/features/102058273246315.htm

 

 

Table 1.

e-Government Portal  Objectives

National

 

International

Documents Depository &

Information Provider

Transaction Processing Center with Live Interaction

 

Worldwide Showcase of Natural and Cultural Wealth

Permanent Promoter of Political, Cultural and Economic Aims

Passive

24/7

 

Multilingual

 

Table 2.

SERVICES

TYPE

Business Registration

G2B

Taxation and Social Security

G2B

Telecom Licensing

G2B

Real Estate Services

G2B

Selling to Government

G2B

Motoring Services

G2B

Source: Int@j and Jordan e-government initiative Presentation  Business Meets Government: The Jordan e-government opportunities workshop.

 

Table 3

Government Service

Description

Stakeholder

Trade Efficiency

This is a government wide integrated electronic trade data exchange system accessible by the private and public sector based on a defined data standard. This will strengthen trade efficiency by reducing trade transaction cost and time.

Ministry of Economy & Trade (Primary); Ministry of Finance, Customs, Port of Beirut, Trade Professionals and the Private Sector.

National Electronic Archiving and Retrieval System

This is the repository of official and historic documents of the government of Lebanon.

National archives of Lebanon (NAR)

Medical and Social Compensation System for cooperative.

This is an integrated information system linking all the branches and the activities of the Cooperative of Government Employees (COOP) with its corporate office. This will enhance performance and productivity and maintain a database of its daily activities. Some of the capabilities of the system is automation of the medical, social and hospitalization compensation processes.

Cooperative of Government Employees(COOP)

Commercial Register System

This system helps facilitate the growing need for accurate firm information and registration by entrepreneurs and managers as well as the public sectors, such as the Ministry of Industry and the Chamber of Commerce.

Ministry of Justice

Insurance Licensing and Control System

This system monitors, test and help enforce solvency of insurance and reinsurance firms licensed to operate under their jurisdictions. This system is use by the Ministry of Economy and Trade to supervise the operations of insurance firms through licensing, monitoring and control processes.

Ministry of Economy & Trade

Legal decision documents management system

A legal document Management Decision Support System. This support text based document management and archiving, tracking location and project status. This system is expected to enhance the efficiency and transparency of decision making on the administrative and financial levels.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Najm Project

Facilitates International Trade with compliance to National Laws and regulation.

Ministry of Finance, Customs, & Administration

COMAP(Cadastre Operations Modernization & Automation

Software customized to adhere to Lebanese legal and administrative processes, guidelines and Law for Land transactions. This project aims to increase transparency, efficiency as well as corruption reduction. Digital titles and Maps can be easily queried and updated, minimizing the complexity and non-transparency of manual processes.

The Directorate of  Land Registry

Source- http://www.omsar.gov.lb/english ; http://www.customs.gov.lb/customs/; http://www.undp.org.lb - e-government initiatives in Lebanon.

 

Table 4

Countries

Installed PC Base

PC Penetration

Internet Users

Internet Penetration

Web Users Per PC

Predicted Internet Users (2005)

Predicted Penetration as of % of population  (2005)

Bahrain

107,000

15.7%

150,000

22%

1.4

237,000

32

UAE

450,000

13.8%

900,000

27.7%

2.0

1,346,000

38

Qatar

107,000

13.5%

60,000

7.6%

0.56

155,000

18

Kuwait

280,000

12.2%

205,000

8.9%

0.73

463,000

18.5

Saudi Arabia

1,500,000

6.4%

1,600,000

6.8%

1.07

4,482,000

17.5

Oman

95,000

3.5%

150,000

5.6%

1.58

471,000

16

Source: MADAR RESEARCH GROUP- Middle East PC & INTERNET PENETRATION AS OF AUGUST 2002