Developing Iraq’s Digital Agenda in a Bullet Proof Vest

Meeting officials from Iraq’s brand-new technocrat-dominated government is no small accomplishment, but Batoul Husseini managed it with aplomb and a dash of creativity.

“I tracked down contacts in a number of associations, government entities, and affiliates and simply reached out,” says Husseini, an accomplished diplomat who is head of Government Relations and CSR at SAP MENA (Middle East and North Africa).

Facing Extreme Risks

In a region devastated by wars and overwhelmed by millions of refugees whose futures are completely uncertain, there could be no better time to lend a helping hand to a country that needs all the help it can get.

Known as the cradle of civilization, Iraq today is one of the most dangerous places in the world. Politics often operate on ethnic, confessional, and tribal lines, inhibiting national cohesion and effective policy making. Local militias maintain a strong foothold and emotions run high. Corruption is widespread, compliance non-existent, and security is always an issue.

The poverty rate hovers around 30 percent and millions of displaced people negatively impact employment. Although it is ranked No. 3 worldwide in terms of oil and gas production with $192.5 billion in GDP, Iraq’s oil sector still only employs one percent of the population.

Addressing Local Issues

Like other governments in the region, Iraq’s new government is pushing a strong modernization and development agenda based on its National Development Plan 2018-2022. Digital technologies are regarded as an important enabler to achieve its objectives, and the nation’s youth, which makes up 20 percent of the population, is expected to play a key role.

Having launched Refugee Code Week, SAP’s CSR program to empower youth inside refugee communities with coding skills, in the MENA region, Husseini is highly experienced in developing and implementing strategic initiatives. The program is continuously evolving and recently has been rebranded as “Digital Skills for Today.”

“You have to put your personal feelings aside. SAP is a global player, but you can’t be global unless you’re locally relevant,” she explains. “To stay relevant, you must address issues with the right level of sensitivity. You can’t ignore them, and you can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s the fine line we tread.”

Proposing a Game Plan

The workshop introducing the SAP Digitization in Iraq Initiative took place in the Green Zone in Baghdad, a heavily fortified, international oasis in the center of the city that was often under siege in past decades and even today can only be accessed through stringently controlled security checkpoints. For safety reasons, the SAP team members even had to don bulletproof vests on their way to the workshop.

“Iraq is very proud nation with a historical track record in innovation, but economic development was hampered by ongoing instability in recent years. As the nation begins to stabilize, there is a great eagerness to use digitization to leapfrog economic development,” says Moaz Al-Sibaai, head of Strategy and Business Development for the region at SAP.

International investors are watching the space and seeking greater accountability, while organizations like the World Bank are expecting more transparency. And most importantly, key government officials such as the prime minister are committed to making real change.

“At SAP, we aspire to support these positive developments by rebuilding the digital backbone for the Iraq government. This would provide greater transparency for citizens and give key decision makers the tools to drive efficiency and compliance,” says Al-Sibaai.

The game plan presented by Husseini and the team sounds simple, but requires exceptional negotiation skills, deep local knowledge, and a high degree of sensitivity. The plan is to develop a digital agenda and comprehensive SAP CSR strategy for Iraq, identify potential associates, create an engagement model with decision makers and influencers, seek counsel from the EU and the German government, and create an SAP compliance program for the country.

“SAP has the leadership and experience to be the technology enabler for transformation and a trusted advisor. But most important is our willingness to make a difference to people’s lives,” says Husseini, a seasoned expert who understands that business can only happen if the team is aware of the underlying conflicts and is proactive in mitigating risks. “In government relations it’s essential to be ahead of the game,” she says.

Doing Business

Despite the challenges, the digital transformation of Iraq’s public sector and state-owned enterprises provides significant business opportunities for SAP.

“Our job is to help both private and public sectors to run at their best,” says Ahmed Alfaifi. “We’re not affiliated to political parties; we don’t take sides. We must continue to do business, even in difficult times, always focusing on the customer. The government needs us to enable the shift into the digital world. SAP would leave a big gap if we were not present in this market.”

And indeed, in Iraq the shift away from oil is opening a world of opportunity in all sectors, from telecommunications and retail to construction and manufacturing. Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq’s prime minister, has promised to install a government of business-friendly technocrats to reform the country’s ailing public sector.

Young people are poised and eager to learn digital skills and Iraq’s young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs are finding business opportunities at a time when the government is strapped for cash and looking to the private sector to create jobs. Programs like SAP’s Digitization in Iraq Initiative and Digital Skills for Today are designed to aid this process, help the country gain stability, and prepare people for growth.