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31 December 2017 - Dubai, UAE. Man records laser show on his phone at Burj Khalifa.

Economies across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are undergoing significant digitization. In the next three years, the region’s consumer digital economy is expected to value $100 billion. The private sector is taking advantage of impressive growth in internet access and mobile phone use, with tech startups and incubators blossoming across the region. National governments also recognize the importance of investment in the digital future. The International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates government spending on ICT in MENA will reach $15 billion by 2030.

In 2020, PwC conducted a study of CEOs in the Middle East; 81 percent responded that the unavailability of key digital skills is a threat to business.

Yet, the digital transformation exposes a shortage of skills to meet new labor market demands for both basic and advanced digital capabilities. In 2020, PwC conducted a study of CEOs in the Middle East; 81 percent responded that the unavailability of key digital skills is a threat to business. Employers seek innovators to penetrate new frontiers in the technology sector and workers capable of digitizing existing business operations. The skills deficit represents not only a loss in economic potential, but also forces employers to source employment from outside the region.   

To address this critical skills gap, the last several years has witnessed an explosion of digital skills training programs, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. From EdTech startups designed for youth aged 7 – 10, to upskilling initiatives spearheaded by the international development community, the private and public sectors recognize that augmenting digital literacy is essential for the 21st century economy. This article is part of an ongoing assessment at the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program (MEP) of initiatives in the e-learning space in MENA. The project aims to better understand who drives the region’s upskilling efforts, how it contributes to the digital revolution, and what obstacles the populace continues to face in reaching a critical mass of digital competency.

Emergence of digital skills training

Digital skills training platforms generally expanded in MENA within the last five years. Several pioneering companies identified a need for content in Arabic, designed for Arabic speaking users. Ten years ago, when Basil Khattab, Co-Founder & Chief Commercial Officer at Zedny Education Services, set out to launch an EdTech company with his partner, he noticed that the number of e-learning platforms for Arabs was nearly zero. Despite Arabic being the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, the language content often translated from English and only presented examples from Western countries. Therefore, in addition to establishing a program in Arabic,Khattab knew it was critical to, “localize the content, add examples of subject matter from our markets, and [make it] easily relatable to our target audience.”

Similarly, when hundreds of thousands of Syrian youth began arriving in Europe in 2015, Dr. Fadi Al Shalabi, a Syrian academic based in Germany, realized there were no online courses taught live in the Arabic language by a person. In response, he established Niuversity, an interactive distance learning platform led by professors and topical experts. Today, Niuversity instructs 10,000 Arabic-speakers, mostly youth, with an impressive 94 percent completion rate, well above the regional and global averages. Dr. Al Shalabi attributes Niuversity’s success to the way it caters to the needs of Arabic learners.

Upskilling platforms that existed prior to widescale digital adoption have needed to pivot to stay relevant in the competitive sector.

The burgeoning of online training platforms is now crowding the marketplace. Upskilling platforms that existed prior to widescale digital adoption have needed to pivot to stay relevant in the competitive sector. Education for Employment (EFE) is a job training and placement nonprofit with locations in 9 MENA countries. Senior Business Development Specialist for EFE-Jordan, Elizabeth Clark, remarked the changing economy accelerated their transition to online training. “The space has become a lot more crowded. The conversation now is, ‘what is our added value’? [We are trying] to see where there are spaces for us to not be repeating.” EFE-Jordan had to devise a blended model that combined online with in-person training to continue placing youth in vocational jobs.

As the digital transformation accelerates, the nature of work will change with it. Amanda Line, a Partner at PwC’s Academy Middle East told me, “The digital transformation, digitization, and the future of jobs are intrinsically linked. It is not just about upskilling people in digital [skills], but also making sure people have other skills.” Recognizing this, PwC Academy complements digital skills training with ‘essential’ life skills, such as problem solving and adopting an entrepreneurial mindset. She added, “Those things become more important in a digital world, as you say, ‘technology can do this, but this is what I can do that technology cannot.’”  

Impact on vulnerable groups

Growth in the digital economy risks leaving behind segments of the population who struggle to access digital infrastructure, namely women and rural communities. For example, the Arab Barometer survey found MENA women are 56 percent less likely to be an internet user than men. Combined with the region’s low female labor force participation rate of 20 percent, women are at risk of falling behind in the digital economy. The paucity of digital skills is similarly worrying for rural communities, whose households have lower internet penetration rates and are less likely to own a digital device. However, with the right policies in place to provide equitable access to devices and Internet, there are also huge opportunities for women and rural communities to leverage digital technologies to overcome workplace limitations.

Training programs that target vulnerable groups are an important measure to enhance employment outcomes. In certain cases, companies offer access to disadvantaged groups at a more affordable rate. For example, the scale of users on Zedny’s platform subsidizes the delivery of free content to women. Others go further in providing resources and infrastructure to users who face greater challenges. EFE-Saudi Arabia distributes laptops to local NGOs that work with youth, so they have an opportunity to access online courses. By contrast, “In Syria and Iraq, electricity is rare, which means internet is rare,” Dr. Al Shalabi put forth. “Even if people want to attend, they don’t have the ability… we needed local partners who have rooms.”      

EFE-Jordan looks to the freelance industry as a possible solution to this rising concern. “Jordan is economically centered in Amman, [yet] digital literacy outside of Amman is not very strong. This ties into digital skills. There is a big opportunity for rural communities in Jordan to upskill and take freelance jobs,” Clark explains. In response, the organization added a third track to their curriculum: online freelancing. The program offers technical training in digitally relevant skills, such as data analytics or social media and digital marketing. Following this, students are introduced to platforms that offer freelance opportunities, learn how to market themselves, and best practices for bidding on and accepting a project.

Skills training programs leverage their resources and expertise to innovate solutions for and capture individuals who may be excluded from the digital economy without additional support.

Skills training programs leverage their resources and expertise to innovate solutions for and capture individuals who may be excluded from the digital economy without additional support. This reflects the social values that underpin their operations, not just economic drivers. As Khattabput it, “We will think we succeeded only when the youngest girl in the poorest village can find opportunities… learn the skills for the job market and monetize those skills.”

The key to sustainable progress

While the more than 150 companies we identified in our study are making enormous strides in upskilling the labor force, the region has a long road ahead before entry to the digital economy will be widely available. Training programs led by the private sector are not a viable solution to the magnitude of people in need of upskilling or reskilling. As low-skilled labor is increasingly automated, millions of MENA workers are under threat of job displacement. A 2018 McKinsey report found that 45 percent of existing work in the Middle East can be automated – a number likely growing.  

The government must invest in equipping schools with the resources to implement digital literacy into national curricula. 

This calls for a robust response to prepare the region for inevitable changes to come. The World Bank outlined five strategies for MENA countries to achieve greater levels of digital competency. Most notably, integration of digital skills and tools into the education system. The government must invest in equipping schools with the resources to implement digital literacy into national curricula. This requires physical infrastructure, such as Internet and laptops, and incentives for teachers and schools to undergo these expensive changes.

More importantly, academic institutions at the higher education level must reform their programs to meet labor market demands more accurately. Sarah Bacon, Director of Programs at AstroLabs, contends, “One of the reasons we get recent graduates is because universities are not equipping people with the skills they need to compete in the workplace. A university degree cannot help someone get a job.” At present, MENA youth spend precious time and money only to end up jobless and in need of remedial education or market-appropriate skills. Universities can take a series of practical steps to reverse this issue. First, the establishment of regional repositories for resource sharing will reduce the cost bearing on individual institutions. In addition, the academic world must develop stronger ties with the private sector and take advantage of infrastructure and technology to implement in the classroom.

The region is at an inflection point. Digitization has enormous potential to revolutionize MENA economies, and more people than ever are connected to the digital world. Individuals must be equipped with the skills and know-how to transform potential into productivity. For now, a limited set of skills training programs carry a heavy burden in closing that gap.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center. 

About the Author

Brooke Sherman

Brooke Sherman

Program Assistant
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