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Gates takes Saudi to task on IT initiatives

Saudi Arabia needs to put more effort into providing cheaper internet access and better intellectual property protection, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said this month.

Saudi Arabia needs to put more effort into providing cheaper internet access and better intellectual property protection, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said this month. Both these issues are holding back the Kingdom’s development of a digital economy, he warned.

Gates’ comments came during a personal visit to Saudi Arabia this month, where he was speaking at the Global Competitive Forum in Riyadh. The trip also saw Gates meet with public and private institutions to sign over a dozen separate development agreements.

During his one-day trip Gates said he was “surprised” at the cost of broadband in the Kingdom and said the government should do more to increase internet penetration. “The cost you see of broadband [in Saudi Arabia] is actually the one [area] where I am surprised and think more needs to be put into that,” Gates told reporters prior to his keynote speech at the forum, which was held on November 8.

“Putting optic fibre throughout the country is actually easier than [building roads and universities] and kind of fundamental. That probably needs to be bumped up, whatever is holding that back, in the spirit of all these plans, that needs to change as fast as possible,” the chairman added.

Saudi Arabia has taken a number of steps to increase internet penetration. In September the government announced plans to set up a fund to enable internet service providers (ISPs) to share the cost of building infrastructure across the Kingdom.

Gates also claimed that if the Kingdom was going to have a viable software economy, the government needed to provide local developers with greater copyright protection.

“The awareness of copyright is higher today in Saudi Arabia than it was five years ago, [but] it's still not as good as I would expect,” he stated, adding that “on the business side there should be a lot more progress”.

According to IDC’s 2005 Global Software Piracy Study, 57% of software used in Saudi Arabia is pirated. The market research firm said last year this cost the Kingdom’s
economy an estimated US$178million.

As part of his trip, Gates signed a total of 14 development agreements with Saudi universities, businesses and government ministries. Among these agreements were development deals with King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), Saudi Post, the Supreme Commission for Tourism, Saudi Telecom (STC), the King Faisal Foundation and the Intelligence Department.

“The agreements we signed today will help public and private sector organisations in Saudi Arabia to empower people to reach their full potential,” Gates told the forum during his keynote address.

STC said, under its agreement, the operator would be working with Microsoft on new telecom and IT services.

It was also disclosed this month that Gates and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal are working together on a US$3.7 billion joint bid for the Four Seasons Hotels group.

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