|13 June, 2019

Lebanon officials pledge to focus on digital economy

One challenge slowing down digitization is the country’s legal infrastructure

Image used for illustrative purposes.

Image used for illustrative purposes.

Getty Images/Busakorn Pongparnit

BEIRUT: Turning Lebanon into a digital economy with up-to-date digital infrastructure will be one of the biggest challenges facing the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, officials said Wednesday, as the premier assured a high-powered tech meeting that the Cabinet was serious in meeting this goal. This pledge to focus on the digital economy and e-government was one of the highlights of the key speeches of Hariri, Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh and ministers at the 10th ArabNet conference, held at the Beirut Seaside Arena.

“It is a priority for myself and for my government to do all that is in our power to support and further enable the digital economy ecosystem. The digital economy holds tremendous potential for the Lebanese economy. It is a key pillar for us developing our productive sectors, increasing the size and quality of our economy and creating much-needed jobs for our youth,” Hariri told the participants.

He added that digital economy was key to facilitating and accelerating growth for individuals and the nation. “As I said previously, a digitized nation is simply more intelligent. We have hence been implementing a series of growth-oriented measures that aim to improve the business environment and foster innovation in Lebanon,” Hariri said.

Salameh said that the digital knowledge economy had led to new wealth in the world.

“Tech companies have nowadays the highest market capitalization in several countries and various stock markets. This new sector has contributed to a higher competitiveness and to price stability in different countries,” the Central Bank governor said.

He added that Banque du Liban had established a committee in charge of issuing the circulars needed for the development and regulation of the fintech sector, based on the Code of Money and Credit and on recent Law No. 81 relating to electronic transactions.

“Our intention is to regulate and supervise fintech companies by imposing their licensing by Banque du Liban.

“Nevertheless, all fintech activities, including clearing and settlement, will be left to the private sector, preferably under the umbrella of the banking sector,” Salameh added.

The event, which was attended by over 4,000 participants from Lebanon and other countries, also featured key speeches from ministers, as well as representatives of the World Bank and several leading technology companies.

“I remember being laughed out of corporate offices and being told, ‘Facebook is for kids,’” founder and CEO of ArabNet Omar Christidis said as he recalled his tech conference’s humble beginnings.

Interior Minister Raya El Hassan seemed to strike a more skeptical tone. “I am not going to kid you and tell you we’re ready” for the digital economy, she said.

One challenge slowing down digitization is the country’s legal infrastructure. “We have a problem in terms of the absent legal laws and regulations that should be a prelude for pushing forward with the information and communications technology revolution that we should see in Lebanon,” Hassan said.

Moderating the panel, Christidis jokingly asked the minister: “What’s the plan so I never have to go to the mukhtar ever again?”

Hassan replied that her ministry would be working in the next few months to “try to link all the civil status offices in the different regions through VPN or through wireless networks in order to allow citizens to obtain Civil Registry records from anywhere in Lebanon.”

Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank group regional director of the Levant department, pressed ministers for committing to clear timelines.

“We are in a state of emergency. It’s very important that we are absolutely committed to these issues and that there is a clear timeline which is shared very widely with the people,” he said.

Minister of State for Administrative Reform May Chidiac promised to deliver an updated digitization strategy to the government before year-end.

“I want it to be ready by October, but to avoid being under pressure, I can say between October and the end of the year,” Chidiac said.

“As I always repeat, it’s not a sexy ministry, so it’s not so followed much by the media, unfortunately,” Chidiac said. “When it comes to achievements, [the media] doesn’t want to highlight what’s going on.”

Asked by a member of the audience whether the barrier to digitization could be the public sector’s own employees resisting the switch to e-government, since they themselves are claimed to not possess digital skills, Deputy Prime Minister Ghassan Hasbani replied: “Well, they do have the skills to use WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and smartphones. They must have the skills to use a simple form-management or process-management system, or they can be easily reskilled to do that. In this day and age, the technology is also simplified to the extent that skilling is not an issue as much as reluctance to remove the specific power from the hands of the public sector employee and put it in a machine.”

“I talked about $800 million of petty corruption. ... You are actually removing that privilege from their hands and asking them to be back-office employees managing a process without contact with people, without specific authorities directed to people, and that will definitely be resisted by them and by those who have actually pushed them to the public sector as favors,” Hasbani continued, interrupted briefly by a round of applause.

Telecommunications Minister Mohamed Choucair highlighted his ministry’s “exceptional” efforts to provide a fiber-optic network that should cover the whole country within the next two years.

As for the cellular network, he said that 85 percent of Lebanon’s territory currently had 4G coverage, and that this should increase in the next few months to cover the rest of the country, while 5G data service was currently being tested to determine its “usefulness.”

“This digital revolution must be met in Lebanon and the Arab world with a counterrevolution that encompasses telecommunications, education, business and society,” Choucair said.

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