Like many countries in the region and around the world, Oman has realized the importance of changing its economy from a resource-based to a knowledge-based one. A key element behind this strategy is IT and telecommunications and the Sultanate’s e-Oman strategy, which provides the blueprint for growth in ICT usage as well as connectivity. The penetration rates in Oman are quite high, with mobile penetration rates at 156.73% in 2013 and internet penetration at an all-time high. Fixed internet rates were 46.14% and mobile internet at 72%, while PC penetration rates were 83% in 2013 according to the latest statistics from e.Oman. However, Oman remains behind its GCC counterparts with the lowest broadband subscription rate of just 2.7 per 100 habitants. One of the reasons for this is the cost of connecting. The prices charged in Oman are some of the highest in the GCC. This in turn is one of the main reasons why mobile internet penetration is somewhat higher than fixed internet. As of February 2015, there were a total of 185,606 fixed internet subscribers, which included dial up, ADSL, and WiMax. There were also a total of 2.89 million active mobile broadband subscribers according to e.Oman.
High penetration rates have been a driver behind the government’s desire to offer many of its services electronically to reduce costs and improve efficiency. The Information Technology Authority of Oman is the department behind the e.Oman strategy and is looking to transform all aspects of government services and their dealings with the public. It not only wants to streamline government services, but also build a sustainable national development plan for the ICT sector. The strategy will link numerous sectors together to help change the Sultanate into a knowledge-based society. In order to effectively create a digital society, there are a number of areas that the government must address. One of the main areas is cyber security and the promotion of a safe cyberspace. Related to this is also bringing to justice any cyber criminals caught. The government must also focus on free and open source software for companies as well as the development and training of professionals, researchers, faculties, staff, and students. If the government is able to address these issues then it will be well on its way to achieving its goals.
In May 2009, the official eGovernment service portal was launched and acts as the main gateway for the public and businesses to access services offered by the government online. The portal can be accessed via the web or mobile devices. Citizens are able to access various government departments through the portal, including healthcare, education, voting, consumer protection, national registration services, and land allocation services, to name a few of the varied services on offer. Education has been one of the sectors to benefit most from the eGovernment portal. The portal provides an electronic link between schools, the regional education directorates and departments, and the ministry, enabling them to transfer and exchange plans, programs, data, and statistics. It has been one of the most extensive eGovernment initiatives and covers more than 1,000 schools. The education portal has now become the de facto platform for communication between parents and teachers, as well as students and teachers.
Ensuring a healthy population is one of the main goals of any government, and e-services are being used to help achieve this goal. Currently, the Ministry of Health uses the Al Shifa Health System, which is one of the most advanced eGovernment applications in the Sultanate at the moment. Al Shifa is a comprehensive healthcare information management system developed to provide complete solutions for a healthcare facility. It has been installed in over 200 facilities and holds everything from medical records, to assets, inventories, and HR records. The files are then accessible by any facilities hooked up to the system and provides a fully integrated system whereby doctors can access the full medical history of any patient that comes through the doors. This improves healthcare efficiency dramatically as doctors and nurses spend far less time chasing information that is now available at the click of a button. One of the most effective uses of the system is when it comes to mother and baby care. A hospital can hold information and provide holistic care to pregnant mothers from pre-natal to post-natal care from the first medical center the patient visits all the way up to the tertiary hospital at the time of birth. This on-demand and easily accessible information has helped to reduce childhood mortality, illnesses, and disabilities, as well as contribute to the overall development and growth of the children of Oman.
Without effective cyber security and strong ICT laws, the government’s efforts to implement a digital society will be lost. This is the reason for the development of the Information Security Division (ISD). This new division aims to address any security risks and build up information security-related services in the community. ISD provides security support for eGovernment services, both technology and knowledge wise. ISD also puts on workshops and seminars on themes such as information security, risk management, business continuity management, and post-disaster recovery to spread awareness about information security among government agencies and employees. Oman’s National Computer Emergency Readiness Team (OCERT) is another part of this strategy. It analyzes and treats any security incidents on the internet, while at the same time nurturing information security among the different social groups in Oman. OCERT provides real time data on security threats and risks while also providing precautionary measures and steps to minimize exposure to threats.
NATIONAL REGISTRATION SYSTEM
Another development to come out of the e.Oman strategy is the national registration system. Each citizen will be given a unique registration number and an identity card that will be used whenever accessing eGovernment services. The card can even be used as an e-purse for storing credit and making e-payments. The card can also be used in place of a passport at Muscat Airport and can be scanned to clear the passport section quickly and efficiently. One of the main uses of the new card will be during the Majils al-Shura elections, where mobile units will be installed to allow e-voting. Citizens will also be able to register to vote. It is hoped that this new system will increase transparency during elections. The identity card is going to become an integral part of Omani society as all government hospitals and health clinics phase out hospital cards in favor of the new identity cards. Mobile units will head out to remote areas of the country to ensure all citizens are able to register and then access any government service. The registration will also help the government keep track of its population and give it a good idea of its potential workforce and population growth trends for the future.
Government e-initiatives hope to educate the population on using the portal and other e-services, but they also hope to develop and nurture SMEs and business. In line with this, the Omani Start-ups & Technology exhibition was held in April 2015. The key idea behind it was to showcase start-ups and SMEs in the field of ICT and was jointly hosted by Bank Muscat and the Information Technology Authority’s SAS Program. The exhibition also aimed to support Omani youth and promote entrepreneurial initiative. It also created a platform for participants to interact and communicate with industry experts and prospective clients. To help businesses run more efficiently, the government established a one-stop shop for business registration. Again, as part of the government portal it enables SMEs and businesses to apply and register through the system.
Government initiatives to switch Oman into a knowledge-based and digital society are well underway. The portal system allows the government to offer its services more efficiently and at a reduced cost, while Omanis are able to interact with the government in a more pleasant and stress-free way. It also helps to create a more transparent system and reduces the opportunities for fraud and briberies by taking out the human element. The introduction of the national registration system and the identity card are sure to bring all aspects of society into the government’s idea for a computer -literate and connected society in the future.