Against all odds

Despite the security situation, high-end technology is becoming increasingly common in Iraq and the country is building a workforce with world class IT skills. Daniel Stanton asks what the future holds.

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By  Daniel Stanton Published  April 2, 2006

|~|iraq200z.jpg|~||~|Iraq is a country in transition, but there is a strong possibility that it could emerge from its current troubles as one of the leading IT centres in the Middle East.

Unlikely as it might seem, following years in which government policy and foreign sanctions restricted access to technology, while conflict destroyed much of the infrastructure, Iraq is planning to put high-end technology in place supported by a new generation with greater access to world-class IT training.

With the assistance of foreign companies, the country is getting ready to leapfrog much of the technology that has been implemented in the region, and some commentators see IT going straight to cutting-edge solutions - Iraq is moving from a crawl to a sprint, and could overtake many of its neighbours in the process.

"With the amount of funding going into Iraq, the ability to introduce the latest technologies and the lack of regulatory impediments - you may well see Iraq being at the forefront of technology in the region within a couple of years' time," says Paul Seaton, general manager of NewSat Middle East and Africa.

But before it can break into an IT sprint, authorities and tertiary institutions realise there is much to be done in terms of infrastructure rebuilding and skills development.

Dr Mahmood Kassim Sharief has perhaps the most challenging job in Iraq. He is the director general of the directorate of IT at the ministry of science and technology.

Among his initial tasks are the construction of the country’s first eGovernment project and the establishment of a National Chief Information Office. Like many of Iraq’s long-term plans and proposals, neither of these can begin until there is a permanent government in place to approve them.

"Only then can we decide on the applications that will be in it to serve the government: the ERP application, the HR financial application and so on," says Sharief. "We have already prepared the infrastructure for these by constructing the first enterprise data centre that will serve the future eGovernment in Iraq.

"This is being constructed through our partner Nahjtech and we have more than 80% of the facilities there on the ground. Hopefully within six months the data centre will be operational."

Projects with large foreign vendors are also being hampered by the lack of a permanent government with law-making powers.

"The problem with Microsoft and Oracle and all the giant companies is they seek some kind of a government licence agreement before donating or investing in this country," says Sharief.

"Unfortunately, I have seen three interim governments. No one ever dares to sign such an agreement. They say we cannot be committed for the whole of the Iraqi government unless we have a permanent legislative government."

In addition, large vendors are still worried that their software could end up on the black market. "Our country has been, and still is, polluted by software piracy," says Sharief. "In order to establish an eGovernment you need to respect intellectual property rights. I think the donations will not come until we have these kinds of agreements."

The ministry of science and technology recently saw 700 of its employees achieve certification in a training project at Baghdad University. Unfortunately, the final part of the training scheme, which would have seen 100 of them travel to Dubai for additional training, has been put on hold due to the current security situation.

However, the ministry in already benefiting from skilled staff: it was formed following the dissolution of Iraq's Nuclear Energy Organisation, and inherited highly qualified employees as a result.

Although in-house skills may not be a problem, Sharief says that an unreliable infrastructure is hindering development plans.

"Most of my plans are being crippled," he says. "I cannot extend and expand my plans because of the shortage of power supplies. In some districts we have the power on for a single hour a day, and sometimes we don't have power for two or three days.

"In order to overcome these problems I have ordered more than a couple of million dollars to make generators available and develop these power supplies. I have these facilities now in my headquarters. The new problem is that petroleum is so rare and expensive."

He adds: "Everybody who tells you that the power supply will improve, please tell them they are lying."

Even for members of the ministry, telecommunications are a problem. "I have a very good relationship with the director of communication and the landline at my residence hasn't had service for the last year or so," says Sharief.

"In front of me now I have four mobiles. I hope the time comes when we have a single mobile with which we can speak with all the companies who are currently competing for business."

There are currently three mobile operators, Asiacell, MTC Atheer and Iraqna, which have temporary licences running until June 2006.

Each originally covered a different region: the north, south and centre, but now each operator is beginning to increase its coverage area. However, the lack of national network roaming means that many businessmen who need to travel around the country are obliged to carry two or three mobile phones with them in order to ensure that they can make and receive calls in all areas.

According to the National Communication and Media Commission there are as many as 4.5 million mobile phone users in Iraq. The Commission will begin the tendering process for long-term licences later this year.

Communications have also been a problem for banks. Credit card company Visa carried out work with the Central Bank of Iraq two years ago to enable banks to communicate with each other remotely. This was something that had not been possible to do until that point. The company installed VisaNet, which conducts transactions via satellite, making it the only option for areas with no robust fixed line or mobile telephone network.

Prior to the installation of VisaNet, banks did not have a way to exchange money or the ability to settle transactions electronically. Any exchange of funds was usually carried out by transferring cash by convoy from one bank to another - hardly ideal in times of conflict.

Now, 20 banks in Iraq have access to a payment system that links the banks to each other and to the rest of the global banking industry.

"It was always going to be an interim system anyway until the banks found their own systems, and that's really where it's going," says Keith Lams, head of external communications for Visa. "What is happening now is that the Trade Bank of Iraq has started issuing cards and there are now another couple of banks who are working with Visa on a more 'business as usual' basis.||**|||~|seaton200.jpg|~|Seaton: Satellite communication is the only option in most areas of Iraq.|~|"It was a great success to be able to put this system in place. Unfortunately given the situation it hasn't brought the benefits we would have hoped for."

Professor Rizgar Jiawook is deputy minister of higher education in the Kurdistan regional government and professor of IT at Sulamaniyah University. He has seen a need to improve the technology used in education.

"IT in all of the universities in Iraq is very poor," he says. "Computers, databases, operating systems - all of these, and the curriculum, need to be upgraded. It's all very old-fashioned, some of the infrastructure is really outdated."
"We need people - students, technicians, staff - to participate in courses, and they need to be active so they can cope with global technology."

The regional ministry is also trying hard to modernise and automate its systems. "All of the communications are done on paper, but we had a project in our ministry, it appears to be the leading ministry in the government to start with internet," says Jiawook.

"We are starting a log system using Oracle and we are trying to have this kind of network at the ministry and all of the universities we have in Kurdistan, so we will get rid of the paper in maybe a year or so," he adds.

Dr Diar Ahmed is CEO of IraqCom, which recently launched a scheme to train Oracle users at Sulamaniyah University. He says that the fact that software and hardware giants do not have a base in Iraq makes life difficult for distributors of their products.

"When you bring IT stock and hardware and solutions, you need to service them, you need to give a warranty, you need to give support, after-sale care," says Ahmed. "This is a problem. You know these products need to be serviced, but the big vendors don't have service centres inside Iraq."

Getting equipment to Iraq in the first place can also be very tricky. Nextech supplied Proxim wireless equipment to the UN to help connect different locations within Iraq and provide mission critical communications to emergency relief projects. It has also supplied VOIP and VSAT in the country as a distributor of Quantum products.

The company often dealt with Iraqi companies that had another office in Dubai in order to make payments easier, and shipping could also be complicated.

Basel Kayed, sales manager for Nextech Middle East, says: "They usually collect the equipment from here because we face lots of insurance issues on the shipments. We either increase the margins or we inform the customer that it's not insured equipment, you guys have to take care of the shipping.

"It is possible to get insurance but not all companies want to do insurance because of the cost. We got one shipment hijacked on the road between the airport in Iraq and the customer."

Much of the private sector is growing slowly and has not yet been demanding high-end IT solutions, but that is starting to change.

Delair Adib is CEO of IQ Technology, a sister company to IraqCom, which operates in Iraq but is based in Dubai. He explains the kind of private sector work that IQ Technology has been doing there: "We've done some work for some private companies, like there are new cement factories that need a fibre optic network, routers and switches," he says.

"[A mobile operator] charged us with doing a remote management system. We're going to do an [HP] OpenView network management system for all the servers and so on."

So far, the scale of the private sector projects has been fairly small.

"I wouldn't say we've done a lot of things, but no one has done big things over there, it's just starting at the moment," says Adib. "Most of these people are buying things like laptops and PCs, servers and so on, but you're not talking about ERP implementations or CRM or these sort of applications as yet."

IT solutions may not be a priority for all private companies yet, but they have all had to put security high on the agenda. Thikraa Al Azzawi is head of Nahjtech, a communications solutions provider in Iraq. Like most companies operating in Iraq, the firm employs armed guards in its offices and has contingency plans in place.

"We have more than one location, to be a backup of our main head office," says Al Azzawi. "All of our offices are connected by internet, through satellite."

It has occasionally been necessary to use these other locations, after incidents near the company's Baghdad headquarters||**|||~|yassin200.jpg|~|Yassin: Most young Iraqis now look for a career in IT.|~|"Twice there was an explosion in front of our head office," says Al Azzawi. "All the doors and windows were damaged so we used the backup office for two days. "We have projects with the government, and we have commitments, so
we have to be ready to continue our work."

The company is also prepared for other terrible eventualities. "Also, in addition to bakckup places, we have a backup of the people," says Al Azzawi. "For each job we have two employees. They know about each issue so if something goes wrong with one of them the other one will be able to continue."

The security situation has not affected the growth in Nahjtech's business. It recently entered an agreement to provide the first Microsoft training centre in Iraq.

"We are offering for people to get certified inside Iraq so they don't have to pay to go to Jordan,” says Al Azzawi. “It's cheaper in Iraq and also easier for them. We are offering it at 25% of the cost of training outside the country,"

One Iraqi who began working in IT before 2003 is Ali Yassin, business development manager for NewSat Middle East and Africa. His training took place in nearby countries like Jordan and Turkey because there were no facilities in place in his homeland at the time.

Having grown up in Iraq and lived there until a couple of months ago, he remembers the restrictions on technology before 2003, particularly on the internet.

"It was very limited, just to some people, and even the usage of internet services, there was no emails, no chatting, you could just visit some websites - more than 80% were blocked," he says. "Not more than five to six persons from the whole Iraqi people were using this technology."

NewSat has been providing satellite communications for government organisations and the Red Crescent, as well as for business and household use, often having to implement solutions at very short notice. As an Australian company, it has the benefit of operating without political baggage.

In many areas, internet via satellite is the only realistic option. "There is a dial-up connection, but it's very limited," says Yassin. "It's very slow and not in all the regions, just three or four regions in Baghdad."
Yassin says that IT is now perhaps the most popular choice of career for young Iraqis. He has also noticed that young people are now making the most of technology for their recreational use. "Maybe the reason is because everything was forbidden before so people just want to get as much as they can, all the information, all the technology, anything," he suggests.

Seaton at NewSat agrees. "There's been a very rapid change in consumer behaviour in the last two years," he says.
"The average internet user now in Iraq will be using VOIP services and a bunch of other communications platforms which makes their demands and the amount of bandwidth they're each using a lot higher than what they were using before. I'd say conservatively that individual users are probably using two to three times as much bandwidth as they were using 18 months ago."

VSAT technology is able to handle these demands and is coming down in price, to the point where it is affordable for some households. Many of the installations in Iraq are likely to become permanent, since Seaton says there will probably never be an alternative to satellite communication in most regions.

Despite the hardships Iraq is going through at the moment, he believes that there is a good chance the country will emerge with a very strong IT industry. Seaton says: "What's exciting about the Iraq situation is that a lot of the development and competition is taking place by Iraqi companies. The private sector there has recovered very quickly."

While it could be a long time before the national infrastructure is back on track, IT professionals have seized the opportunity to develop new skills and redevelop their country. Despite the day-to-day struggles many face at the moment, the IT industry in Iraq could turn out to be the surprise success story of the region.||**||

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