With a growing number of software companies, telecom companies, and hardware firms expanding in the region, there is an explosion in demand for software programmers, coders and software and hardware engineers in the Middle East.
Everything from electronic payment systems to complete overhauls of government and corporate platforms require new digital and technical skills.
The demand for these types of professionals is expected to grow as MENA states invested $171 billion in IT spending in 2021, according to Gartner Inc.
IT spending in MENA will return to pre-pandemic levels and even surpass it over the next two years, according to John-David Lovelock, vice-president at Gartner. “Different economies have reacted differently to the pandemic. Rapid digitalization of MENA, especially the gulf countries, began before the pandemic. While 2020 slowed the growth of IT in the region, the ‘K-shaped’ recovery has begun faster in this region, as compared to Asia and Latin America.”
While corporations are outsourcing their IT needs for now, there is a drive to develop the local human capital to prepare for the new economy.
The surge in demand for digital skills is due to a number of factors colliding with each other. Most regional economies are on accelerated drive to diversify their economy and leverage new technologies to upgrade their infrastructure.
In addition, COVID-19 has triggered an urgent need for governments and corporations to invest new technologies to be able to function remotely. Finally, the unprecedented development of new technologies are disrupting old business models and corporations are compelled to acquire, embed and offer new technology services to maintain their market share.
The World Bank estimates that by 2025, the Middle East is estimated to have 160 million potential digital users who will contribute significantly to rapid economic growth and usher in the new digital economy.
“The Gulf countries are arguably the most advanced in terms of digital transformation. Yet, GCC countries still have a significant digital skills gap,” the World Bank said.
Although data is hard to come by, digital talent only accounted for a meager 1.7% of the regional workforce, according to latest available data.
“However, the young population in MENA is also an opportunity: As tech-native individuals, youths could prove easier to educate, upskill, train, and integrate into a digital economy,” according to the Middle East Institute.
The MEI recommends governments should modernize labour laws and regulations to cater to the shifting attitudes and changing makeup of the workforce — including regulating/protecting freelancers and gig-economy workers.
“At the same time, to foster startups and SMEs (and the jobs they bring), policy makers should roll out regulations to improve the ease of doing business — including more streamlined laws for setting up businesses, resolving insolvency, enabling venture capital and investment vehicles, and protecting intellectual property.”
GCC steps up
Saudi Arabia’s Human Capability Development Program, which is tasked with investing in the country education system, aims to provide “mandatory digital and computer science such as coding starting from grade 1 including digital safety and protection against threats and personal data management.”
Part of the effort includes a pilot program seeking partnerships with the private sector to train students to use advanced technologies including 3D modelling, computer science tools in STEM and creativity fields.
The Saudi Data and AI Authority (SDAIA), established in 2019, is tasked with accelerating a data-driven economy, and leverage use of artificial intelligence, big data and Internet of Things to create a dynamic and knowledge based economy in line with Saudi Vision 2030 strategy. The development of national competencies in the field of data and AI is also one of SDAIA’s top priorities
In 2021, 90 specialists in data science and artificial intelligence graduated from the SDAIA’s Data Science Bootcamp.
“The experience of the Data Science Bootcamp is a comprehensive learning journey based on projects, tasks, and challenges that ensure the optimal preparation of members of our country for the labor market and provide support and guidance in these fields by local and international experts,” SDAIA noted.
The UAE, meanwhile, plans to arm thousands of citizens with strong technical skills and help create new employment.
“Today we launched the National Program for Coders in collaboration with Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Cisco, IBM, HPE, LinkedIn, Nvidia and Facebook, with the aim of training and attracting 100,000 coders, establishing 1,000 digital companies within 5 years and increasing investment in startups from AED 1.5 billion to AED 4 billion,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
The National Program for Coders will focus on supporting coders, entrepreneurs, startups, large companies and the academic sector and develop a comprehensive platform for linking coders with local companies and universities. The program will also aim to host international trainers to raise the skill levels of the local talent.
Egypt, which offers a number of IT outsourcing services to regional and international companies, is also looking to leverage it digital savvy young population to create new coding champions. The Information Technology Industry Development Agency offers a number of skills development programs to equip young Egyptians with the latest software skills.
Finally, investment in digital infrastructure is going to be vital for the new economy to prosper. While many GCC states boast state-of-the-art digital infrastructure, many MENA states have fallen behind on digital infrastructure that can support a tech-based economy.
“Much of the region’s digital infrastructure is also in need of upgrading. Fixed broadband penetration varies significantly between MENA countries, with a whole range of countries with little or no fiber-to-home connections,” according to the Wilson Centre. ©