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Saudi Arabia is planning the largest commercial 5G rollout in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The country's Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Abdullah Alswaha, revealed Saudi Arabia's plans at the telecoms industry's flagship annual gathering, Mobile World Congress (MWC), which was held in late February 2019 in Barcelona, Spain.

Additional spectrum in the 3.5GHz band will be made available to Saudi operators in March. This, combined with earlier spectrum allocations and 5G network deployments already underway, would enable the most extensive 5G coverage in the MENA region, said Alswaha.

The 5G news demonstrated that Saudi Arabia "is becoming MENA's tech hub," according to Alswaha, who also said that 5G will contribute more than $19bn to Saudi Arabia's GDP and will help to create almost 20,000 new ICT jobs in the country by 2030. The fact that the Saudi authorities chose to reveal their 5G plans at a prominent global technology event such as MWC underlines the importance of technology to Saudi Arabia's broader efforts at economic diversification and development, as set out in the country's well-publicized Vision 2030 initiative.

A flurry of Middle East operator and vendor announcements at MWC 2019 confirmed that 5G rollouts are getting underway in Saudi Arabia and some other advanced Gulf markets. At MWC, Saudi Arabia's biggest telecoms operator, STC, signed 5G network deployment contracts with Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei, as well as an agreement with Korea Telecom to work together on new technologies including 5G. Ericsson also signed 5G network contracts with Etisalat UAE and with Ooredoo Qatar. Etisalat said it will work with Huawei as well to deploy 5G in the UAE.

Operators in North Africa are typically some way behind their counterparts in the Gulf in deploying new technology. However, at MWC, Telecom Egypt and Nokia said they would work on 5G deployment and 5G use cases for the Egyptian market. New South African operator Rain also chose MWC to reveal agreements with Nokia and with Huawei to deploy 5G.

The move toward 5G is clearly gathering momentum in the more advanced markets in the Middle East and Africa, but beyond the challenges of deploying 5G lie the challenges of commercializing it. Initially, 5G will improve existing use cases, such as fixed wireless broadband and video streaming, but new applications will subsequently emerge in both consumer and enterprise markets.

In the Middle East's vertical sectors, the best prospects for new 5G applications are likely to be in oil and gas, transport and automotive, and public infrastructure and critical services. For example, Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco plans to use the high speeds and low latency of 5G to undertake complex monitoring and maintenance operations remotely.

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