Virus response to speed up GCC’s digital transformation

Virus response to speed up GCC’s digital transformation

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A billboard displaying advice on coronavirus etiquette, in Riyadh. (Reuters)

When last December's Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit called for the speeding up of its members’ digital transformation, including through the promotion of artificial intelligence (AI), many were surprised, but the current experience of dealing with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has proven that such a transformation is essential for combating the disease and dealing with its social, security and economic repercussions. This is just one example of the fundamental transformations the GCC countries have embarked on over the past decade, but which now need to be fast-tracked.

COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in governance throughout the world and has uncovered some social challenges that were not clear before the crisis. Fortunately, however, the pandemic has also underscored ways to cope and even build a more reliable order, globally and at the local level, through more digitalization.

Some countries underestimated the seriousness of the disease and were late in adopting mitigating measures. Others deliberately tried to cover it up for political or other purposes. As a result, the disease was allowed to spread dangerously, overwhelming many countries’ capacity to deal with the large-scale contagion. It is clear that a better, rules-based system is necessary to deal with such challenges in the future, so that only science drives public health policies. Digitalization could make that possible by transparently disseminating accurate and timely information.

The disease has also made it clear that the health systems in most countries were not ready to meet a challenge on this scale. Only through close cooperation between countries, and of course within, could we effectively face such a crisis. Luckily, the GCC has put in place an integrated public health system run by one of its specialized agencies, which immediately organized discussions between officials from the six countries on how to meet the challenge, including through collectively purchasing the required equipment and supplies. 

To lessen the burden placed on the health system, GCC countries encouraged volunteers to join the effort. A few years ago, King Salman called for prioritizing volunteerism and proposed a GCC-wide effort to promote it. That initiative is now paying dividends. Last week, the Saudi press disclosed that more than 150,000 people had volunteered in Saudi Arabia to help health workers fight the coronavirus. Social media groups were used to coordinate blood donation drives, for example. The media also disclosed that more than 6,000 Saudi physicians had volunteered to help fight the disease in some 41 countries, including 650 in Germany and 280 in France.

Success in many initiatives aimed at fighting the pandemic can be attributed to digitalization and the clever use of social media. However, while there are excellent examples of coping with the disease, there are clear challenges. The health crisis and the ensuing lockdown and curfew measures taken by most countries showed how unprepared many businesses were for the digital age. For example, banks and other businesses used to conducting their affairs in person were not ready to deal with purely remote ways of doing business and, as such, lost a lot of trade, as customers were not able to conclude transactions. That weakness has added to the recessionary pressures many countries are experiencing. 

Some supermarkets, pharmacies and department stores could not deal with the virus-related flood of online orders. Hospitals scrambled to come up with digital solutions to deal with non-COVID-19 patients. Many government offices and other organizations were not equipped to conduct their work digitally. Off-the-shelf commercial digital solutions were found to be risky and, as such, unacceptable because secure communications are essential. Building these capacities takes time and expertise, both of which were in short supply at times.

Before the crisis, many prestigious universities and public school systems had frowned upon online education, but they have now been forced to rely solely on remote learning. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of students are being taught through digital learning.

Hiccups and major failures took place as systems and practitioners were challenged by the enormous scope of the crisis. These were valuable lessons learned, which should speed up the construction of a more reliable digital economy, public governance and more efficient provision of government services.

Success in many initiatives aimed at fighting the pandemic can be attributed to digitalization and the clever use of social media.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

When the most recent GCC summit in Riyadh called for greater emphasis on digital solutions and AI, some thought it was excessive; but probably no more. In the Riyadh Declaration, the GCC outlined an integrated set of measures to achieve that transformation, including the “employment of technology and artificial intelligence to modernize government services and improve the efficiency of those services.” It also called for enabling youth-led private companies to develop digital tools and provide incentives for investment in those activities. The declaration called for a “scientific research-based approach to energy, water, agriculture, and the search for solutions for contagious and noncontagious diseases.”

The digital age dawned on GCC countries a while ago, but now the coronavirus challenge has made it necessary to make a more determined push to complete the transformation. With small populations, GCC states need to automate their production processes and services more than most countries. Moreover, with a youthful labor force and ample financial resources, they are more capable than most of bringing about that transformation.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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