Mohamed Maleeh Jamaal breaks ground in Maldives as the country’s first minister for communications, science and technology. He leads at a time of rapid innovation in Maldives, as the country forges its path towards digital transformation in government and across the economy. The Maldivian government views digital transformation as the key to unlocking greater government transparency and access, as well as to stimulating sustainable economic growth. With the lofty goal of positioning itself as the next Estonia, Maldives is a small island nation with its eyes on a future-facing society
You were sworn into office last November at the brand new Ministry of Communications, Science, and Technology. As the first minister to hold this portfolio, can you provide an overview of the importance of this ministry, its main functions and your objectives?
This new ministry was inaugurated by President Solih and has three main mandates. The communications mandate governs the communications regulatory framework, the communications authority, and generally serves as the governing body of the communications sector and government function in Maldives. We are still fleshing out the mandate of the science component. Our hope is that it will serve to guide the country in scientific research. We plan to form the Science Foundation to do R&D for the nation. Our third mandate, technology, is critical. Maldives’ National Centre for Information Technology has existed for nearly 15 years. Although there has been transition over the years, our commitment to digital transformation in Maldives has been consistent. The National Centre for Information Technology is currently responsible for managing the e-government of the country. We are moving towards full digital governance. It is an era of digital transformation in Maldives. We’re a small nation with 450,000 locals, 187 islands, and 144 resorts; we have every reason to be a digital nation. One area we have been focusing digital transformation efforts is in government service delivery. When the Ministry was formed we fielded many complaints about long queues in government ministries. For example, in the past, people had to go to a government office and physically pay the immigration fee for expat workers. Two hundred and fifty to 300 people were queuing in lines for up to three hours to pay this fee. The opportunity cost of the queues was roughly €20m per month. We migrated this process online, and eliminated the multi-hour queue. Soon, we hope to have all major common government services available to citizens online. To support this transition, we are working on several important initiatives. One is the enhancement of our legal framework. We are also in the process of formulating our technology masterplan for the country that will guide the future for the nation. Lastly, we are building a digital transformation initiative within government. Our aim is to have all the government websites integrated with payment systems centralised in one payment portal.
The Maldivian tech landscape is wide and diverse. What are the main strengths and challenges of this?
A major strength we have is that our policymakers put the importance of digital transformation front and centre. We believe as ministers and policymakers that people deserve transparency, and one of the best ways to enhance the transparency of the government is through ICT. We have created a portal where people will be able to submit complaints regarding transparency issues, corruption and other problems within the government. Another strength we have is that we are a very tech-savvy society. Two-thirds of the Maldivian population are youth. They live on their smartphones, and so the digital divide is not so prominent in this country. We also have strong telecommunications infrastructure, and the sector is growing at almost seven percent per year. There are two main telecom companies that provide excellent service to the islands. All the major islands have fibre optic cable infrastructure, and it is well regulated. Our objective is to increase connectivity and speed of connectivity.
In your first press conference, you announced Maldives would be inaugurating a technology council to improve the energy sector in the country. What is this tech council and is there any possibility for foreign collaboration?
This is a new ministry, and as such, my view is that it is beneficial to incorporate the maximum number of technical and professional opinions and consultations into our decision-making as possible. With this aim, we’ll establish two councils, the technology council and the science council. The technology council will advise me on the latest industry updates and how we can proceed as a nation with our technology strategy. The science council will serve a similar role for that sector, and I envision the councils collaborating with local and international companies to help us brainstorm through the issues we face as a nation. I believe that participating in our council will also help strengthen technology companies in the country.
Beyond the Technology Council, how do UAE companies, investors or individuals help boost science and technology in Maldives? What opportunities are available and why would they be interesting for potential UAE partners?
Last month we attended the World Government Summit in Dubai. I was excited by the commitment and leadership the Dubai Government is putting into innovation and technology in governance and in stimulating the economy. These are some of the things we can benchmark against as a small nation. We see a lot of investment opportunities in Maldives for people in the UAE and throughout the Middle East. We offer connectivity not only to Dubai, with Emirates flying between Dubai and Maldives three times daily, but Abu Dhabi, Muscat and other major capitals. There is big potential. Maldives is an emerging economy. We are located in a very strategic location. In our field there are opportunities to invest in the telecommunications sector and information technology, especially in the 144 excusive resorts which require technology, software and hardware. We have a thriving aviation sector; the government has plans to create a national data centre; we are planning to build technology parks, and all of these are areas wide open for investment. We invite all technological and digital companies to provide technical and financial assistance to the country.
What is your long-term vision for Communications, Science and Technology in Maldives?
My vision is that Maldives is the number one country in the world in the adoption of technology in governance. I really hope that one day people look to the Maldives and say we want to be like them in both adapting and adopting technology. We want to be the Estonia of the Indian Ocean. How they have adopted technology for governance is amazing. We want to build a digital society. We want to live in a digital society where technology lowers costs, increases ease of business, grows our economy, allows us to be more transparent, and improves service delivery. This is also critical to our tourism strategy upon which our economy relies. If we have better technology in all aspects of our lives and in the experience of our visitors, that gives us an edge against everyone else. I’m hoping my ministry will able to bring about transformational change in government service delivery to the citizens and also to investors. We want to be a country where ease of doing business is high. We want to have a transparent government so that investors know exactly what they need to do to establish a company here. We want people to have 24-hour access to their government. We dream big and I am sure that we will be able to achieve our dreams with the commitment that we have right now.