UAE targets Internet studies: Dubai is creating a highly specialised education programme, designed to create a cadre of sophisticated Internet experts. The impact will be felt throughout the Arab world. (Business & Finance)(Cover Story).
The government of Dubai has launched a series of computer and information technology (IT) education initiatives in the past few years, designed to sharply raise technology skills of the population. These include designing specialised classrooms for high school students, creation of Internet and computer software research centres, expansion of Zayed University's information technology (IT) programme, and ultimately the creation of an all-new Internet University.
"We need to redesign education to match the era of information technology," says Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai's crown prince, and a leading proponent of that country's development of "smart schools."
Sheikh Mohammed is in a position to do more than be a proponent. As crown prince, and as a key force behind the development and planning of the DIC, he has taken an active role in education. Last year, he ordered the creation of special information technology classrooms in public schools throughout the UAE (which he serves as Minister of Defence), beginning with the emirate of Dubai.
The initial effort, called Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's secondary school IT Educational Project, is being carried out in co-operation with the UAE ministry of education and will be sponsored by private IT firms, including Microsoft, Netscape, Phillips, Epson, and Hewlett Packard. According to Jamal Khalfan Al Huwairib, a key aide to Sheikh Mohammed, the special classrooms will be located within existing schools. Each classroom will house 15 units (including computer terminals), incorporating state-of-the-art multimedia software and technology.
This is clearly not for students to play games: Huwairib points out that training in these facilities (instruction will be in both Arabic and English) will enable students to take up leadership positions in the Dubai Internet City project.
They will be sorely needed. The DIC is part of an ambitious effort by the government of Dubai to establish the emirate as the leading technology commerce centre in the Middle East. It represents a $700 million investment so far, with over $200 million of that coming from Dubai government funds. Over 200 companies now have facilities in the free zone (SEE SIDEBAR).
Development of the information technology (IT) sector is one of Dubai government's top priorities; it has become the main concern of Sheikh Mohammed. The emirate's potential as a regional hub is enhanced by the availability of the funds and infrastructure required by the sector.
But Dubai, like all other Arab countries, has only recently come to the Internet. The number of local users remains low by western standards (less than 10 per cent of the population has Internet access, against almost 75per cent in the US, and over 60 per cent in most of Western Europe). E-commerce is similarly only in its infancy. But forecast growth rates are expected to mirror the western experience. Trained Arab Internet experts are already in great demand.
Officials of the DIC plan to launch an Internet University, creating what Sheikh Mohammed calls "a society of knowledge." It will build on the high school training being provided in the Sheikh Maktoum IT schools, and will also borrow from the experience of Zayed University, which has recently launched its own sophisticated IT programme.
The Institute for Technological Innovation (ITI) was set up at Zayed University last year, under an agreement between the university and the Dubai Technology, Electronic Commerce and Media Free Zone Authority. The main focus of the ITI is on IT and dissemination of awareness of the principles and tools of electronic commerce. ITI is intended to help train the national workforce and support scientific research based on the use of modern technology. Its mission, according to a university spokesman, "is to prepare the workforce of the UAE to meet the needs and requirements of the new world economy."
Late last year, the ITI joined forces with Tejari.com (a major provider of B2B on-line services in the Middle East) to offer e-commerce skills updates through its facilities at Dubai Media City (part of the DIC). Although courses are initially focused on training Tejari associates on the latest developments in e-commerce, later phases of the project will include hands-on skills development for young UAE and Arab nationals to address the region's growing need for trained IT workers.
Sheikh Mohammed and others have also been planning to launch a dedicated Internet university. "It is as important as the Dubai Internet City itself because it will train and graduate a manpower that is highly skilled in using and carrying out research in IT," he recently said.
Western experts agree. "The Internet University will give them access to experts in the field world wide," says Paul Somerville, president and CEO of Meridian Knowledge Solutions, Inc., a major US course software and on-line education provider. "It's a phenomenal opportunity."
The Internet University was expected to be launched in late 2000, at the same time as the DIC. However, the delay has been seen as necessary, for two basic reasons: First, students now enrolled in the Sheikh Maktoum schools won't be ready for it for two or three years. Second, the delay allows time to better evaluate what courses should be offered, and what physical facilities need to be built.
The government of Dubai is now evaluating various options for setting up the university. According to Sheikh Mohammed, the university will go beyond Zayed University's programme of offering training programmes; the proposed institution will grant accredited university level degrees in areas such as e-business, e-finance, e-marketing, multimedia, e-design and e-management.
The Dubai Government will have the responsibility of establishing the university in co-operation with private institutions and top universities and colleges in the world. "Our aim is to constantly upgrade the skills pool and give companies [in DIC] access to highly trained IT specialists," says Sheikh Mohammed.
The Internet University would do more than just provide on-site training. Planners see it as a key tool to further Internet use and development throughout the Middle East.
"We are aspiring to be a first-class, international certification institution," says the Internet University project manager, Ossama Al Ali.
Al Ali says the university is designed to serve the needs of the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
The Internet University is expected to offer four tracks of education, aiming at the community at large, business and government executives, IT professionals and research facilities. Courses would be offered both in-house and online. Al Ali says university developers are looking for strategic partners to work with them on developing infrastructure, programmes and attracting audiences.
DIC is also expected to house an Research & Development centre for new technology initiatives and a state-of-the-art Science and Technology Park that will support all resident companies. The Government of Dubai will build the centre and park, but it is also welcoming initiatives from both the public and private sector.
Sheikh Mohammed has made it clear that both the Internet University and the other DIC institutions are being created with more than a local economic view. "We are particularly interested in attracting IT talents from throughout the Arab world and are actively working towards that end," he recently said. "We put high hopes on them, and Dubai Internet City will offer work opportunities for them as well as for talents among Arab expatriates abroad who could come back home and enjoy an atmosphere of financial prosperity and social, political and economic stability."
Many Arab computer experts see the Internet University as a major component in efforts to develop indigenous Arab-oriented technology. But beyond its role as an education centre, those experts see it as a means to prompt greater computer and Internet penetration rates, helping to overcome the Arab world's current low standing.
By 2005, there will be over 1.3 billion computers in use worldwide, of which some 350 million will be linked to the Internet. The Arab world presently has less than two per cent of the world's computers, and less than 10 per cent of those are linked to Internet. Even in Dubai one of the wealthiest and most wired communities in the Middle Eastless than 35 per cent of the population has a computer; only 180,000 citizens are linked to the Internet. To increase those rates will require massive investments in technology. The bill for telecom upgrades in the Gulf alone is estimated at $25 billion over the next 10 years. But equally important will be the need to invest in education, to bring local skill levels up to global standards. "They need to work on knowledge management," says Somerville. "They need to be able to reach out and tap expertise."
The true value of the Internet University is widely seen as its ability to do just that.
INTERNET CITY ... AT A GLANCE
Dubai Internet City was first conceived in the late 1990s as a compliment to the emirate's enormous Free Trade Zone. But instead of situating it out at existing free trade zone facilities in Jebel Ali or at Port Rachid, planners incorporated it into a massive expansion of Dubai's international airport.
Opened in October, 2000, the DIC Free Zone represents the world's first free trade zone for electronic commerce and technology. It is part of an ambitious government plan to make the emirate the centre of e-commerce and technology trade in the Middle East.
As with Dubai's original free trade zone at Jebel Ali, DIC was created with the active and strong support of the emirate's ruling family. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is chairman of the Internet City project, as well as a key force behind development of the emirate's computer education programme.
According to Mohamed Al Gergawi, director general of the free-zone authority, DIC represents an investment of almost $700 million, including $200 million of government funds.
The DIC Free Zone Authority governs the physical site, oversees applications and maintenance, and provides telecommunications and Internet services to companies housed there. In addition, the authority also advises the government on data protection, protection of intellectual property rights and control of crimes associated with e-commerce.
The free zone is open to all kinds of products from local and foreign sources, barring those that are engaged in illegal activities or which violate intellectual property rights.
The site is already home to some of the world's leading Internet and computer software companies, including Microsoft, Oracle, and Compaq and some 200 other companies involved in information, multi-media, Internet, and telecommunications (see TME October 2001).
As with the Jebel Ali Free Zone, products bought, manufactured, produced, developed or stored in the DIC free zone will not be subject to customs duties or any other fees when exported. Investors are encouraged to take long-term leases; tax incentives alone cover a period of 50 years. In the Internet community -- given the notoriously short life span of companies in the field -- that may be seen as humorous optimism.