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Digital Transformation

Digitalization efforts across government and business have accelerated in the Arab region out of a necessity imposed by lockdown and social distancing measures. If sustained, these efforts may herald a digital transformation in the Arab region, unlocking a huge potential for building forward better and achieving the SDGs.

What can be learned from response measures to date, and what should Arab countries consider for the longer term?

Directly related goals:

Building back better through digital transformation

To confront the COVID-19 pandemic and deal with its implications, individuals, government agencies, and the private sector across the Arab region used digital technologies to protect lives, maintain social interaction and ensure the continuity of education, business and public services.

Almost two years into the pandemic, Arab countries must be guided by considerations of equity, resilience, and sustainability as they consider which COVID-19 digital response measures to institutionalize and scale-up. Technology megatrends and potential threats need to be kept in sight and actions taken to stimulate the systemic changes needed to build back better and achieve the 2030 Agenda in the Arab region.

Digital transformation is about using digital technologies to effect fundamental change to products and services, and how they are delivered, to better meet client needs.

Digital access

What has been done

To enable a faster and inclusive transition online, most Arab countries sought to expand digital access.

  • Internet bandwidths and speeds were increased at no additional cost (e.g. Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon).
  • Voice-over-IP applications were unblocked (e.g. Oman).
  • High-income Arab countries increased the availability of public Wi-Fi and supported disadvantaged groups (notably migrant workers) through the free provision of personal computers and SIM cards, online access, and ICT training (e.g. Qatar, Saudi Arabia).
  • Donor-supported programs in underserved areas of the region, such as Palestine[1]and rural Morocco[2] , upgraded digital infrastructure to increase broadband coverage.

What countries can do moving forward

Digital transformation has the potential to drive equality, inclusion and social progress. Yet, to capture its full value and prevent the deepening or creation of new divides, countries in the region will need to address pre-existing inequalities. In particular, countries could:

  • Accelerate progress in broadband Internet connectivity, bridging persistent divides across and within countries, including those based on gender, location, age, disability and literacy levels. To truly leave no one behind, all dimensions must be considered, including those of availability, accessibility, acceptability, affordability and quality.
  • Increase digital literacy among all segments of society, including women, older persons and others. Digital literacy needs to be embedded as a foundational skill in primary and secondary education.
  • Promote interventions and awareness raising efforts to protect and ensure the safety of underage users and prevent the replication of prevailing gender-based violence and inequality in the digital sphere.

Despite progress in Internet connectivity, access remains far from universal.

Percentage of the population using the Internet

Percentage of the population having fixed-broadband subscriptions

Source: ESCWA, “SDG Data”, United Nations ESCWA Data Portal for the Arab Region. Available at: https://data.unescwa.org (accessed 30 November 2021).

Digital divides remain within countries and between countries.

Percentage of the population using the Internet, by location (2020)

Percentage of the population using the Internet, by gender (2020)

Percentage of the population using the Internet, by country (2017-2020)

Source: International Telecommunication Union, “International Telecommunication Union” ITU-D ICT Statistics. Available at: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx (accessed on 30 November 2021).

There is a need to prevent online violence against women and girls.

Percentage of survey participants knowing or witnessing online harassment against women (2020)

Sources: UN-Women, “Rapid Assessment: The Effects of COVID-19 on Violence Against Women and Gendered Social Norms - Results of web-based surveys from nine countries in the Arab States”, 2020; UN-Women, “Tunisian women in the face of COVID-19: during and after confinement”, 2020.

Online learning

What has been done

Arab countries ordered schools to close during the pandemic for an average length of 24.1 weeks.[3] To minimize disruption to learning, most countries instituted distance learning programmes that varied widely depending on context.

  • In countries where Internet penetration remains low and where large numbers of households lack the hardware necessary to access online platforms, such as Palestine and Yemen, traditional broadcast media such as radio and television were employed to reach as many students as possible.
  • In some cases, online learning programmes consisted of curated collections of reading material and videos assembled by the Ministry of Education, which could be accessed by students with guidance from a teacher (for example, EduNet in Bahrain and the Educational Platform in Egypt). To complement these platforms, schools often utilized social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook to maintain communication between students, teachers and parents.
    sdg-1 Source: UNESCO, “National learning platforms and tools”, n.d.
  • More advanced cases included a comprehensive transition to online Learning Management Systems and Video Conferencing tools to manage assignments and course resources and allow live interactions between students and their teachers (for example, in the United Arab Emirates).
  • In addition to K-12 and university education, some countries utilized online platforms to promote the upskilling of their labour force, including programmes targeting those who have lost their job as a result of the pandemic or need training to adapt to teleworking and the digital economy (such as the Doroob platform in Saudi Arabia).[4]

What countries can do moving forward

The shift to online education in most Arab countries proved that swift, widescale changes to education systems are possible with determination, and the active support of all stakeholders, government and non-government, including families and communities. Arab countries could:

  • Consider the potential value, post-COVID-19, of an effective hybrid model of education, and the changes needed to get there. The use of digital technology could indeed increase the resilience of education systems and break barriers, giving students the capacity to learn anywhere, anytime and at their own pace, and facilitating the role of teachers. [5]
  • Invest in inclusive ICT infrastructure, offer adequate teacher support and digital skilling, and provide support to the most vulnerable.
  • Mobilize efforts to rebuild the infrastructure needed to enable remote learning opportunities to students in areas of conflict. A big proportion of the 37 million schoolchildren in the region who could not access distance learning programmes during school closures[6] live in the Syrian Arab Republic, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, where conflicts have resulted in the destruction of and damage to more than 8,850 schools and affected infrastructure. [7]
  • Build regional and global partnerships that support innovation and expertise sharing in digitalization in the education sector, including in online learning technology development.
ESCWA, “SDG Data”, United Nations ESCWA Data Portal for the Arab Region. Available at: https://data.unescwa.org (accessed on 30 November 2021).


What has been done

Governments across the Arab region developed web portals to raise public awareness of the virus, promote safe behaviors, and inform inhabitants about the state of the pandemic in their countries.

  • Websites, mobile apps and surveillance systems were used to trace contacts, monitor movements and issue permits. Public health officials encouraged (or in some cases, mandated) the use of contact tracing applications that use smartphone’s Bluetooth and GPS capabilities to track potential exposures to COVID-19. In some cases, GPS-enabled mobile applications were used to enforce quarantine measures for suspected cases or arrivals from abroad. [8]
    sdg-1 Source: Zachary Bampton, “The varying appetites for COVID vaccination in the MENA”, 7 July 2021.
  • Some websites, including that of the Ministry of Public Health of Qatar, were enhanced with artificial intelligence-powered chat robots to direct users to resources and assess symptoms.
  • The Tawakkalna application[9] in Saudi Arabia evolved throughout the pandemic to host a suite of services for users, including contact tracing, permits to leave a residence during periods of curfew or hold a gathering, booking COVID-19 tests and vaccine appointments, and accessing vaccination records.
  • In some GCC countries, such as Oman and Qatar, surveillance technologies such as drones, thermal cameras and other devices were deployed by police to screen suspected cases.
  • The spread of COVID-19-related misinformation and disinformation through digital channels arose as a truly complex societal threat, contributing to high levels of vaccine hesitancy in countries including Tunisia, Iraq, Algeria and Jordan.[10] Efforts to denounce fake news and disinformation about COVID-19 were common in Arab countries. One example is the fact-checking tool of Iraq.[11]

Digitalization also entered the practice of healthcare in many Arab countries. As COVID-19 strained health systems around the world, many governments turned to technology to reinforce social distancing and preserve hospital resources for those urgently needing in-person attention. Donor support was extended to countries in conflict to strengthen their digital healthcare capabilities.

  • In countries where telemedicine regulations and infrastructure were already in place, as in several GCC countries, web-based platforms and mobile applications were expanded, and new ones made available to meet the increasing demand for teleconsultations. One such example was the development of apps by the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia. [12]
  • New and enhanced work models emerged involving healthcare service providers, pharmacies and health insurance companies in Bahrain. [13]
  • In Somalia, the International Organization for Migration worked with the Somalia Humanitarian Fund and the Ministry of Health to procure ICT equipment and establish a network linking diaspora doctors with local clinics to give real-time recommendations for patient management. [14]

What countries can do moving forward

  • Enhance trust and acceptability of contact tracing applications by clarifying mandates to use these applications, ensuring legal protection of user data and preventing potential abuse of the surveillance capabilities permitted by these applications. [15]
  • Establish governance frameworks to counter health-related misinformation and disinformation while protecting freedom of expression. [16]
  • Capitalize on the surge in acceptance and practice of telehealth brought about by the pandemic and undertake policy and regulatory changes to enable further growth in this sector, thus helping to address shortages in healthcare provision capacity in the region.
  • Promote the responsible use of the big data collected on the spread of the pandemic in health sector research activities, relying on the power of artificial intelligence.

Digital economy

What has been done

To maintain business continuity under social distancing constraints, enterprises made use of ICTs to enable teleworking where feasible. While figures concerning the number of employees who benefited from this work option in the region are not available, some level of teleworking was reported in all Arab countries regardless of prevailing levels of connectivity and digital literacy.

Many middle- and high-income Arab countries sought to boost electronic commerce. This was true not only in countries where an e-commerce culture pre-dated the pandemic,[17] but across the region, suggesting increased consumer acceptance of online shopping, and an increased confidence among businesses, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs), in the viability of operating online. As part of the shift towards operating online:

  • Online platforms were established, often through public-private partnerships, to help SMEs sell their products and services online. One example is the virtual mall launched by the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism of Bahrain.[18]
  • Technical support was provided such as training in product design and e-commerce techniques. Examples include the NilePreneurs initiative launched by the Central Bank of Egypt. [19]
  • Legal help was provided, including to setup e-business, such as through the electronic business registry in Somalia.[20]
  • In the tourism sector, which was particularly hit by the pandemic, virtual tours of museums and archaeological sites were developed. Examples of this were observed in Egypt and Lebanon.
Electronic payments and other digital financial services were expanded in several countries of the region. For example:

  • Financial institutions opened digital services to a wider population (including migrant workers in some countries). Efforts were coupled with financial awareness and literacy campaigns, leading to a significant increase in adoption rates and contributing to financial inclusion.
  • Limits on mobile phone payments were increased.
  • Fees on e-payments were reduced or cancelled. For example, an electronic service for paying bills in Jordan, increased its customer base by some 100,000 in the 2nd quarter of 2020, and saw the doubling of its transactions through Jordan Mobile Payments Switch. [21]
Digital innovation and entrepreneurship also garnered attention from development actors and governments.For example:

  • Hackathons were organized in several countries challenging people, especially youth, to develop innovative digital solutions to address the impacts of the crisis.
  • Occasionally, efforts focused on selected vulnerable groups. In Algeria, digital solutions were sought to facilitate trade among Sahrawi refugee camp residents. [22]

What countries can do moving forward

The increase in e-commerce and digital innovation, spearheaded by the private sector, including SMEs, is a positive outcome from the pandemic. Bolstered by expanded digital access and measures to increase electronic payment services, it offers prospects for improving the resilience of Arab economies. Arab countries must capitalize on this momentum to boost skilled job creation, diversify their economies, and increase the share of economic value added from medium and high-tech industry. In particular, Arab countries are encouraged to:

  • Adopt comprehensive and long-term e-commerce strategies to promote an enabling environment where no business is left behind. Strategies include introducing legal and regulatory reforms to enhance online transaction security, digital skilling, modernizing postal services, connecting local markets to e-commerce supply chains, and closing ICT and electricity infrastructure gaps that leave rural regions behind.
  • Expand e-payments (including mobile payments) to enhance financial inclusion in the region, which lags significantly behind world averages. The development of robust functional digital financial identity systems, which are presently lacking in most Arab countries, could constitute a driver for a safe growth in this area. [23]
  • Boost investment in the ICT sector and assist firms in moving up global value chains through research, development, and innovation targeting artificial intelligence and other 4th industrial revolution technologies. Countries should also develop an enabling environment for ICT innovation and entrepreneurship to accelerate economic recovery.
  • Establish clear, win-win teleworking policies, and introduce or expand telework incentives based on local experiences.[24] Telework offers opportunities for enhancing work-life and gender balance, reducing traffic and employee commute times, and including more persons with disabilities in the workforce.[25]
ESCWA, “SDG Data”, United Nations ESCWA Data Portal for the Arab Region. Available at: https://data.unescwa.org (accessed on 30 November 2021).


What has been done

E-government efforts were expedited, and smart channels of services expanded in several Arab countries. Teleworking public service employees and online service portals allowed for the continued delivery of certain public services at the national and local levels. Countries that were more advanced in this area prior to the pandemic were better prepared to quickly adapt and expand e-government services.

  • The United Arab Emirates launched the Digital Customer and Digital Government Service Policy[26] to enhance user experience, and improve efficiency and integration. Several government agencies in the country are using virtual assistants powered by artificial intelligence to support interaction with customers.
  • Programmes were launched to build the digital skills of the public sector workforce to be able to better support the shift to e-services in Saudi Arabia.[27]
  • Efforts were increased to inter-connect government agencies and enhance information exchange over fast and secure networks, adopting high cybersecurity standards. Examples include the Secure Government Network in Jordan. [28]
  • Virtual court hearings and notarial services were instated in several countries, including Algeria, Egypt and Morocco, with some countries amending legislation to maintain this mode of operation even beyond the COVID-19 crisis (Bahrain[29] and the United Arab Emirates[30]).
  • E-government services to combat gender-based violence were expanded. Increased reports of violence against women led governments in the region (often with the support of non-government actors) to establish or increase the number of hotlines and websites to raise awareness, report abuse and provide services to survivors. Key examples of this were observed in Lebanon. [31]
  • Digital technologies entered further in the realm of humanitarian assistance. In several Arab conflict-affected countries and LDCs, digital technologies were increasingly used by humanitarian actors to reach households impacted by the pandemic. In Libya for example, a chatbot that uses artificial intelligence was deployed to communicate with people using the local dialect, leading to better humanitarian assistance delivery and programme impact. [32]

What countries can do moving forward

  • Push forward the e-government agenda and maintain the COVID-19 momentum for well-designed web-portals and e-tools that increase transparency, facilitate access to information, and ensure a clear and consistent application of rules and regulations.
  • Consider citizen needs and requirements in developing online services and improve stakeholder participation and engagement in the process.
  • Make e-government policies and strategies gender-responsive, contributing to women empowerment and protection. An effective balance between digital processes and human elements of service delivery is important to ensure the inclusion of disadvantaged women. [33]
  • Continue building the digital readiness and capacity of their public administration workforce and physical infrastructure.
  • Undertake comprehensive, justice-centred evaluations of e-justice. Although interventions such as virtual court hearings helped prevent interruptions and delays in the justice system, they have raised concerns regarding the risk of digital divides preventing access to justice, and the appropriateness of online media for some types of cases where fairness could be compromised (such as in criminal cases). [34]
  • Strengthen the protection of digital human rights by instituting legal and policy safeguards for data protection and privacy, as well as digital identity, building on lessons learned from the pandemic.

Box 3. Gender just digital transformation

  • A true digital transformation is an opportunity to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment in the Arab region in all spheres. Benefits are not automatic, however, and caveats must be addressed.
  • The gender gap in digital connectivity and literacy continues to prevail in the Arab region and needs to be bridged.
  • Conscious efforts at all levels are needed to prevent the replication of gender-based discriminations and violence in the digital sphere.
  • E-government policies and strategies need to be made gender-responsive, contributing to women empowerment and protection.
  • Women need to be active partners and to actively engage in the development of ICT and e-government strategies.

What to watch for[35]

  • The use of artificial intelligence and robotic automation is expected to become widespread in business, impacting economies and the world of work.
  • There will be exponential growth in cross-border Internet traffic and increasing reliance on big data and data analytics technologies, with a need for innovative data governance approaches.
  • The global rate of Internet connectivity continues to grow; yet, as digital technologies continue to evolve, other divides are emerging that relate to the skills and ability to use these technologies by different social groups.
  • There will be increasingly seamless fusion of digital technologies with the physical world, and a shift in decision-making from humans to algorithms, leading to increased concerns over digital human rights, and a greater need for ethical and legal frameworks.
  • The growing environmental impact of digital technologies, such as the ramp up of electricity consumption by artificial intelligence applications, will need to be addressed.
  • Cybercrime and breaches of cybersecurity, data protection and privacy are expected to increase.
  • Cities will seek to develop smart infrastructure and adopt automated and data-driven approaches, including for planning an ensuring security.
  • The use of surveillance technology to protect citizens will increase, with possible implications on civil rights, freedoms and privacy.

Regional cooperation and integration

On international and regional digital cooperation frameworks: Arab countries continue to exert digital cooperation efforts in line with international and regional frameworks, notably the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Action Lines.[36] An Arab Digital Agenda is presently being prepared under the umbrella of the League of Arab States that could foster further regional cooperation and integration for promoting information economies and societies.[37]

Examples of on-going regional cooperation in the digital realm include:

  • The Arab Digital Inclusion Platform aims to enhance the e-accessibility of persons with disabilities. [38]
  • The GEMS Maturity Index proposes regional benchmarks for the digitization of government services. [39]
  • The Digital Arabic Content Award aims to boost the development of digital Arabic content that has a clear impact on society. [40]
  • The Arab Regional Cybersecurity Center acts as a catalyst for regional cooperation to address escalating cyber threats. [41]
  • The initiative on Open Government in the Arab Region aims at encouraging and supporting Arab countries to move towards open government. [42]

On open-source digital solutions: Arab countries could collaborate to develop solutions that are people-centric and have the potential to reduce inequalities and accelerate the attainment of all SDGs. Arab countries could join existing digital public goods alliances,[43] or establish a regional alliance, to foster the collaborative development of such goods. Potential areas from the pandemic include open-source health information management systems that could be easily deployed by low- and middle-income countries.[44]

On policy evaluation: To better inform regional cooperation and integration in the area of digital transformation, policy evaluation across the region must be pursued to increase ex-post peer-learning from digital COVID-19 response measures but also to improve ex-ante understanding of the potential for digital innovation to effectively bridge gaps in education, healthcare, justice systems and other sectors, particularly in low-income and conflict Arab countries.

Digital public goods include “open-source software, open data, open artificial intelligence models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable international and domestic laws, standards and best practices and do no harm.”

United Nations, “Report of the Secretary-General, Roadmap for Digital Cooperation”, June 2020.


[1] World Bank, “US$20 Million to Boost Digital Development in the Palestinian Territories”, 26 March 2021.
[2] World Bank, “Expanding digital and financial inclusion: World Bank supports Morocco’s reforms for social and economic resilience” 17 June 2021.
[3] http://covid19.uis.unesco.org/global-monitoring-school-closures-covid19/country-dashboard/
[4] Edx, “Doroob: Free online courses from Doroob”, n.d.
[5] World Bank, “Lessons for Education from COVID-19 Responses”, n.d.
[6] UNICEF, “COVID-19: Are children able to continue learning during school closures?”, 2020.
[7] UNICEF, “Middle East and North Africa: Education”, n.d.
[8] Access Now, “COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in MENA: a privacy nightmare”, 18 June 2020.
[9] Saudi Arabia, Artificial Intelligence Authority, “Tawakkalna”, n.d.
[10] Zachary Bampton, “The varying appetites for COVID vaccination in the MENA”, 7 July 2021.
[11] UNESCO, “UNESCO launches Iraqi Fact-Checking Platform (IFCT)”, 26 September
[12] Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Health, “MOH Apps for Smartphones”, 2021.
[13] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Physical and Mental Well-being and the Role of Telemedicine during the Covid-19 Pandemic in Bahrain”, 2021.
[14] International Organization for Migration, “IOM Somalia Supports New ‘Telemedicine’ Enhancement for Migrants and Host Communities”, 15 January 2021.
[15] Access Now, “COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in MENA: a privacy nightmare”, 18 June 2020.
[16] Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation While Respecting Freedom of Expression, (Geneva, International Telecommunication Union, 2020).
[17] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), COVID-19 And E-Commerce: A Global Review, (New York, United Nations, 2020).
[18] Bahrain, Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, "About mall.bh”, n.d.
[19] Central Bank of Egypt, NilePreneurs website, n.d.
[20] Somalia, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, “Welcome to Somalia Business Registry”, n.d.
[21] Dina AlSalhi and others, “Lockdown But Not Shutdown: The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Financial Services In Jordan”, JOPACC, 2020.
[22] United Nations Algeria, “United Nations: 2020 Algeria Annual Report”, 2021.
[23] Dina AlSalhi and others, “Lockdown But Not Shutdown”, 2020.
[24] ILO, “Teleworking arrangements during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond”, 2021.
[25] World Bank Group, “Digital Jobs for Youth with Disabilities”, 2021.
[26] United Arab Emirates, Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and Prime Minister’s Office, “The Digital Customer and Digital Government Service Policy”, 2021
[27] Arab News, “Program launched to boost digital skills of employees in Saudi govt sector”, 10 October 2021.
[28] Jordan, Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship, “The National Digital Transformation Strategy & Implementation Plan: 2021-2025”, 2021.
[29] Zawya, “Bahrain's virtual courts plan approved”, 23 March 2020.
[30] United Arab Emirates, Official Portal of the UAE Government, “Virtual litigation”, 2021.
[31] Lebanon, Internal Security Forces, “Inspector General”, n.d.
[32] OCHA, “A chatbot named Mila: Answering the call for people in Libya”, 17 May 2021.
[33] United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), “E-Government for Women’s Empowerment in Asia and the Pacific”, 2016.
[34] Cristina Lago, “Virtual justice: Online trials are an opportunity to reform the court system”, Tech Monitor, 11 May 2021.
[35] United Nations, “Report of the UN Economist Network for the UN 75th Anniversary: Shaping the Trends of Our Time”, 2020.
[36] For an analytical summary of these efforts, see: ESCWA, “Arab Digital Development Report 2019”, 2019.
[37] ESCWA, “First ESCWA-LAS Joint Workshop on Developing the Arab Digital Agenda / ICT Strategy A standalone Side-Event in parallel to the 32nd Arab Working Group on the Arab ICT strategy”, n.d.
[38] ESCWA, “Arab Digital Inclusion Platform”, 2020.
[39] ESCWA, “Government electronic & mobile services”, 2014.
[40] ESCWA, “Digital Arabic Content Award”, 2021.
[41] ITU Arab Regional Cyber Security Center, “ARCC”, n.d.
[42] ESCWA, “Open Government in the Arab Region”, 2018.
[43] Notably the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), endorsed by the United Nations Secretary-General: DPGA, “Promoting digital public goods to create a more equitable world”, n.d.
[44] The DHIS2, a global health information management system, developed by the HISP Centre at the University of Oslo is an example: DHIS2, “The world's largest health information management system — developed through global collaboration led by UiO”, n.d.