A strand of existing literature shows that a mounting number of countries worldwide have successfully implemented e-government initiatives not only to spur innovation in the public sector (Sorrentino & de Marco 2013), but also to shift from expensive, rigid and bureaucratic provision of government services to more cost efficient ‘e’ solutions (Wimmer 2002). As posited by Gega & Elmazi (2012, p. 34), an overarching objective of e-government in today’s technologically-oriented world “is the delivery of faster and cheaper services and information to citizens, business partners, employees, other agencies, and government agencies.” Integration of e-government has been found to enhance the level of flexibility in government operations, which in turn improves the level of user satisfaction (Altameem 2007).
Most Arab countries in the MENA region have prioritized e-government as an engine for the attainment of an efficient, accountable and results-oriented public administration (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 2007), and also as a pedestal for exchanging information, providing critical services and transacting with citizens, enterprises, and other agencies of government (Al-wazir & Zheng 2012). However, as acknowledged by these authors, most Arab countries have taken different paths in terms of e-government prioritization, implementation, adoption as well as usage. In context, “the government of Saudi Arabia has already began the process of implementing its concept of e-government, which it refers to as YESSER – an umbrella and government controller of all the procedures, activities, legislation and all other issues and acts related to its implementation” (Basamh, Quidaih, & Suhaimi 2014). These authors argue that, although the KSA’s government has substantially transformed its e-government program particularly in the period between 2005 and 2008, an in-depth analysis of the level of adoption and the progress of implementation of the initiative demonstrates that only essential e-government services have been implemented so far because of a multiplicity of challenges and obstacles, most of which are linked to user (citizen) aspects.
Characteristics of Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) was formed in 1932 by King Abdi-Al-Aziz. The country underwent remarkable transformation during his reign, which was passed on to King Abdallah bin Abdi-Al-Aziz in 2005. Since taking over the country’s leadership, King Abdallah has stimulated the country’s transformation greatly. In the mainstream literature, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is considered as the origin of Islam and home to two of the holiest shrines in the Islamic religion, namely Medina and Makkah (Al-Sowayegh 2012).
Population, location and size
The KSA covers 80% of the Arabian Peninsula and borders the Arabian Gulf to the East, the Red Sea to the West, and the Indian Ocean to the South. The country borders Yemen, Qatar, Jordan, Oman, the United Arabs Emirates, and Iraq. Owing to its strategic location, the country has over the years acted as a bridge between Asia and Western countries. According to figures released by the Central Intelligence Agency (2014), the KSA occupies approximately 2,250,000 km2 and has a population of around 27,345,986. In terms of age structure, it is evident that the country has a population that is most responsive to the Internet and emergent information and communication technologies as 64.7% of citizens are in the 15-54 age bracket (Central Intelligence Agency 2014). This aspect presents an opportunity for the country to adopt technological solutions due to the high rate of acceptance of information technology amongst the youth and the working class (Shanks, Bekmamedova & Johnstone 2012). On the other hand, the birth rate is estimated at18.78 births per 1,000 people, while the death rate is estimated at 3.32 deaths per 1,000 people. Islam is the official religion in Saudi Arabia; however, other monotheistic religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Christianity also exist (Central Intelligence Agency 2014).
The culture of Saudi Arabia
Culture has been defined in the literature as “the fundamental values, attitudes, beliefs, and patterns of thinking which are rooted in view of a region or society of how the world works and how individuals and/or groups can and should operate in that world” (Obeidat et al 2012, p. 513). The national culture is one of the dimensions of culture, which entails the collective mental programming of individuals or citizens in a particular nationality and hence varies across countries. Culture constitutes a critical component of a country’s socioeconomic growth as well as its technological adoption and use (Basamh et al 2014).
A strand of existing literature demonstrates that the shared values and norms in a particular society have a significant impact on the process of implementing change (Lee-Post 2007), and that the implementation of different government policies is subject to the existing diverse cultural barriers and drivers (Al-Sowayegh 2012). Saudi Arabia is characterized by a conservative culture which is grounded on Islamic principles and doctrines. Unreservedly, therefore, the country’s culture has a significant impact on the lives of citizens. Indeed, the management of different national issues is based on the Arabian cultural values and the Islamic religion. As acknowledged by Al-Sowayegh (2012, p. 33), the “role of Islam is echoed in the social norms, patterns, traditions, obligations, privileges, and practices of the society.” Consequently, Islam is regarded as a way of life in the KSA because it is firmly embedded in every single aspect of the social fabric.
The Saudi culture is male-dominated and socio-centric, implying that men dominate women in all aspects of life in accordance with the country’s traditions and customs. As a matter of fact, the segregation of the female and male genders forms a critical characteristic of the KSA. Al-Shehry (2008) asserts that the country’s culture is also characterized by a tribal system despite the new socioeconomic developments. The Saudi government has also incorporated the element of modernization within the national culture, as current trends show an increase of experts outsourced from international markets with the view to contributing to the country’s socioeconomic transformation.
The economy of Saudi Arabia
The KSA is primarily an oil-based economy, which is largely controlled by the government. Despite the existence of private enterprises, their operations are largely under the control of government regulations. The KSA is undoubtedly the largest crude oil exporter in the world, as available statistics show that the country accounts for 25% of the total crude oil reserves globally. Conservative figures documented by Alsheha (2007) show that petroleum accounts for 45% of the KSA’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 90% of the total export earnings, and 80% of the country’s total budget revenue.
The Saudi government is focused on diversifying its economy, with one of the strategies so far adopted being the promotion of the private sector in order to spur economic growth while at the same time reducing overdependence on oil. Indeed, the Saudi government has come up with a number of policy frameworks aimed at encouraging foreign investors in its quest to diversify the economy. For example, international investors and private enterprises operating within the country are now allowed to make heavy investments in the telecom and power generation domains, a marked departure from the past where the government enjoyed a monopoly over these critical sectors of the economy. Moreover, in 2005, the country demonstrated its readiness to expand trading opportunities by acceding to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
During the 1970s, the KSA undertook in-depth economic reforms and liberalized several economic sectors in a focused move which, together with the ongoing oil boom, saw the country’s GDP increase by a massive 1,858% (Central Intelligence Agency 2014). In 2013, the country’s real GDP growth rate was 3.6% and the labor force stood at 8.412 million. As part of its economic expansion masterplan, the government has commenced the process of establishing six economic cities in different parts of the Kingdom. In a bid to stimulate economic growth further, the KSA government is planning to incorporate different information technology solutions within its economic system. This elaboration of economic boom reinforces the need for the government to invest heavily on the provision of e-government services; however, as acknowledged by Basamh et al (2014), adoption of these services by citizens has failed to match rollout. Indeed, as suggested by Al-Shehry (2008), the government is very cautious on implementing emergent information and technology solutions due to the county’s conservative culture.
Information and communication infrastructure in Saudi Arabia
Research consistently identifies information and communication technology as a fundamental element in the economic growth of countries worldwide (Shareef, Kumar & Dwivedi 2011). Subsequently, the KSA has prioritized the implementation of ICT. Indeed, the country has undergone remarkable changes over the past five decades, as evidenced by the high rate of adoption of ICT by different economic sectors. However, despite its focused commitment and investment, the level of development with regard to Information Technology is comparatively inferior compared to other developed economies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, and Japan (Al-Maliki & Williams 2012). The low level of ICT development inevitably translates into low usage level not only in the private sector, but also in the public domain.
Al-Shehry (2008, p. 68) asserts that the introduction and development process of information and communication technologies in the KSA has focused on three dimensions, namely (1) computerization of different private and public organizations, (2) establishing information technology training institutes in order to develop the necessary human capital, and (3) building the fundamental infrastructure to support IT. This author further suggests that the diffusion of ICT in the KSA is very complex. As posited by Zafiropoulos, Karavasilis, and Vrana (2012), one of the fundamental aspects in the diffusion of ICT in a country is its national infrastructure, which is taken cumulatively to mean the essential facilities and structures such as the social, economic, educational, health, telecommunication, and scientific facilities. Drawing from the works of Al-Shehry (2008), it is evident that any country that fails to develop the necessary capacity for telecommunication infrastructure will experience a progressively stunted growth in terms of economic, IT, and social development. This assertion highlights the importance of IT infrastructure.
The KSA’s initial efforts to develop an effective ICT infrastructure occurred during its rapid economic growth phase, though the government has renewed these efforts in recent years (Obeidat et al 2012). Indeed, the government’s quest to improve the ICT infrastructure is demonstrated by its commitment to liberalize the telecommunication sector, as evidenced by the high rate of privatization from 2007. Furthermore, the KSA government has established special organizations which are charged with the responsibility of controlling and monitoring the delivery of ICT services to citizens. As a matter of fact, the KSA established the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology as well as the Communication and Information Technology Authority to, among other things, assist in fast tracking and monitoring developments in the ICT sector.
The government of KSA effort to improve ICT infrastructure in the country is also evidenced by its “computer for each house” initiative, which was established in 2005 with the sole objective of providing citizens with computers at a low cost. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education integrated ICT in the school curriculum in an effort to impart ICT knowledge and skills on pupils. The government also announced plans to establish computer laboratories in all public schools. The chart next page illustrates Saudi Arabia’s national ICT timeline.
E-government initiative in Saudi Arabia (YESSER)
Al-Nuaim (2011) asserts that governments across the world are facing challenges arising from the emergence of new standards of governance. Furthermore, citizens in the developing economies are increasingly demanding effective government services and a high level of accountability. This trend is been fueled by an increase in knowledge with regard to the level of corruption and poor management of the economy by some of the leaders particularly in the developing economies (Al-Nuaim 2011). As demonstrated by the various uprisings and riots witnessed across several Arab countries over the past few years in what has come to be popularly referred to as the “Arab Spring”, more and more citizens are now demanding accountability and efficient delivery of services from their respective governments.
The KSA government is focused on successful implementation of e-government initiatives, with the view to ensuring effective and efficient delivery of services to its citizens. As posited by Al-Nuaim (2011, p.4), “majority of citizen services in the KSA are provided by government offices with the same office hours as educational institutions and private companies.” Consequently, citizens are forced to queue for long hours waiting for services. However, the KSA government has promised its commitment to eliminate this dilemma by incorporating e-government.
Research identifies four main categories of e-government, namely “government-to-government (G2G), government-to-business (G2B), government-to-employee (G2E), and government-to-citizen (G2C)” (Heeks 2001, p.46). The various categories of e-government are characterized by diverse levels of involvement. For example, while G2E and G2C refer to the engagement between government and individuals, G2G and G2B refer to the engagement between government and various public and private institutions (Fadel 2012).
The Information Technology National Plan forms the backbone of the KSA’s government efforts to develop and implement e-government. The plan, which is commonly referred to as “YESSER”, was established in 2005 with an initial bold aim of ensuring that every individual in the KSA would have the capacity to enjoy the benefits of the e-government initiative by 2010 (Basamh et al 2014). As posited by these authors, the core emphasis of the program entailed the employment of ICT in reforming the public sector. Indeed, in establishing the program, the KSA government intended to offer all citizens in the Kingdom an opportunity to enjoy different government services in a seamless, secure, and user-friendly manner at any place and time (Al-Maliki 2013).
The national e-government program (YESSER) was designed in such a way that it would promote the country’s continuous growth and development. The decision to formulate the “YESSER” program was informed by the need to ensure effective and efficient provision of government services to the public. In addition, the government intended to improve the level of productivity and accuracy with regard to delivery of the necessary information to the public (Sahraoui, Gharaibeh & Al-Jboori 2006).
The plan focused on three main aspects, namely information technology training, e-society, and e-readiness. The e-readiness aspect was aimed at ensuring that the country’s IT infrastructure is effectively developed in order to support the effectiveness with which IT supports the country’s economic growth through diverse aspects such as e-health, e learning, and e-government. However, a report released in 2012 by the United Nations shows that the level of e-readiness in the KSA remains relatively low compared to most countries in the developed world (United Nations 2012). Furthermore, the report shows that the usage of ICT in the KSA is relatively low compared to the 70% ICT usage level achieved by comparable countries such as the UAE. The YESSER program is a critical vehicle in transforming the KSA’s public sector into being a part of the global information society. The program intends to facilitate e-government by supporting different government departments and agencies with the necessary knowledge, data, methodologies, and standards, as illustrated in the figure below.
Moreover, the e-readiness aspect of the plan put much focus on improving the level of productivity at a relatively low cost. In their study, Beaudry and Pinsonneault (2005) assert that the e-readiness aspect also took into account the establishment of the necessary security frameworks to reinforce the trust and confidence of citizens in using e-government services. As posited by these authors, the implementation of effective security measures is a fundamentally important step towards encouraging citizens to adopt e-government, particularly in light of the information security threats presented by the emergence of the digital age.
The KSA efforts toward e-government are evidenced by its commitment to enhance computer literacy levels amongst citizens through the ‘one computer for every home’ initiative. Additionally, the KSA, through the Ministry of Education, has incorporated computer courses in all public schools to enhance computer literacy.
Public services in Saudi Arabia
As posited by Alzahrani (2011), governments across the world must develop the capacity to provide public services to the citizenry using the available information and communication technologies. The KSA government appreciates the importance of developing such capacity as part of its mandate to provide efficient and accountable public services to its citizens. Indeed, the Saudi government provides varied public services to citizens through a number of public service entities such as the Saudi Telecom, the National Guard Health Affairs, King Fahad Hospital, Directorate General Health of Affairs in Riyadh, King AbdulAziz University Hospital, General Directorate of Passports, and King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center.
Saudi Telecom is a public limited company that deals with the provision of telecommunication services such as the Internet, fixed line, and mobile services. The now globalizing institution was established in 1998 through the Council of Ministers’ Decree and its headquarters are in Riyadh. Saudi Telecom has managed to position itself optimally in the Arab region and it is the biggest telecommunication company with regard to revenue, market capitalization, and human resource base. In an effort to maximize profitability, Saudi Telecom has expanded into the international market, as witnessed by the fact that it is currently present in a number of Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Africa, and Asia.
General Directorate of Passports in Saudi Arabia
The Saudi Government is not only committed to ensuring the security of its citizens within the national borders, but is also focused on nurturing effective diplomatic relations with other countries on diverse social, economic, and political activities. Considering the fact that Saudi Arabia hosts millions of Hajj pilgrims every year, it is imperative for the government to ensure that the pilgrims are served seamlessly when the come to visit the Holy Cities. In order to achieve this goal, the KSA government has established a fully-fledged Ministry of Interior charged with, among other things, facilitating the issuance of passports to locals as well as foreigners.
The task of issuing passports was assigned to Makkah Police Department, which is under the Ministry of Interior in 1343H (General Directorate of Passports 2014). The department became responsible for issuing resident permits and passports which are commonly referred to as IQAMA. According to the General Directorate of Passports (2014, par.15), on 17/11/1348H “the Department issued the Majlis Al-Shura Decision No. 344, which outlined the passport system that the government should follow and decision outlined various aspects in the application of passports such as entry and exit conditions and the procedures to be followed in the process of issuing passports.” In an effort to improve the passport application procedure, the Saudi government issued the Al-Shura Decision Number 178 on 20/10/1353H which focused on identification system. Additionally, order No. 57/3/12 was issued on 12/8/1356h and focused on improving the resident permit system (General Directorate of Passports 2014). All along, the Saudi government was committed to nurturing effective e-governance system by improving the passport system. The KSA government formed the Passports and Citizenship Department on 5/11/1380H, which later received a Cabinet Order Number 1001 requiring it to establish a Deputy Assistant within the Department.
On 24/10/1391, a ministerial decision number 90 was made. This particular decision led to militization of the passports process in 1392/1993. Another Cabinet Order Number 1195 dated 10/5/1393H was formulated with the view to ensuring a high level of organization with regard to the issuance of passports. This move led to the establishment of the Passports Institute. Following this, another Cabinet order number 894 was issued on 27/7/1395H to herald the establishment of a Deputy for Passports under the Ministry of Interior. Later, the KSA government issued another “Cabinet Order number 1039/T, dated 9/10/1395 H, which led to the transfer of the citizenship and passport departments to the Ministry of Interior Agency of Passports and Civil Affairs” (General Directorate of Passports 2014, par.11).
The KSA’s commitment to establish the General Directorate of Passports is also evidenced by other orders such as the royal order number 12, which was issued on 28/03/1396. The royal order certified Cabinet Order number 462, which was issued on 21/03/1396 and led to the amendment of article 18 of the passport system (General Directorate of Passports 2014). Another order which demonstrates the government’s focused attempt to improve the passport system is Approval Order No. 21633, which was issued on 15/9/1402H with the sole “objective of separating passports from the Civil Affairs agency, hence leading to the formation of the General Directorate of Passports” (General Directorate of Passports 2014, par.12). This particular order ensured the establishment of a high level of synergies between the General Directorate of Passports and the Minister of Interior and the Deputy. On 01/07/1403, the KSA government through the General Directorate of Passports restructured the country’s passports organizational structure by focusing on a number of administrative, qualitative, and geographic dimensions.
Tasks of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia General Directorate of Passports
The General Directorate of Passports is charged with a number of responsibilities, as demonstrated in the directorate’s official website. One of the directorate’s main roles entails receiving all passport applications in Saudi Arabia. This aspect requires the directorate to evaluate all the applicants who satisfy the passport application requirements. Additionally, the directorate bears the responsibility of ensuring that Saudi citizens travelling within and outside the country do not experience challenges. This goal is achieved through organizing the departure and arrival of citizens using various ports in the country (General Directorate of Passports 2014).
The directorate is also charged with the task of organizing effective arrival of expatriates from different parts of the world as well as their departure from the KSA. However, only the expatriates who have satisfied the statutory and legal requirements are allowed into the country. Additionally, the department issues residence permits to expatriates who have met all necessary legal requirements. The permits are issued under the residency system and mainly apply to citizens who have come to work in different economic sectors of the KSA. Furthermore, the directorate is required to ensure that expatriates apply for exit and reentry visas efficiently through the available frameworks and protocols.
As aforementioned, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is home to two of the most Holy Cities as documented in the Islam religion and, consequently, receives millions of pilgrims every year especially during Hajj (General Directorate of Passports 2014). The directorate is charged with the responsibility of not only promoting effective and efficient entry and exit of pilgrims, but also ensuring that the passport application process does not hinder their visit to the Holy Cities. Furthermore, the directorate tracks all the movements of pilgrims who prefer to stay behind for other personal reasons after the end of the Hajj season.
Considering the fact that the KSA receives millions of expatriates every year, it is the task of the directorate to ensure that the country is safe through conducting routine follow-ups on the expatriates. Some of the aspects evaluated entail assessing whether their residency within the country is aligned with the residence system (General Directorate of Passports 2014). Additionally, the directorate also assesses whether their passports are interim in a move aimed at not only identifying violators, but also improving the effectiveness of the KSA residency system.
Rapid convergence of technology being witnessed in the 21st century continues to present governments across the world with a challenge in their quest to maintain national security. Indeed, countries in the developing and the developed world are experiencing an increment in the number of illegal immigrants due to emergent technologies, with the problem being compounded by the ease with which people can forge travel documents. In order to deal with the arising issue, the General Directorate of Passports in the KSA has put in place mechanisms and strategies to combat the counterfeiting of documents. One of the ways through which this goal is achieved is by improving the security system in the development of passports, visas, and residence permits. The department is also charged with the duty of implementing the travel document law under the Royal Order Number M/24, which was issued on 28.05.1421H (General Directorate of Passports 2014). Furthermore, the directorate is charged with the responsibility of implementing the Executive Regulations which were formulated on 23/9/1422H and conceptualized under the Ministry of Interior Decision number 7/OZ. In line with improving the country’s interior security, the directorate has an obligation to implement an effective monitoring system with the view to identifying citizens who are banned from travelling into the country or outside the country. As demonstrated in the directorate’s website, the identification process entails determining the category of restriction and the action that should be taken in the event that such individuals successfully enter the KSA or want to leave the country. The KSA’s government recognizes the importance of assessing traffic in and out of the country. Subsequently, the directorate is required to prepare statistics indicating travel patterns.
The KSA’s government appreciates the importance of developing effective internal relations. In order to achieve this objective, the government liaises with other government agencies and departments, which in turn enhances the level of coordination. The KSA’s government has also provided the General Directorate of Passports with a number of powers, some of which entail the power to investigate, detain, and extradite individuals based on existing residency regulations (General Directorate of Passports 2014). Furthermore, the department ensures that residents understand the importance of cooperation with regard to passport issues, which is achieved by ensuring effective communication to the public through periodic bulletins. The KSA’s government appreciates the importance of an effective human resource base in implementing e-government. Consequently, the government through the General Directorate of Passports undertakes continuous training of employees in the Ministry of Interior with the view to equipping them with sufficient knowledge on how to deal with different passport issues. Owing to the fact that the directorate operates a fully-fledged office, it is responsible for its own budget and other financial aspects.
The high rate of innovation with regard to the information communication technology (ICT) sector has led to a remarkable transformation in the private and public sectors not only in the KSA but also in other countries across the world. The rapid developments being witnessed in the ICT domain have led to improvement in the level of effectiveness and efficiency with regard to knowledge sharing and delivery of services. Citizens have become knowledgeable in different governance aspects such as the need for accountability and transparency. Furthermore, citizens are increasingly demanding effective and efficient services from different government institutions. This aspect underscores the importance of incorporating the concept of e-government in the delivery of services to citizens.
Most developed economies have successfully implemented the concept of e-government; however, most countries in the emerging economies are experiencing a multiplicity of challenges in their quest to implement e-government initiatives. According to a United Nations Report on e-government, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ranked amongst developing countries that are in the process of implementing e-government initiatives. The significance of e-government in the KSA’s quest to deliver services to citizens effectively and efficiently is subject to a number of aspects. First, the country has a rapidly growing and young population which is increasingly demanding efficient government services across and within its demographic composition. However, the delivery of most government services through various offices is often characterized by a high level of bureaucracy. Second, it has been demonstrated that the KSA’s efforts to implement e-government may be hindered by a number of aspects, such as poor ICT infrastructure, conservative cultural and religious orientations, as well as other social aspects including tribal systems.
In an effort to improve service delivery, the KSA has implemented a number of initiatives over the past few years. One of these initiatives entails liberalizing the information communication sector in order to provide private investors with an opportunity to enter the market. The government formulated the YESSER program in 2005, with the aim to ensuring that Saudi citizens receive government services effectively and efficiently. One of the areas that the KSA’s government has focused in its quest to implement e-government initiatives relates to the issuance of passports, as evidenced by the establishment of the General Directorate of Passports. The directorate was established under the Ministry of Interior. The directorate has adopted information communication technology, which has remarkably improved its effectiveness in executing its duties and responsibilities, particularly in the provision of passports and related services to locals and foreigners.
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