Saudi Arabia leads the change, but this is just the beginning
An interview with Wagdy Sawahel 18 November 2010

Arab scientific innovation is no longer just a subject addressed in history books.

The Arab world is experiencing an aggressive investment in the key pillars of a knowledge-based economy, namely, education and learning, innovation, and information technology. This has been reflected in international reports. However, this does not mean that all is well. Arab nations spend only 0.15 percent of their GDP on research and development, well below the world average of 1.4 percent. The emigration of scientists, disenchanted by factors ranging from a lack of investments in research to social and political instability in the region, is threatening the future technological and scientific development of the Arab world.

Which Arab countries are leading the way?

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are leading the Arab scientific and higher education revolution. For example, with the implementation of reform plans by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE), by launching several higher education initiatives in technical readiness and infrastructures, Saudi Arabia is starting to take a prominent place in the scientific and technical domains, both regionally and internationally. A study published in June 2010 by London-based royal society, places Saudi Arabia above the Gulf countries and in second position in the Arab world, with reference to scientific productivity. Furthermore, while women constitute only slightly more than one-quarter of the world’s researchers, women represent 17 % of all Saudi researchers, which is higher than that in Germany (12%), Japan (12%) and Korea (11%), and the same as in Luxembourg, according to a recent UNESCO report entitled “Women in Science: under-represented and under-measured” . Saudi women also outnumber western women in worldwide university enrolments and graduation rates, according to UNESCO’s 2009 Global Education Digest. Iran and Turkey, instead, are leading the scientific and higher education revolution in the Middle Eastern region. Despite more than 30 years of sanctions, Iran has made significant progress in different sectors, including aerospace, nuclear and medical sciences, agriculture development, stem cell and cloning research.

What are the technology research fields in which Arab countries invest the most (and more successfully)?

44% of Arab researchers are working in the water and agriculture sectors, indicating the region had not yet entered the knowledge economy. However, several projects are starting to appear in emerging sectors such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and renewable energy.

This year Obama’s three science envoys visited the region.

Following a February trip to Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, U.S. Science Envoy Elias Zerhouni embarked on a two-week trip to North Africa including Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Another two U.S. envoys have started separate journeys to Muslim-majority countries. Ahmed Zewail travelled in January to Egypt, Jordan, the Lebanon and Turkey, while Bruce Alberts travelled to Indonesia and Pakistan. The announced goal was to strengthen existing and forge new partnerships in higher education, science and technology, through meetings with heads of state, ministers and representatives from the education, science and business communities.
The U.S. science envoy programme is a core element of the administration’s commitment to global engagement in science and technology announced by President Barack Obama during his historic address at the University of Cairo in June 2009. However, it must be based on real mutual benefits, respect and trust and not just promote U.S. political interests through reducing negative perceptions and achieving broader political objectives as planned in US.. foreign policy.

Arab bloggers frequently make the news. But Internet penetration in the Arab world amounts to a mere 20%.

There are a number of reasons for the low level of internet penetration in the Arab world. According to a 2008 report commissioned by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Bahrain and carried out by Teligen, a UK communications consultancy, due to the lack of competition among internet service providers, high- speed internet users in the Arab world pay on average six times more for their services than users in Europe do. Also, the “Arabisation” of the Internet will serve as a supporting step for building a society of information, also reducing the digital and knowledge gap between Arab countries and developed nations. Saudi Arabia recently struck a deal with Google to increase the level of Arabic content available through its search engine.



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