December 7, 2023

5G's GDP Contribution in MENA Is Expected to Reach $60B in 2030, Representing 13% of the Overall Annual Economic Impact of Mobile in the Region

As the UN Climate Change Conference finds down in Dubai, many people unfamiliar with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are becoming aware of efforts to diminish the reliance on fossil fuel as the key producer of economic output. Having done business in the MENA region for several years, I have witnessed the efforts made by several governments to promote private sector development in several key industries including mobile technology. In its most recent annual report on the state of MENA's mobile economy, the GSMA points out that the region "home to some of the global leaders in terms of 5G adoption, reflecting the ambitious rollout plans of operators, backed by enabling regulations and strong demand from consumers for new services." Furthermore, "5G networks now cover 75% or more of the population in the GCC states, with operators in those markets increasingly shifting focus to improving 5G coverage in less densely populated areas while also ramping up investment to support the growing momentum behind use cases enabled by 5G standalone (SA) and 5G-Advanced." The GCC, or Gulf Cooperation Council, is comprised of six nations: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

The GSMA notes that "5G's GDP contribution is expected to reach $60bn in 2030, representing 13% of the overall annual economic impact of mobile in the region." The report's additional key findings include:

5G SA and 5G-Advanced will be at the heart of 5G's next phase

"By September 2023, six operators in MENA had already rolled out 5G SA networks, contributing to 15% of the global total. Operators in MENA have also begun planning for 5G-Advanced. The use case for 5G-Advanced is straightforward: to enable 5G to support new market demands while waiting for the arrival of 6G. 5G SA and 5G-Advanced will help operators to serve consumer and enterprise customers more flexibly. The adoption of private 5G networks, meanwhile, has been slower in MENA compared with other regions, but there is growing evidence that this is starting to change."

Operators look to monetize tower assets

"The majority of tower assets have traditionally remained in the hands of mobile operators in MENA. However, following STC's creation of Tawal in 2019, the first tower company in Saudi Arabia, an increasing number of operators in MENA have embarked upon infrastructure reshuffling, including the monetization of underutilized tower assets. Independent tower companies have been among the main acquirers of operator sites, utilizing multitenancy to drive profitability. In other instances, operators have spun off infrastructure in partnership with private equity groups or issued IPOs for their tower assets. Tower sales and spin-offs enable operators to reallocate capital towards areas with higher growth prospects."

GCC telcos target stakes in European counterparts

"International expansion has been a core growth and diversification strategy for GCC telcos looking for opportunities to scale up and drive new revenue and subscriber growth. Historically, GCC operators had bet big on emerging markets across South Asia, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of MENA. However, recent developments suggest a growing interest in long-established European operators. e& and STC are leading the charge, having made several high-profile deals and announcements since early 2022. The strategic rationale lies in the potential to become global players in the TMT space, both in terms of scale and innovation."

The shift to circularity gathers momentum

"In response to escalating concerns regarding the generation of e-waste and the unsustainable depletion of natural resources, the concept of circularity has surged to the forefront of the agendas for policymakers and industry stakeholders. This amplified focus on sustainability is particularly evident in view of the region's role as the host for the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai. Governments and industry participants in the region are taking proactive measures to establish new channels and suppliers dedicated to collecting, refurbishing and reselling devices and network equipment."

Regulatory enablers and innovation hubs fuel fintech growth

"MENA has experienced a significant surge in fintech services, driven by increased investments and regulatory enablement. Regulatory sandboxes and dedicated fintech hubs have been important contributors to this, with digital payment solutions gaining prominence in recent years, including
contactless payments, open banking and buy now, pay later (BNPL) services. Mobile operators are actively involved in the fintech space, expanding access and inclusion for consumers and businesses through a variety of financial-services products and partnerships with established fintech providers."

Infographic: GSMA

Significant opportunities exist for MENA entrepreneurs to develop localized solutions in AI, IoT, cybersecurity, EdTech, fintech, digital health, e-commerce, and enterprise services. As the report explains, "Beyond its contribution to GDP, the mobile ecosystem also supports over 800,000 jobs (directly and indirectly) and makes a substantial contribution to the funding of the public sector, with $20 billion raised through taxation in 2022. This economic contribution underlines the importance of stakeholders taking the right steps to sustain the impact of mobile services on the digital economy, with spectrum availability a key driver of affordable 5G for all."

What opportunities are you seeing in the region?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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