Fate of Arab E-Commerce In Question

Although e-commerce in the Arab region is facing many challenges, it has huge potential for Arab trade and industry if both government and private sectors pull together to support it.

This was the message given by experts taking part in the Arab International Telecommunications Conference (AITEC 99) in Beirut .

More than 150 top Arab and international delegates discussed last week the prospects of e-commerce in the Arab World and the great opportunities it can offer to small and big businesses here.

Eqbal Al Yousuf, a UAE expert who set up his own virtual mall on www.14m.com last year, and who is managing director of Al Yousuf I.T. Companies, highlighted the issues in his presentation to the conference titled “Arab E-commerce: A Global Perspective.”

Al Yousuf said that the weak telecommunications and Internet infrastructure in the region and the high cost of connecting to the Internet and of managing Web sites remain major impediments slowing down e-commerce penetration. Merchants and businesses here are also still unaware of the impact e-commerce can have on their business. The facts that only 0.11 percent of the Arab population is currently connected to the Internet (compared to 27 percent in the United States and 15 percent in Germany) or that only 5 percent of them own a telephone, also add to the challenges.

He called for a real partnership between the government and private sectors to help support the “Internet Business Culture” among various sectors of the Arab community, to allow the region to compete in this very tough environment.

“We have great potential which we can use to our advantage. The future looks very bright, but we need to move in quickly. Time is not on our side,” he said.

Al Yousuf called for setting up what he called Arabic “Electronic Commerce Hubs” through which small companies can sell their products and services. Revenues for such hubs will come mainly from transaction fees paid by merchants. He lauded the government of Dubai’s decision last month to create a virtual mall, and said that virtual business will only become economically feasible in our region through consolidation and government support.

“E-business is huge and is expected to reach trillions of dollars in a few years time,” Al Yousuf said. “There are currently 500,000 companies worldwide selling by e-commerce and this figure will rise to 8 million in 2003. Arab companies need to jump on the band wagon quickly and reap the benefits of this new medium.”

The two-day conference, organized by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications in Lebanon in cooperation with the Al Iktissad wal Aamal Group, is held under the auspices of His Excellency Dr Salim Al Hoss, Lebanese Prime Minister. Ministers, ministry undersecretaries, telecommunications and information technology officials and experts from 12 Arab countries were present at the event, representing Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon.

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