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:
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.
To enable a faster and inclusive transition online, most Arab countries sought to expand digital access.
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:
Despite progress in Internet connectivity, access remains far from universal.
Digital divides remain within countries and between countries.
There is a need to prevent online violence against women and girls.
Arab countries ordered schools to close during the pandemic for an average length of 24.1 weeks. To minimize disruption to learning, most countries instituted distance learning programmes that varied widely depending on context.
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:
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.
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.
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, 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:
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:
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.
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. 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.
Examples of on-going regional cooperation in the digital realm include:
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, 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.
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.
 World Bank, “US$20 Million to Boost Digital Development in the Palestinian Territories”, 26 March 2021.
 World Bank, “Expanding digital and financial inclusion: World Bank supports Morocco’s reforms for social and economic resilience” 17 June 2021.
 Edx, “Doroob: Free online courses from Doroob”, n.d.
 World Bank, “Lessons for Education from COVID-19 Responses”, n.d.
 UNICEF, “COVID-19: Are children able to continue learning during school closures?”, 2020.
 UNICEF, “Middle East and North Africa: Education”, n.d.
 Access Now, “COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in MENA: a privacy nightmare”, 18 June 2020.
 Saudi Arabia, Artificial Intelligence Authority, “Tawakkalna”, n.d.
 Zachary Bampton, “The varying appetites for COVID vaccination in the MENA”, 7 July 2021.
 UNESCO, “UNESCO launches Iraqi Fact-Checking Platform (IFCT)”, 26 September
 Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Health, “MOH Apps for Smartphones”, 2021.
 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Physical and Mental Well-being and the Role of Telemedicine during the Covid-19 Pandemic in Bahrain”, 2021.
 International Organization for Migration, “IOM Somalia Supports New ‘Telemedicine’ Enhancement for Migrants and Host Communities”, 15 January 2021.
 Access Now, “COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in MENA: a privacy nightmare”, 18 June 2020.
 Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation While Respecting Freedom of Expression, (Geneva, International Telecommunication Union, 2020).
 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), COVID-19 And E-Commerce: A Global Review, (New York, United Nations, 2020).
 Bahrain, Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, "About mall.bh”, n.d.
 Central Bank of Egypt, NilePreneurs website, n.d.
 Somalia, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, “Welcome to Somalia Business Registry”, n.d.
 Dina AlSalhi and others, “Lockdown But Not Shutdown: The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Financial Services In Jordan”, JOPACC, 2020.
 United Nations Algeria, “United Nations: 2020 Algeria Annual Report”, 2021.
 Dina AlSalhi and others, “Lockdown But Not Shutdown”, 2020.
 ILO, “Teleworking arrangements during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond”, 2021.
 World Bank Group, “Digital Jobs for Youth with Disabilities”, 2021.
 United Arab Emirates, Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and Prime Minister’s Office, “The Digital Customer and Digital Government Service Policy”, 2021
 Arab News, “Program launched to boost digital skills of employees in Saudi govt sector”, 10 October 2021.
 Jordan, Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship, “The National Digital Transformation Strategy & Implementation Plan: 2021-2025”, 2021.
 Zawya, “Bahrain's virtual courts plan approved”, 23 March 2020.
 United Arab Emirates, Official Portal of the UAE Government, “Virtual litigation”, 2021.
 Lebanon, Internal Security Forces, “Inspector General”, n.d.
 OCHA, “A chatbot named Mila: Answering the call for people in Libya”, 17 May 2021.
 United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), “E-Government for Women’s Empowerment in Asia and the Pacific”, 2016.
 Cristina Lago, “Virtual justice: Online trials are an opportunity to reform the court system”, Tech Monitor, 11 May 2021.
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 For an analytical summary of these efforts, see: ESCWA, “Arab Digital Development Report 2019”, 2019.
 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.
 ESCWA, “Arab Digital Inclusion Platform”, 2020.
 ESCWA, “Government electronic & mobile services”, 2014.
 ESCWA, “Digital Arabic Content Award”, 2021.
 ITU Arab Regional Cyber Security Center, “ARCC”, n.d.
 ESCWA, “Open Government in the Arab Region”, 2018.
 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.
 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.