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Thu, May 30, 2002 - Page 21 News List

Arab world behind the tech curve


In a new global economy driven by knowledge and technology, Arab countries are the slowest growing group and have much to do to catch up, a World Bank expert told a conference on information technology and telecommunications in the Arab world that opened in Cairo Tuesday.

"This is not very good news [for the Arab world]," said Jean-Francois Rischard, a World Bank vice president for Europe. "The Arab world has not been doing so well in the knowledge-based economy."

Arab per capita growth in the "knowledge-based economy" is 1.4 percent, according to a model developed by the World Bank that evaluates countries' capacity to adopt and disseminate technology over a 15-year period. This is lower than the case in sub-Saharan African countries, where it's 1.5 percent, according to Rischard.

He told the gathering of some 400 Arab and foreign investors, bankers and young Egyptian professionals that "time flies in the new economy," a fact that requires a mindset change and not just increased spending on the infrastructure of the technology sector.

Arab countries "have not graduated yet to the knowledge-based economy," he said, and remain "stuck" in undoing past Socialist policies, or building modern institutions.

Arab nations' economies are excessively dependent on oil, tourism revenues and remittances. They have an average growth rate of 3 to 3.5 percent when they need growth rates averaging 6 to 7 per cent over the next 20 years, Rischard said.

The conference is discussing how to bridge the gap between the world's technologically advanced nations and those that aren't.

Egypt -- the most populous Arab nation with nearly 70 million people -- had 200,000 Internet subscribers in 1999. The number jumped to 900,000 last year, according to Egypt's International Economic Forum, the conference's organizer.

In Jordan, a country of 5 million, only 80,000 subscribed to the Internet in 1999, but the number jumped to 127,000 last year.

Rischard stressed that education -- "not that of 50 years ago" -- is the main engine to tune in to the new economy. It is not just enrollment rates, he said, but innovative and vocational education. Of the 300 million Arabs, 40 percent are 25 years or under.

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