The fourth of six regional preparatory meetings for the ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-21), held on 7 and 8 April, brought policy makers and experts together to take stock of digital challenges and opportunities in across the Arab region.
WTDC-21, set to take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, between 8 and 19 November 2021, aims to highlight innovative approaches, encourage new models of collaboration, and promote connectivity and digital solutions, particularly in this final Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations.
Held virtually, the Regional Preparatory Meeting (RPM) for Arab States gathered 113 delegates from 17 countries to ensure regional coordination ahead of WTDC-21.
“WTDC-21 comes at a defining moment for the world and for ITU’s place in it,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau. “It also comes at a time of enormous transformation for the Arab region, which is already home to some of the world’s most connected and technologically advanced nations.”
The region took a bold step forward with the recent launch of the Hope – or ‘Al Amal’ – probe to Mars, led by the United Arab Emirates, she added. “The Mars mission represents the Arab world’s first venture into space. It confirms the region’s arrival on the world stage as a leading pioneer in science and technology, as well as commitment to ever-closer engagement and collaboration with the broader international community.”
Mansour S. Alqurashi, General Manager for International Affairs at Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission, and RPM Arab States Chair, said: “Innovation is key to our work and central to the advancement of digital development. For this reason, Arab countries will focus on innovative thinking and co-creation, as we continue to work closely to finalize the proposed regional priorities to be presented for adoption at WTDC-21.”
Setting regional priorities
As WTDC-21 aims to provide direction and guidance to the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU-D) over the next four years, participants at RPM Arab States discussed regional ICT priorities for the years 2022-2025.
Noting the increasing importance of digital innovation, delegates at RPM Arab States made use of the International Centre of Digital Innovation (I-CoDI), co-funded by ITU and the United Arab Emirates, to formulate their regional priorities ahead of WTDC-21.
“This Regional Preparatory Meeting coincides with the 30th anniversary of the ITU Arab Regional Office,” noted Adel Darwish, ITU Regional Director for Arab States. “The meeting also comes at a unique time as we set the regional priorities for the Arab region, taking into account digital and development trends caused by many factors, including the pandemic.”
Digital Trends in Arab States 2021
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the region’s digital divide. Some 195 million people in the Arab States, or 45.4%% of the region’s population, remain unable to connect reliably to the Internet, which is essential to make meaningful use of current information and communication technologies (ICTs).
A report released at the preparatory meeting, Digital Trends in Arab States 2021, noted steady progress, prior to the COVID crisis, on key indicators such as household connectivity. At-home Internet access grew from an estimated 52% of households in 2017 to almost 60% by the end of 2019, the report says. Yet the urban-rural divide persists, with 74% of urban households connected, as opposed to just 38% of rural dwellings.
There is a persistent gender gap across the region, with 61% of men using the Internet, compared to only 47% of women, while women’s connectivity in poorer Arab nations remains chronically low.
Mobile phone coverage has expanded rapidly, with 95% of individuals in the region now covered by a mobile network and more than 90% within reach of a 3G signal. Affordability, however, remains a major barrier to uptake of digital devices and services, ITU data shows.
Generation Connect Arab States Youth Group
The RPM-ARB featured Arab youth representatives who shared their insights on the common major digital issues facing young people in the Arab region and their perspectives on the future of digital communication.
The Generation Connect – Arab Youth Group (GC-ARB), comprising selected young people from across the region, pledged to work together to identify regional thematic priorities and outline key opportunities and challenges in a crowd-sourced document to be presented by the digital youth envoys after the RPM-ARB. The young participants who have interest in contributing to ICT policies and are aged between 18-24, will remain engaged in the run-up to WTDC-21, as well as in the preceding Generation Connect Youth Summit.
The Generation Connect – Arab Youth Group, formed as part of the global Generation Connect initiative, promotes meaningful youth engagement and participation in the international dialogue on digital development.
Network of Women for the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector
RPM Arab States marked the official launch of the Network of Women (NoW) in the Arab region, the fourth such regional network established in ITU’s development sector ahead of WTDC-21.
The network will offer mentoring opportunities, and aims to support female delegates in taking on greater responsibilities within their delegations, as well as to create opportunities for women to connect with each other and share their experiences.
Women accounted for half of delegates at RPM Arab States – the highest share of female representation at any WTDC regional preparatory meeting to date.