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The Gulf Cooperation Council countries: a closer look

Initiatives to diversify the GCC countries’ economies into new industries have accelerated both technological innovation and forecasted 5G uptake.

Key findings

  • At the end of 2020, the GCC countries had the highest monthly data traffic per smartphone in the world, exceeding 18GB.
  • By the end of 2026, 5G will account for 73 percent of all mobile subscriptions in the GCC countries.
  • 5G networks throughout the region have downlink throughput 6-10 times greater than 4G.

This is the premiere issue of the Mobility Report to break out statistics for the GCC countries from the Middle East and North Africa regional key figures. The statistics and forecasts include various figures for mobile subscriptions and traffic.

Service providers in the GCC were among the first in the world to launch 5G, with commercial services available in most of the member states during 2019. In Speedtest® results from Ookla®, 5G networks throughout the region have median downlink throughput 6–10 times greater than 4G.1 Smartphone penetration was 82 percent at the end of 2020, second place to North East Asia and comparable to North America. Monthly data traffic per smartphone was the highest globally at the end of 2020, exceeding 18GB.2

In aggregate, the GCC is forecast to have 62 million 5G mobile subscriptions by the end of 2026, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all mobile subscriptions in the Gulf region at that time.

Service providers are using 5G network performance as a key to differentiation in a highly competitive market. This is positioning the GCC countries to be second only to North America for 5G subscription penetration by the end of 2026. But the significance of 5G in this region goes beyond the number of subscriptions for consumers. 5G will also bring new capabilities allowing operators to develop innovative applications, services, and revenue streams for the enterprise market. New 5G applications and services are expected to have a profound impact on a range of industry verticals.

The GCC countries’ economies have been highly dependent on petroleum and related services. However, due to price volatility and in anticipation of peak oil, in recent years there has been a growing governmental focus on diversifying economies to reduce oil dependence.

A consequence of this is the prevalence of government-sponsored digital initiatives aimed at promoting technological innovation.

  • The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) – one of the strongest regional economies – has a number of high-profile digital initiatives which it administrates under its Vision 2030 initiative. Key themes include Creating a Vibrant Society, Building a Thriving Economy and Fueling an Ambitious Nation.
  • A similar plan was announced by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the goal of the Smart Dubai Vision is to make the city completely paperless, ensuring all government transactions are 100 percent digitized.
  • Qatar aims to transform itself into an advanced nation, capable of sustaining its development and providing a high standard of living for its people. To this end, its Vision 2030 has four pillars focusing on human, social, environmental and economic development.
  • Oman has a strategy, Oman Digital 2030, which aims to prepare its workforce – both private and government – for the effects of technology and digital transformation, with a special focus on AI.
  • In Bahrain, emerging technologies such as AI, biotechnology, material sciences and robotics have been identified as particularly promising areas to drive economic growth, and the focus has been on creating an effective ecosystem to foster innovation through those technologies.
  • Kuwait’s National Development Plan (2035 Vision) focuses on building a diversified and sustainable economy based on a digital infrastructure. Its goal is to transform Kuwait into a regional and global hub for both finance and trade.
5G will account for nearly three-quarters of all mobile subscriptions in the GCC countries by the end of 2026.

In a business environment infused with such initiatives, service providers are incentivized to keep up with the latest technologies and meet the projected demand from tech-savvy consumers. This is bringing monetization opportunities for service providers when it comes to entertainment, lifestyle, tourism, education and the workplace.

Ambitious plans for digital transformation are apparent in the number of high visibility sporting and cultural events to be hosted by GCC countries over the next three years. These include Expo 2020 (to take place in the UAE from October 2021 through March 2022) and a 2022 international football tournament in Qatar.

At the end of 2020, the region had the highest average monthly data traffic per smartphone in the world, exceeding 18GB.
The GCC countries

Figure 17: The GCC countries

GCC mobile subscriptions by technology (million)

Figure 18: GCC mobile subscriptions by technology (million)

GCC mobile data traffic (EB per month)

Figure 19: GCC mobile data traffic (EB per month)

In 2026, 80 percent of total mobile data traffic in the GCC countries is forecast to be carried by 5G networks.

1 Ericsson analysis on Speedtest Intelligence® data from Ookla® from January through April 2021.
2 There are variations in monthly average data consumption within the region, depending on country and service provider.

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