Ballmer’s Doha deal

When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer arrives in the Middle East, people sit up and listen. James Bennett reports on last month's events in Doha and the signing of a major technology deal for the Gulf.

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By  James Bennett Published  June 3, 2007

"This is something we've been waiting for for a very long time," I overhear one expectant guest saying to another. And no wonder. It's not everyday the CEO of one of the world's largest companies, and right hand man to the legendary Bill Gates, graces Qatar and its burgeoning ICT and business community.

In fact it's taken a team of 20 people nine months to plan for Ballmer's four hours on the ground - his first visit to the Gulf in over two years since he last made a whirlwind stopover in 2005.

We’re serious about this region and we want to showcase what technology can do.

"I flew in at midnight and have to leave in a second," says Steve Ballmer shaking hands with every conceivable VIP in the emirate of Qatar.

The time is only 11am but no sooner has he landed, slept a few hours and put the lid back on his fountain pen, than he has other people to see and more of the Microsoft word to spread across the region. "I'm going to Kuwait to open an innovation centre but have loved my time here, despite it being so short," he says.

"I had an amazing set of discussions in a very short time and we can do amazing things here because Qatar has an amazing infrastructure and amazing possibilities.

"This is a very computer advanced society in some ways and in others there are a bunch of opportunities for improvement. This is not only a good place to do business but also a laboratory for leading edge research, development of ICT companies, using computers to advance education. It's all very exciting." It's not surprising that he's excited. According to the US$15bn-rich chief executive the IT market in the Arab world is the fastest growing on the planet, overtaking the globe's two rising economic powerhouses, India and China. "We're serious about this region and want to showcase what technology can do to improve services within government, education, healthcare, society and the business world," he says at a million miles an hour.

Ballmer, dressed in his trademark black suit, white shirt, and red tie is in Qatar to sign, in his own words, "the most significant deal in the GCC" - a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that will form the basis of a strategic partnership with ictQatar, the country's policy making and regulatory body for information and communication technology, to transform the emirate into a successful knowledge-based economy, increase the impact ICT has on its GDP, and to diversify its interests away from oil and gas.

The deal will predominantly cover education, healthcare and e-government, says Ballmer with Microsoft; "providing ictQatar with advice, assistance and tangible initiatives" in the use of technology, research and development, e-programmes and to enhance the learning experience through the use of IT, "building capacity to facilitate the creation of a digitally connected society".

ICT currently accounts for a mere 0.6% of the country's GDP, however Ballmer and the strategic partnership's co-signee, Dr Hessa Al-Jaber, secretary general of ictQatar, suggest this will rise "significantly" in the next six to 12 months with "major concrete announcements" materialising in June. "Steve has promised that by the first week of June we will have a very concrete proposal from Microsoft and some references to some very specific projects. People think that signing an MoU is very easy and they would be right," Dr Al-Jaber points out. "But making sure that we will be achieving and monitoring our targets and projects is much harder but we are determined to push ICT forwards in Qatar and across the rest of the region.

"I want to create and develop our own ICT industry, not compete with Singapore, for example. I don't just want to be in the GCC like some kind of supermarket, we want to be part of the growth and impact of the country and I think we will do it."

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