The Arab world is lagging behind in the digital revolution, with Internet users making up less than four percent of its population, according to participants in a telecommunications development conference in Doha.
"The Arab presence on the Internet is almost zilch ... not more than a few websites providing information or personal sites," said Syrian Telecommunications and Technology Minister Amr Salem.
This is due to technical factors, notably "the absence of an Arab portal, which means connections on the network have to go through Europe or the United States, pushing up costs," he said.
Salem said other reasons were "the lack of a juridical framework covering the Arab region and investors' hesitation" to put their money in the telecommunications sector, which is booming in industrialized countries.
According to statistics compiled by the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a co-organizer of the week-long Doha conference ending on March 15, the 22 Arab League members had only 11.7 million Internet users out of a total population of 316 million in 2004.
This amounts to a 3.7 percent penetration rate in the region, whose combined Gross Domestic Product totals 813 billion dollars and per capita income reaches 2,571 dollars.
In contrast, the use of mobile phones is expanding in Arab states, with 45.9 million subscribers in 2004 -- a penetration rate of 14.51 percent -- compared to 27.1 million landline subscribers, which amounts to an 8.59 percent penetration rate.
The Group of Eight leading industrial nations had a total of 429 million Internet users in 2004, nearly as much as the rest of the world combined -- 444 million.
Internet use is growing at varying rates in the Arab world, the ITU's representative in the region, Ibrahim Haddad, told AFP, pointing to a "very rapid" growth in the oil-rich Gulf monarchies.
"But Arab countries generally suffer problems related to infrastructure, poverty and illiteracy -- particularly digital illiteracy," he said.
Salem said Arab states were conscious of the need to tackle such difficulties.
They "are unanimous in wanting to promote" information technologies, he said, hinting that this is one sector which appears to have escaped chronic inter-Arab political differences.
"No Arab country fears e-commerce or digital services on the Internet," Salem said, while deploring the delay in laying down a pan-Arab juridical framework to regulate information technologies.
Haddad was more optimistic, noting that half the Arab countries had set up independent telecommunications bodies, which helped resolve legal problems and reassure investors.
Moreover, he said, Arab states have already privatized 43 percent of their major telecommunications operators -- with the Internet and mobile phones open to the private sector up to 76 percent and 87 percent, respectively.
At the regional level, Haddad said, the private sector will be largely involved in the execution of a project to establish an inter-Arab Internet connection.
The plan, dubbed Regional Access Point, was initiated by Arab states in conjunction with the ITU at an estimated cost of 200 million dollars.
Haddad said this was one of six Arab projects approved during the World Summit on the Information Society held in Tunis last November, including the creation of a digital database.