Digital innovation is setting the course for long-term economic growth in the Middle East. While the region’s digital economy has historically lagged behind the rest of the world, it’s quickly catching up. With an estimated 160 million potential users by 2025, McKinsey estimates that the Middle East’s digital economy could contribute up to 3.8 percent annually in GDP – amounting to approximately $95 billion.

This week I was in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, arguably one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world to attend the World Government Summit. In just a few decades, the city has reinvented itself from a quiet fishing port to a global investment hub and leading travel destination, now renowned for its record-setting skyline, driverless metro and man-made islands.

Thanks to comprehensive government investments in digital innovation with the aim of advancing key social, economic, governance and environmental indicators, this incredible transformation is expected to pick up pace in the coming years. Cisco estimates that Dubai’s digitization initiatives could generate a potential AED 17.9 billion (USD 4.87 billion) in value by 2019. By combining the vision of its leadership with a unified strategy, the Emirate has placed itself firmly at the forefront of smart cities worldwide, while also emerging as the top destination for startup growth in the Middle East and North Africa region.

What’s happening in Dubai is a testament to a larger push by the United Arab Emirates to position the country as a leading global digital player. The UAE’s Vision 2021 plan for diversifying the economy and creating a prosperous and sustainable economic future is commendable, and I believe that technology will be the key to making this vision a reality.

Smart Government, Smart Future

Recently named the second most tech-savvy government in the world by the World Economic Forum’s Network Readiness Index, the UAE has emerged as a global standard-bearer for e-government in recent years.

According to UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, “A successful government reaches out to the citizens rather than waits for them to come in.” To this end, most government services in the UAE are now accessible via mobile devices, and the UAE has set a target by 2018 for 80 percent of government services to be accessed by mobile devices.

This transition to more flexible government interactions has translated into remarkable success in citizen participation and technology adoption. The implementation of e-voting has helped increased voting eligibility from 6,000 people in 2006 to 224,000 people in 2015. And the e-dirham prepaid card, which allows citizens to pay fees to any government entity, has already generated more than 80 million total transactions. These advancements in innovation and technology deliver greater ‘happiness’ and ease of use for all its citizens, support the UAE’s Vision 2021 and illustrate the government’s commitment to embrace the digital era and to use digitization to drive positive change.

Creating an Innovation-Enabling Environment

Global competitiveness demands a constant flow of new ideas. The UAE’s National Innovation Strategy, announced in 2014, will help the country realize its ambition of becoming one of the most innovative nations in the world. Most notably, the initiative requires all government entities to reduce spending by one percent and to dedicate the savings to research and innovation projects.

Mapping back to UAE Vision 2021, the National Innovation Strategy identifies digital technology as one of the top seven primary national sectors. Just last year, the UAE announced plans to develop and exploit 3-D printing, with the potential to revolutionize the construction industry. Meanwhile, the government’s autonomous transportation strategy aims to make a quarter of all trips driverless in Dubai by 2030.

By making digitization a national priority, the UAE has created an ecosystem of innovation that fosters cutting edge ideas and cultivates a culture of forward-thinking. Through a solid framework focused on advancing innovation and creating government infrastructures, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region can pull ahead, expand their economies, increase high-quality jobs and secure a better quality of life for their citizens in the Digital Era.


John Chambers

No Longer with Cisco