American University of Beirut

Digital Transformations in the Middle East and North Africa: A review of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates​

​​​Working Paper


Karim Merhej, IFI-Google Policy Fellow


As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world and disrupted the way societies and economies function, the ubiquitous role that digital technologies play in our lives has become more prominent than ever. Studies on how Arab countries are undergoing digital transformations – in other words, how their economies, societies and public sectors are becoming more connected through the Internet and using the latest digital tools and technologies – remain sparse.

The recently developed Going Digital Integrated Policy Framework by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a comprehensive tool that examines several policy dimensions that are crucial for successful digital transformations. These policy dimensions deal with access to and usage of the Internet by citizens and businesses, tech-enabled innovations and their impacts on the labor market, the dividends that society is obtaining from digital technologies, the trust (or lack thereof) that citizens have regarding these technologies, as well as the ability of businesses to use digital technologies to their benefit (via e-commerce etc.). Each policy dimension consists of a set of indicators.

This study seeks to loosely apply the OECD framework on three Arab countries – Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – in an attempt to not only broaden our understanding of the digital transformations that these three countries are going through and hence contribute to the existing literature on digital transformations in the Arab world, but to also understand policy challenges these countries encounter and what should be done to address them effectively. As the indicators of the OECD framework are very specific and data on the three case studies could not be obtained for every indicator, the study examines the existing literature to try to find an adequate substitute.

The study shows that the three countries have made significant strides since the 1990s, enacting much needed digital policies and regulations. However, much untapped potential exists which could allow the countries to make the most out of the dividends accrued by the usage of digital technologies.

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