A 5G future, connected collaboration and Rihanna-kissing robots: what went down at this year’s SAMENA Leaders’ Summit in Dubai

An overview of the meeting of the Middle East and Africa's sharpest minds in telecoms.
5G, SAMENA, SAMENA Leaders' Summit, 2019, Tech, Business, Huawei, GSMA, STC, ETISALAT, DU, UN, United Nationa, ITU, H.E. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Atlantis, Atlantis The Palm, Dubai, UAE, United Arab Emirates, TRA, Middle East, Africa, Society, Future, Equality, Gender equality, Women's rights, India, Mobile, Telecommunications, Telecoms, Robot, AI, Titan, Rihanna

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United Arab Emirates Minister of Tolerance H.E. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan speaking at the SAMENA Leaders' Summit in Dubai.

It’s not often you get the CEOs of the Middle East and Africa’s largest telcos, top executives from major suppliers and vendors, government ministers, and even the head of a United Nations all together in one place. But this year’s SAMENA Telecommunications Council’s Leaders’ Summit did just that – and it’s safe to say the discussions that took place will shape the region’s 5G future for years to come.

There’s a certain element of fantasy when visiting Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai. After all, the mega-resort is purpose-built to be an unforgettable, otherworldy experience for vacationers and staycationers alike – almost as if it had been pulled up from the depths of the sea and deposited at the very top of the Palm Jumeirah for us landlubbers.

But what went down on April 18 was very real – and will have very real implications for the Middle East and Africa far into the future.

While 5G is a topic that’s been debated by anyone and everyone for years now, such discussions carry a whole lot more weight when you get the collective influence and firepower this year’s SAMENA Leaders’ Summit brought together.

Put together by the SAMENA Telecommunications Council with patronage from the United Arab Emirates’ Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), the main sponsors for the day-long affair were Huawei – who, in addition to bringing along a two-legged humanoid robot named Titan that (in all seriousness) could dance and make jokes (despite an unsettlingly similar physical appearance to the evil Megatron from the Transformers movies – even weirder considering it once actually had a pash with the singer Rihanna on stage and hung out with aspiring supermodels on the German version of the Topmodel reality series), presented a number of their 5G solutions and hosted the “5G is ON” forum discussing where we’re currently at and where we’re heading with 5G technology.

Things kicked off at about 9:30 a.m. with an opening address from SAMENA CEO Bocar A. Ba. This was followed by a speech from STC group CEO Eng. Nasser Bin Sulaiman Al Nasser, who discussed the importance of building ICT infrastructure and cooperation to lift society.

TRA UAE Director General H.E. Hamad Obaid Al Mansoori was next. He, too, stressed cooperation. He said: “working together is success.”

As hundreds of attendees looked on, Huawei Middle East president Charles Yang summed up in his speech the promise of 5G. “We think 5G will bring a faster, safer and smarter world.”

Yang also highlighted the numerous 5G projects and use cases Huawei has been involved in – particularly in the Middle East and Africa – such as building more base stations. He also said Huawei had the first affordable 5G smartphone to the market, and that 5G was the “most secure” network ever.

Tech for equality

Among the most high-profile delegates was Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the United Nations agency known as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Zhao, visiting Dubai for the first time since the ITU’s 20th Plenipotentiary Conference (known as PP-18) took place at the Dubai World Trade Centre last October (a multi-week event that brought together more than 2,500 delegates from every UN member state, and even the Prime Minister of Vanuatu), was particularly complimentary of the progress the Middle East in particular has already made in developing and rolling out 5G services.

But much of Zhao’s speech – and a later discussion with some of the dozens of journalists from throughout the region and beyond who attended – focused on the power of technology to promote equality around the world, particularly gender equality. Governments, he said, have a role in this, too, by promoting ICT, particularly among young women.

Another high-profile guest was the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), H.E. Dr Abdulaziz Bin Salem Al Ruwais. Like Zhao, he also made a point of talking about how tech can empower people – a topic Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chair Dr R.S. Sharma, another guest speaker, also discussed.

GSMA Director General Mats Granryd, speaking at the SAMENA Leaders’ Summit for the third year in a row, argued that “intelligent connectivity” and things such as big data could help with slowing or stopping the spread of infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis in India (the nation with the highest number of cases of the highly infectious disease worldwide). But he was especially excited about the potential of 5G and mobile technology to improve women’s rights by giving women more agency – such as through mobile payments which allow women to control their own money.

“This is the single most important thing we can do.”

Huawei Middle East president Charles Yang speaking at the SAMENA Leaders' Summit in Dubai.

‘We need each other’

As the day of meetings, discussions and speeches came to a close (and after a speech by UAE Minister of Tolerance H.E. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, who said the telecommunications industry has an important role in promoting tolerance because it allows people to connect with each other), SAMENA’s Ba hailed it as a success. But, he said, it’s important to continue to collaborate – not just to roll-out 5G, but to make the world a better place.

“What has been the most important message across all the stakeholders is collaboration,” he said.

“We need each other. We need to engage with the leaders of other industries.”

While collaboration with large organisations like Huawei is particularly useful, some of those other industries to engage with, Ba said, include healthcare and education. The reason: engaging with a diversity of stakeholders is critical to successfully implementing 5G technology – including engaging internationally between countries.

“We cannot build 5G in one country without talking to another.”

It almost comes without saying, but Ba also stressed the discussions need to continue.

“We need to follow-up,” he said.

“The consensus is a given. I have enjoyed the healthy debate. There is a real enthusiasm to work together to succeed.”

An enthusiasm that should – hopefully – lead to a better future for us all.

SAMENA Telecommunications Council CEO Bocar A. Ba.

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