Bahrain as testing ground for cutting-edge ICT technologies

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Bahrain as testing ground for cutting-edge ICT technologies


Vivian Jamal, Executive Director – Business Development, Bahrain Economic Development Board
The National eGovernment Strategy for 2016 aims to bring more than 90 percent of key services used by residents and businesses online
 
Interviews | by Pradeep Chakraborty
 
MANAMA, BAHRAIN: The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small island country situated near the western shores of the Persian Gulf. It is an archipelago, with the largest island being Bahrain Island at 55 km (34 miles) long by 18 km (11 miles) wide.
 
Bahrain has a long list of ICT firsts. Several companies are using Bahrain as a testing ground for new cutting-edge ICT technologies. In June 2010, Bahrain became one of three countries to receive a UN eGovernment special award for making significant progress in improving its e-service and strengthening its service delivery through e-participation. There have been a number of steps taken toward boosting solar PV in Bahrain.
Ms. Vivian Jamal, executive director - Business Development, Bahrain Economic Development Board tells us more about all of this in an exclusive interview with CIOL. Excerpts:
 
CIOL: How is Bahrain boasting Middle East's most liberal and advanced ICT infrastructure and policies, with one of the highest mobile and internet penetration rates in the region?
 
Vivian Jamal: Bahrain has a long history of ICT firsts and has experienced a fast rate of innovation, which has helped to establish the country as a technological pioneer in the region.
 
The Kingdom has an open and forward-thinking approach, invested heavily in ICT infrastructure. It was also first in the region to fully deregulate its telecommunications market with the founding of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) in 2004 and since then, the TRA has issued more than 150 licenses. As such, Bahrain has proven to be an ideal testing ground for the introduction of new ICT technologies.
 
Bahrain's telecommunications link to the rest of the world dates back to 1864, when Bahrain was the first country in the region to be connected to the Indo-European undersea telegraphic cable.
 
Bahrain was also the first country in the region to install a mainframe computer in 1962, complete the digitalisation of its national and international telephone switches in 1992, launch an Internet service in 1995 and provide a nationwide ‘WiMax' wireless network in 2007. Furthermore, Bahrain was the first country in the world to establish a nationwide Next Generation Network (NGN) in 2008.
 
This approach has enabled Bahrain to increase the volume of Internet users from 161,815 in 2009 to 413,000 as of Q2 2012, according to the Bahrain Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA).
 
For the fourth consecutive year, Bahrain was also ranked in the top 30 economies by the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Information Technology Report 2013; the Kingdom is ranked 29 of 144 economies worldwide on the Network Readiness Index.
 
CIOL: What are the new technologies that are currently being tested?
 
VJ: A number of companies are currently using Bahrain as a testing ground for new cutting-edge ICT technologies.
 
Since it's founding in March 2010, VIVA Bahrain, the Kingdom's most innovative telecoms provider, established an investment fund worth $300 million to drive innovation in ICT-related domains such as e-health, e-learning, e-banking, applications and e-commerce in Bahrain and around the GCC.
 
In late 2012, VIVA Bahrain also teamed up with iVEDiX, an emerging data analytics and interactive mobile visualization technology company based in New York. The partnership aims to support efforts towards increased customer engagement and satisfaction through data, business intelligence and analytical strategies.
In December 2012, Ospyn, an Indian Singaporean firm with a proven track record in major e-governance projects, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at the MEET ICT BAHRAIN 2012 conference with Openinside, a Bahrain ICT provider. The MoU is focused around working together to support the provision and utilisation of open-source technologies, ahead of a potential joint venture.
 
Leading international ICT businesses choose to take advantage of Bahrain's favourable business environment and base their Middle East enterprises in the Kingdom. Microsoft, Wipro, Huawei, Tech Mahindra, Software AG, Netgear, Hewlett Packard, Zain (Vodafone), and Tata Consultancy Services -- all have offices in Bahrain.
 
CIOL: What are the salient features of the National eGovernment strategy?
 
VJ: The concept of eGovernment is long-established in Bahrain with a number of government services available on the internet. For example, residents can pay utility bills, traffic fines and visitors can apply for tourist visas online.
 
Bahrain's National eGovernment Strategy for 2016 aims to bring more than 90 percent of key services used by both residents and businesses online. For business, this includes business and office registrations, work permits, banking services, environmental compliance and the eTendering of government contracts.
In June 2010, Bahrain became one of only three countries to receive a UN eGovernment special award for making significant progress in improving its e-service and strengthening its service delivery through e-participation.
 
 
In January 2012, Bahrain was ranked second in the Middle East in a United Nations eGovernment survey. The UN Global eGovernment Readiness Survey placed the Kingdom 36th of 192 countries worldwide in its application of ICT to provide access and inclusion for its citizens. In the survey, Bahrain outperformed the world average across eReadiness, Web Measure, Infrastructure, Human Capital and e-Participation.
 
The Government also intends to further streamline, simplify and increase the efficiency of the process of obtaining commercial registration and all associated business licenses. The Government has launched the Business Licensing Integrated System (BLIS) project in June 2010.
 
This project is a central component of the Kingdom's initiative to boost Bahrain's competitiveness and enhance its position as a business-friendly destination. It aims to simplify the process of business registration, streamline licensing requirements, ensure full transparency of procedures and requirements and enhance coordination between all relevant organizations.
 
CIOL: Elaborate on the eTendering system adopted by Baharain.
 
VJ: Plans are under way by the eGovernment Authority and the Tender Board to launch an eTendering System for all government contracts. The eTendering System has most recently been adopted by the Ministry of Municipalities and Agriculture, which now accepts online applications for building and advertising permits from residents and investors in Bahrain. The next Ministry services planned to be made available online will be for reclamation and digging applications.
 
The online tendering system is designed to encourage participation, maintain greater transparency and fairness as applicants progress from pre-qualification, opening, evaluation and the awarding of contracts.
In August 2009, the Tender Board and Tamkeen, an independent authority which formulates strategic and operational plans to invest in Bahraini employability, unveiled a new training initiative for companies on how to utilize the government's online tendering process.
 
CIOL: What are the steps taken to boost electronics manufacturing in the gulf area, particularly, Bahrain?
 
VJ: With a large and varied domestic and expatriate workforce, excellent logistics infrastructure and a very attractive investment environment, Bahrain provides plenty of opportunities and advantages to businesses seeking to establish a regional manufacturing hub.
 
Furthermore, in Bahrain, a foreign investor can retain 100 percent ownership and benefit from the region's lowest taxes in addition to freely repatriating capital, profits and dividends. Thus there is no such thing as a ‘free zone', unlike elsewhere in the region. In effect, the whole of Bahrain has free zone status.
 
All of these factors have helped increase manufacturing output in Bahrain by 80 percent over the past five years and with current growth rates, the Kingdom's manufacturing is expected to account for more than one fifth of its GDP within a decade.
 
Electronics manufacturers in Bahrain include Ameeri Industries, manufacturer and distributor of electronics products under the AMGARD, AMETECH and AMELITE brands, and Awal Gulf, one of the largest manufacturers of air conditioners in the GCC and Middle East, producing more than 500,000 units annually which are then sold in more than 40 countries.
 
CIOL: What are the steps taken to boost solar PV in the gulf area, particularly, Bahrain?
 
VJ: There have been a number of steps taken toward boosting solar PV in Bahrain. Recently, Petra Solar, the US based provider of smart energy solutions, launched a 5 MW solar energy pilot project in Bahrain. This project marked the first phase of a national energy plan to generate electricity from renewable sources.
 
The solar energy project is a collaborative effort between the Bahrain Petroleum Co., the EDB, Petra Solar, Caspian Energy Holdings, the National Oil and Gas Authority, the Electricity & Water Authority, and the University of Bahrain. Petra Solar was selected by the Bahrain Petroleum Co. to install the distributed smart solar system to supply electricity throughout the BAPCO township of Awali, the University of Bahrain, and other locations in the Kingdom.
 
CIOL: What are the government's plans for 2014?
 
VJ: Bahrain's information, communications and technology market is projected to grow significantly in the coming years, driven by the high demand for IT products from both public and private sectors.
The growing need for robust IT solutions is also being driven by the eGovernment and eCommerce initiatives.
 
The government of Bahrain will continue to drive forward with the National eGovernment Strategy for 2016. The opportunities are comprised around developing mobile applications, providing green IT solutions, location based technologies , cloud computing and mashups.
 
The eGovernment Authority and the Tender Board will also continue plans to roll out the eTendering System for all government contracts.
 
At the core of the eGovernment strategy 2016 mission, the objectives are pledge to positively impact several beneficiaries - Business (small, medium and large enterprises and their employees); Individuals (citizens, residents and visitors); and the Government (entities and their employees).
 
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