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Mid-East telecom, Internet to ring up sales of US$70 billion - MECOM organisers

Liberalising telecoms in Saudi Arabia and conflict-torn Iraq will result in major growth markets for the Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector. What is more, the Arabian Gulf ICT market is one of the fastest growing in the world, with Middle East telecoms and broadband Internet expected to generate US$70 billion in annual sales revenue by 2015. These are two claims by the organisers of Middle East Communications 2008 (MECOM 2008).

"Over the next decade, the Gulf countries are planning to spend approximately 25% of their infrastructure development funds on the expansion of ICT," states Trevor Punt, Group Exhibition Director for IIR Middle East, who are organising MECOM 2008.

More specifically, the biggest growth potential for ICT in the region is seen in Saudi Arabia, where the market is being liberalised, and in conflict-torn Iraq which is quietly building one of the best communications infrastructure networks in the region: "Overall, information technology spending in the Middle East and Africa is expected to cross US$40 billion in 2008 with the Gulf countries  accounting for nearly 23% of the total. The ICT sector, along with financial services, oil and gas and the public sector, accounts for the bulk of IT spending," continued Trevor Punt.

Some of the greatest expectations for ICT growth in the region are in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom's telecoms regulator estimates that the number of mobile users has risen from just 2.5 million five years ago to 20 million today. In the coming five years mobile penetration rates in the kingdom are expected to catch up with the UAE and Qatar and to rise to well over 100%.

Currently, STC is the dominant mobile phone operator, claiming a 45% market share. Mobily is second with a share of up to 38% and Zain is third with a share of between 18% and 20%. The regulator has also licensed two data service providers, Bayanat Al Oula and Integrated Telecoms, readying the market for WiMax as well as other wireless technologies.

Where Trevor Punt is concerned is in the relative non-penetration of broadband Internet: "The number of internet users in Saudi Arabia reached 4.7 million in 2007 but, in contrast to mobiles, broadband penetration remains low at below 2% of the population. The introduction of WiMAX and high speed downlink packet access services is expected to change this."

Iraq's status is in providing hidden surprises in the development of its ICT infrastructure. By the middle of 2009, the country will have one of the best network infrastructures in the Middle East, according to Bob Fonow, a senior consultant to the Iraqi Ministry of Communications at the US Embassy, Baghdad. "More than US$1 billion in US and Iraq reconstruction funds and approximately US$6 billion in private sector investment is resulting in an advanced information and communications infrastructure," he added in a report for the Iraq Development Program. "Iraq's youth is now part of the global Internet community with up to three million paying surfers and bloggers on WiFi and WiMax networks connected to a robust satellite communications system," believes Mr Fonow. In addition, the Arab Advisors Group says the Iraq cellular market is growing at a phenomenal rate and it expects total subscribers to exceed 27 million by 2011 with a penetration rate of 89% of the population.

* The importance of the growing ICT sector will be underscored at MECOM 2008 which takes place at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre on 26-28 May. The industry showcase will feature the latest in hardware, software and services related to mobile, Internet, satellite, fixed line, enterprise communication and communication content sectors. Running in parallel, a series of MECOM 2008 conferences and seminars will host ministries and telecom providers, communications organisations, cable, satellite and network buyers, manufacturers, end users, entrepreneurs, importers, distributors, contractors and service companies.

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