Hands Across the Water

Mentioning RAF Fairford and Webcams in the same column may have been a mistake, as my Web journal is now being ‘bombed’ by Google searches by people looking for real-time footage of B52’s coming and going between here and Baghdad. I’m sorry to disappoint them and the media, as there is, to my knowledge, no live footage being streamed from the end of the runway there.

The Gulf region must be expecting some semblance of normality and even peace to return by the end of next month because I’m invited to keynote two conferences in the region in May, one being the 9th GCC eGovernment Conference in Dubai, the other, a similar IT-focused invitation from the government of Bahrain. As a courtesy, I informed No10 on Friday and it might be fair to say that as far as they are concerned it’s a little difficult to see beyond the shock and awe at this time.

Ironically, there’s real opportunity for British companies who might wish to risk doing business in the region. The Emirates have projects underway in both the private and public sectors that make the UK look as if it is wearing lead boots at times and Iraq has a minimal IT and Internet infrastructure, which represents a significant development, challenge for the companies that will be tasked with re-building that society post Saddam Hussein.

But Britain has a problem and not a political one either. Countries like Bahrain and even Iran want our assistance with technology or eGovernment programmes. The trouble, I discovered last year, is we don’t know how to help and there’s very little interest or investment available from the DTI in raw IT. I raised this concern with the outgoing head of the DTI, Sir David Wright and its possibly true to say that in Britain, we understand big engineering projects and selling weapons but we have very little grasp of how IT can be deployed as an export, other than outsourcing the jobs of the protesting BT staff in my home town to India for $30 a month.

There are some encouraging signs this week, the war with Iraq might be the catalyst that jump-starts the moribund tech-sector and improves market confidence enough for businesses to start releasing some of the budgets that the prevailing uncertainty has had them firmly sitting upon. As a Middle-east analyst, I can tell you that the region will never be quite the same again and I can’t predict what the longer-term consequences of this invasion will be on the Arab world.

What I can tell you, with the invitations I have received to the region in May as evidence, is that there are real opportunities for UK IT companies in the Gulf who are prepared to look for them. While the Arab world is generically hostile to war with Iraq, there remains a close connection to Britain as a friend and a favoured trading partner and in the coming months there will be many opportunities to reinforce and re-build that friendship again.


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