Open data developments in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Dubai

During the past few weeks, three Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the emirate of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates – have taken further steps with various level of importance in their efforts to make a progress in embracing open data at the national or city level.

In Saudi Arabia, the eGovernment Programme (Yesser) has worked with Exantium to design and publish the Open Data Handbook for the country. The handbook aims to introduce the concept of open data and explain its key and essential aspects, to the government officials, businesses and anyone who is expected to use the government data published on the national portal of Saudi. The handbook, published in Arabic, is customised and tailored to various contextual factors in Saudi Arabia.

After the handbook was prepared and published, Yesser Program organised a workshop in late November 2014. This was attended by around 150 government officials to introduce the handbook and offer an educational and awareness does on the topic – the workshop was delivered by ODI Registered Trainer, Ibrahim Elbadawi.

Not far away from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, another GCC country, has also taken a key step towards embracing open data. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology in Qatar (ictQATAR) released its Open Data Policy with the aim of "making government data publicly available in a way that enables data to be fully discoverable and usable by end users". This policy, being the first of its kind in the GCC region, is a key milestone in encouraging and implementing more openness in data and governance, that ictQATAR believes will contribute to Qatar’s National Vision 2030 and sustainable development in the country.

The policy design process involved a public consultation which has given the opportunity for anyone inside and outside Qatar to provide feedback, suggestions or comments of the open data policy draft. The launch and announcement of the policy was made early December in the Open Data and eParticipation Forum, organised by ictQatar. The forum agenda itself was designed with support from Exantium which has also provided key speakers including Dr Yasar Jarrar.

Along the same lines of progress in open data initiatives in the GCC, Dubai has formed the Dubai Open Data Committee by a decree from His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Executive Council of Dubai to support the Dubai government’s efforts to "transform Dubai into the smartest city in the world". The committee also aims to "achieve improved integration services and synchronisation of different delivery channels while ensuring information reliability, accuracy and availability without sacrificing individual privacy, government confidentiality and national security issues".

In our opinion, the announcement of this committee in Dubai makes it the first "country" in the region to politically endorse open data. All the other open data initiatives and activities are usually launched and managed under the umbrella of e-Government, labelling them as technology projects.

These developments in three GCC countries show how these countries among other Arab countries such as Tunisia and Morocco have evidently begun recognising the need for openness in government data for the betterment of societies and communities in the region. This has been particularly evident from the recently published Open Data Barometer, where nine countries were assessed - four of which are GCC countries (Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar).

While countries in the region still have a long way to go in terms of building blocks to establish open data ecosystems, the existence of policies and political endorsement of open data projects count as positive indicators.

Ibrahim Elbadawi is an ODI Registered Trainer, and Managing Director at Exantium, which hosts ODI Dubai