A Roaring ’20s for the Middle East?

PwC on post-pandemic digital transformation in the Middle East

On their March 23 webcast, “Transitioning to the New Normal,” PwC’s Middle East leaders discussed the results of their 24th annual CEO survey, focusing on findings specific to their region. Guided by Middle East Clients and Market Leader Stephen Anderson, the conversation highlighted four themes: growth, lessons learned, transformation, and threats, particularly around cybersecurity and talent. In addition to the respondents’ overall confidence that 2021 and 2022 will be growth years for the region, one highly notable findings was that 59% of Middle East CEOs surveyed are planning double-digit increases in their investments in digital transformation this year. Not only does that percentage track closely with TBR’s Digital Transformation: Voice of the Customer Research, but it also far outpaces any other area for investment, at least among Middle East-based CEOs.

The PwC leaders noted that while 2020 put considerable revenue pressure on most regional businesses, companies also used the pandemic as a catalyst to cut costs. But for 2021, cost-efficiency trails digital transformation as a priority. Again, this tracks closely with our own research, which found that companies are prioritizing investment in cloud and managed services over digital transformation for this year. Cloud demand stems directly from the pandemic and the move to remote working, while the increase in demand for managed services has been building for years.

In TBR’s recent survey, over two-thirds of respondents are planning to increase their budget for managed services over the next year, which will create opportunities for vendors that can tie cost savings to managed services solutions. Also echoing TBR’s research around global delivery and automation, PwC’s survey found that “productivity through automation and technology” ranked as the top “workforce strategy” in 2021, jumping from 6% of respondents in 2016 to 46% in 2021.

The twin threats of cybersecurity and talent

In discussing threats to growth in 2021, the PwC team described the Middle East as being ahead of the rest of the world in terms of both reducing headcount early in the pandemic and now rehiring to meet returning demands. The challenge, shared globally based on TBR’s discussions with IT services vendors and consultancies over the last year, remains finding skilled talent, upskilling current talent and managing the overall talent base, especially in a highly competitive market for digitally versed professionals. PwC’s Middle East team suggested closer cooperation between commercial entities, local governments and higher education providers would be key to regional companies being able to recruit enough skilled talent in the near term. (Quick side note: PwC has a product that may be instrumental in tackling that talent shortage.)

As for cybersecurity, the PwC team acknowledged the reality that the 2020 rush to the cloud, sparked by the move to remote working, opened the doors to new cybersecurity vulnerabilities, leading over 40% of Middle East CEOs in PwC’s survey to rank security as a threat to growth this year. According to TBR’s Digital Transformation: Voice of the Customer Research, 26% of the surveyed respondents in Europe see regulatory compliance risk as an impediment to successful digital transformations. In the same study, 50% of the respondents overall said the most critical attribute for vendor selection remained working knowledge of digital-related security, risk and privacy issues.

But we made it through together

Thankfully, the webcast didn’t end on the pessimistic note of threats and talent shortages. Instead, the PwC team observed that the region’s people — across all businesses and professions — had been “stress tested,” had become more adept at new ways of working, had found a new appreciation for “others’ well-being,” and were poised to build on the lessons learned and change atmosphere and, perhaps, welcome in a new Roaring ’20s.

Throwing a bit of a black cloud on that optimism, in the PwC CEO survey, the widest gap between Middle East CEOs and the global respondents occurred on the subject of “geopolitical uncertainty,” which CEOs from the Middle East saw as a far larger threat to growth. In contrast, Middle East CEOs were markedly less concerned than their global counterparts about overregulation as a hindrance to growth, perhaps pointing the way toward what TBR believes could be a path to success in the region in 2021: follow the Dubai, United Arab Emirates, promise of no new government fees until 2023 and the Omani shift toward more access for investors. Using competitive pressures within the region to continue to make the Middle East as a whole more attractive to global investment and trade will likely remain a key strategy for local CEOs and government leaders.

TBR has tracked developments in the region through special reports on Egypt and other nearby countries and IT services vendors’ investments as well as the financial and performance metrics of management consultancies published semiannually in TBR’s Management Consulting Benchmark.

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