How the UAE is fast becoming a global leader in digital transformation

Phil Muncaster

Monday 28 August 2017

A new World Economic Forum (WEF) report claims the United Arab Emirates (UAE) leads the Arab world in terms of “networked readiness”, meaning it’s in a prime position to capitalise on the opportunities presented by digital transformation. But just how has it reached this point, and what can organisations do to reap the rewards of digital transformation going forward?

Ask any CIO today what their number one priority is and digital transformation (DX) will be right up there. In the never-ending race to deliver competitive advantage and revenue growth, it has emerged over recent years as a vital prerequisite. It’s no surprise that IDC predicts spending on DX technologies will top $1.2 trillion in 2017 and grow at a CAGR of 18 per cent to reach $2 trillion by 2020.

With cloud, mobile, social, the Internet of Things and big data leading the charge, ICT is increasingly embedded into our daily lives, at work and play. According to IDC: “We’re entering an era in which the technologies and processes that businesses deploy are so tightly linked to their customers and markets that the boundary between the internal operations of the enterprise and its external ecosystem (customers, markets, competitors, partners, regulators) is rapidly disappearing.”

Get it right and digital transformation can offer unrivalled opportunities for organisations to work more productively, engage more effectively with customers and innovate their way to success. But there are huge pressures on CIOs to get it right. As the WEF’s The Global Information Technology Report 2016 explains: “Because digital technologies are driving winner-takes-all dynamics for an increasing number of industries, getting there first matters.”

Building momentum

The UAE is certainly doing something right. It placed 26th out of 139 on the WEF’s Networked Readiness Index, which measures the capacity of countries to leverage ICTs for increased competitiveness and wellbeing. The government in particular was praised for “leading the way to greater digital connectivity” as well as “providing a consistent vision for the sector and achieving success at promoting it”.

That’s not all. Another influential report, the World Intellectual Property Organization’s The Global Innovation Index 2017, put the UAE at number 35 out of 127, up from 41 last year. Then there’s the Digital Evolution Index 2017, compiled by the Fletcher School at Tufts University and Mastercard. It rated the UAE 22nd out of 60, and 10th in terms of momentum.

“Three countries are notable as standouts even within the Stand Out segment: Singapore, New Zealand, and the UAE,” the report states. “Each has a unique policy-led digital strategy and a narrative that may be considered by other nations as worthy of emulation or adoption.

“The UAE is using numerous free-trade zones, next-generation infrastructure, tax breaks, low import duties, and a strategic location to become an early adopter of a range of futuristic technologies, from self-driving cars to robot policemen.”

Another indicator of the momentum behind digital transformation efforts in the UAE is the growth of cloud computing. According to Cisco, the MEA region will have the world’s highest cloud traffic growth rate (41 per cent) by 2019, as new data centre builds and service partnerships in the UAE continue to lay the foundations for innovation and success.

Leading the way

Various UAE organisations are leading the way in digital transformation efforts. Unlike in many countries, the banking sector is at the cutting edge here. In July, Emirates NBD pledged over $272 million (Dh1 billion) to digital transformation projects, having already rolled out innovative new services like FaceBanking, where customers can talk to an advisor via video call. Then there’s the Emirates Digital Wallet, set to roll out in the next few months. The brainchild of the UAE Banks Federation (UBF), this new platform will help accelerate the country’s move to a cashless future and will integrate with the UAE’s Smart Government initiative.

E-banking centres have begun springing up in several major lenders to help meet customer demands for online services. Blockchain is another cutting-edge technology that many banks are considering for improved security. In fact, Dubai has ambitious plans to be the world’s first “blockchain city”, driven by Smart Dubai and a blockchain-as-a-service platform.

The innovation doesn’t stop with the banking sector. There are also plans afoot under the UAE National Agenda to utilise emerging technologies to create a world-class healthcare system. Preventive health services, 24/7 telemedicine and digital health record systems helped propel the country to first place on the Future Health Index in 2016.

Gearing up for success

The UAE has taken massive strides towards digital maturity in recent years, thanks in part to proactive government policy, private sector innovation, relatively little legacy infrastructure, and the country’s affluence and comparatively small population. However, there are still improvements to be made. The WEF noted that fixed broadband remains an area of weakness – in 2014, subscriptions were only at 11.6 per 100 people. Patent activity also remains relatively low.

It’s important to remember that any successful company-wide digital transformation project is predicated on getting buy-in from employees. Enabling open communication lines and eliciting honest feedback is vitally important to achieving this.

As for practical steps on how to make your digital transformation strategy a success, you’ll find plenty of essential advice in Lenovo’s latest ebook, Make your digital transformation strategy a reality, which discusses three vital pillars of success: mobility and productivity; streamlining internal operations; and seamless collaboration.