The mobile industry in the Arab States has grown rapidly over the last few years, with 55% of the population subscribed to a mobile service as of mid-2015. The region is now seeing an accelerating technology migration to higher speed networks and smartphones, facilitated by operator investments to extend network coverage. The number of mobile broadband connections will reach 180 million by the end of 2015, and just under 350 million by 2020.
By the end of 2014, the unique subscriber base in the Arab States totalled 199 million, having grown at a CAGR of 7.0% over the last five years However, going forward subscriber growth rates will slow, with the total base forecast to increase to 234 million at a rate of 2.8% per annum out to 2020. This slowdown is based on several factors: declining potential of further subscriber growth in already highly penetrated markets, the challenge of growing penetration in the often lower income and rural-based groups in less developed markets, and unstable political and economic conditions in some markets showing little signs of improvement.
In 2014, mobile technologies and services generated 4% of GDP in the Arab States, a figure that will increase to 4.5% of GDP by 2020. This analysis does not include a number of socio-economic impacts, such as improved access to education and health services brought about by mobile applications. The mobile ecosystem supported 1.3 million jobs in the region in 2014. In addition to the mobile sector’s impact on the economy and labour market, it makes a substantial contribution to the funding of the public sector, with approximately $13 billion raised in 2014 in the form of general taxation.
The mobile industry has a pivotal role to play in addressing social and developmental challenges in the Arab States, challenges that are becoming increasingly acute as a result of high unemployment levels, a youthful population, and ongoing social and political instability. In the less developed countries in the region, mobile is playing a role in digital inclusion (providing access to the internet where there are no other alternatives) and financial inclusion (providing financial services to the unbanked). Meanwhile, in the more developed markets, mobile operators are launching more advanced services such as those related to smart cities, mobile commerce and digital identity.
There are many steps policy-makers in the region could take to expand access to broadband and the other valuable services enabled by mobile networks, including by releasing more internationally harmonised spectrum. Policy-makers could also make it easier for mobile operators to deploy or gain access to the necessary infrastructure, including backbone networks and international gateways. Many Arab governments need to review their taxation policies, as mobile-specific taxes are holding back economic growth and the resources available to both the public and private sectors. Policy-makers also need to ensure that their existing regulatory frameworks will facilitate the development of valuable new mobile applications relating to identification, education, health, financial services and other aspects of daily life.