Race for the prize

While Qatar is growing rapidly, it still faces a tough task if it is to become a champion of IT excellence in the region. Daniel Stanton asks what the future holds.

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By  Daniel Stanton Published  June 1, 2006

|~|qatar200.jpg|~||~|As the host of the forthcoming Asian Games, the world’s second-largest sporting event, and as a keen developer of sporting talent, Qatar is making clear its ambition to top the podium. However, it faces particular challenges in its efforts to be a leader in the IT sector.

Alaa Husaini is the IT manager for the 2006 Asian Games, being held in Doha in December, and has a major organisational feat on his hands. He needs to integrate several different systems and cooperate with the national telecoms provider.

“On one hand, it is dependent on the telecommunication infrastructure to be delivered by QTel, on which communications – data, voice and TV signals – would run,” says Husaini. “On the other hand, infrastructures and applications need to be delivered at venues and integrate with the backbone infrastructure that will be delivered by QTel. Not to mention the data centre that will house the central results system and central print distribution, plus the disaster recovery centre and command and control centres.

“We went through several stages of planning and coordination with stakeholders and we are at the delivery stage at present.”

The ticketing infrastructure requires different locations to be connected to the system, as well as enabling an on-line purchasing system and a telephone ordering service, which all went live on May 28. Husaini has divided the network into two, to handle the games and administration, and has made security a priority for both.

“On the technical and implementation side, there are several measures that we are putting into place to protect both networks, including use of network intrusion detection systems, firewalls, hardening of servers, securing applications and using anti-virus solutions, and providing enterprise security and monitoring solutions,” he says.

The country’s Aspire project, which aims to nuture sporting talent, also makes IT a priority. Soubhi Abdulkarim, IT manager of the Aspire project, says that its strategy of using the best to produce the best also applies to its IT systems. "The current systems that we have are amongst the best in the world," he says.

“Our entire strategy is based on making information accessible to our staff and students when they need it, wherever they need it,” Abdulkarim says.
“With WLAN coverage throughout the academy, VPN, IP telephony, and connected classrooms, everyone can do their job whether they are behind their desk or anywhere in the world with virtually the same performance and privileges,” he adds.

While Aspire and the Asian Games may demonstrate high end technology at work, Qatar finds itself in an unusual position when it comes to the IT industry. It may have GDP growth of over 8% and be using high end IT in new projects and industry, but to some it will always be struggling to catch up with its near neighbour, the UAE.

With much of its economy focused on oil and gas – Qatar is the world’s biggest producer of liquified natural gas (LNG) and 55% of its GDP comes from fossil fuels – IT has rarely grabbed the headlines.

Some of this wealth is being channeled into IT, but this could be the tip of the iceberg, according to some. Jitendra Kapoor, business development manager, Online Distribution, says: “Qatar has one of the highest GDP growth rates, compared with the rest of the GCC which is on 6% or 7% and that’s extremely encouraging. That is an indication of its IT spend capacity.”

However, he says IT spending has not yet reached its potential. “The adoption rate of IT in Qatar is probably second or third in the GCC after the UAE and probably Kuwait,” he says.||**|||~|pblower200.jpg|~|Blower: The private sector is driving the increase in IT adoption in Qatar.|~|Online Distribution is a distributor for, among others, 3Com, which has worked closely with the forthcoming Asian Games to supply infrastructure, and SurfControl, which Qatar’s Ministry of Education uses as standard for web filtering.

Kapoor sees a particular demand for infrastructure products. He says: “Networks are being set up, so there’s a huge demand for the backbone of IT: networks, routers, servers and storage equipment.”

Kapoor says that demand for network security products is starting to pick up as more businesses have stable infrastructures in place.

“Qatar’s share of the total IT spend [in the GCC] has increased from 3% three years back to around 7% today,” he says. “We expect it to grow to 10% of the IT spend in the next two years.”

Parts of the private sector have already starting to use IT to meet their growing business needs. Nasser Bin Khaled & Sons (NBKS), one of Qatar’s biggest companies, which has businesses ranging from construction to contracting, recently adopted a SAP solution in its car sales division, NBKS Automotive.

Phil Blower, sales director SAP Arabia, says: “NBKS needs to interface to its international partners such as Mercedes, so there’s a lot of requirement from outside the region on the software that it’s using.”

He has seen companies in Qatar moving towards adoption of ERP and other process management systems. He says: “They’re using the latest technology that we can provide. The private sector, certainly in our experience, is driving the market there.”

SAP has been adopted by many of the major names in Qatar’s oil and gas industry. “Qatar Petroleum, Qatar Gas, and Rasgas are all large SAP users,” says Blower.

“The international partners in the large oil and gas companies drive the implementations to be quite sophisticated, so the use they’re making of systems is quite advanced,” he adds.

Paul Maryan, Chief Operating Officer for NBKS Automotive, believes that more and more companies in Qatar will adopt ERP systems soon. “A lot of the companies are very multiple in what they’re doing,” he says. “They’re across so many sectors they’ve got to have an ERP system - they’ve got no choice.”

Hussain Naimi, IT manager for the United Development Company (UDC), the company behind such landmark projects as the Pearl, says his business is looking into it. “We are in the final process of selecting a comprehensive ERP system for UDC and its subsidiaries,” he says. He expects the decision to be made by the middle of this month.

Wissam Iskander, general manager of Ever Gulf, a developer of enterprise content management solutions and information lifecycle management strategies, says that the rapid expansion of Qatar’s economy has caused many businesses to rethink IT systems and processes.

“You can say from 1991 to 2003 there was maybe 1% expansion every year,” he explains. “From 2003 till now, this has dramatically changed. There are new buildings but along with that the people themselves are changing and the culture is changing.”

But while a booming economy may be spurring enterprise IT adoption, Iskander believes that inflation, currently at 7.8%, is in danger of harming businesses. “The rents are becoming too much, I think it’s now more than Dubai,” he says. “I think it has a very negative impact on the economy.”||**|||~|qatar200a.jpg|~|Qatar may not be the IT runner up for much longer.|~|NBKS Automotive’s Maryan agrees. “We have to manage our costs so much more now, from the point of view of our employee costs and the costs on top of each employee head,” he says.

“So you have to have very strong control on your costs and on your new investments, your return on investment and where you want to put your capital investments for the future,” he adds.

As in many Gulf economies, most nationals are employed in the public sector. Only about 4% of working Qataris are in the private sector.

“There’s no localisation programme,” says Maryan. “We as an organisation belong to the Young Arab League so we look at trying to bring Arab youth into the organisation because its an essential part of the future for the country and also it’s a family strategy.”

Qatar is also building for the future when it comes to research and development. A new project, Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), hopes to bring innovation to the region by supporting it with a world class infrastructure.

Dr Eulian Roberts, Chief Executive, QSTP, says: “The role of Qatar Science & Technology Park is to boost the level of research and commercialisation in Qatar, and thereby contribute to growth of the region’s knowledge economy.”

He says: “To do this, we aim for Qatar to become a place where technologies are created rather than simply imported from overseas, which has been the case in the past. We also aim to foster start-up technology companies, and to create high-value jobs for the graduates of Qatar’s universities.”

QSTP hopes to avoid adding to Qatar’s problem of high rent prices; premises are being made available to tenants at competitive rents.

Roberts says that the technology park will differentiate itself from others in the region through its links with universities and focus on technology development.

“We have designed to be a science park rather than a business park, which means that our tenants are provided with infrastructure which has been planned from the outset to accommodate serious applied R&D activity,” says Roberts.

He adds: “When it comes to IT, QSTP is aiming high: our IT infrastructure will be delivered by the new National Data Centre, a Tier 4 data centre providing the voice and data network as well as value-added services. This will be a major world-class facility in terms of its built environment, equipment and management.”

It seems QSTP is the technology equivalent of Qatar’s Aspire project, but instead of cultivating sporting excellence, R&D is the focus.

With such encouragement, backed by a strong economy, Qatar has the opportunity to make its own breakthroughs in technology and become a leading force for IT in the region. It may not be the runner-up for much longer.||**||

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