Put science at the heart of the reform agenda in the Middle East

29 May 2013 | Viewpoint
Research, innovation and entrepreneurship are vital to reshape economies and deliver on the promise of the Arab Spring, say Thomas Andersson and Abdelkader Djeflat

The Middle East was once a heavyweight in science, technology, arts and literature. During the Medieval era, its scientists and linguists saved much of the ancient roots of western culture from oblivion. But in the centuries that followed European trade and colonialism swept the world and Arab culture and science lost ground.

However, over the last fifty years the Arab world regained control of its natural resources.  Many countries invested their new wealth in modern infrastructure and as result the general standard of living has soared.

But despite these advances, the Arab peoples are struggling. In a dramatic and as yet unsettled way, we now associate this battle with the "Arab Spring". The political manifestations are well known. In its first year, the Arab Spring prompted the downfall of four heads of state, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, all of whom had held power for many years and appeared to be firmly in control. The movement has also toppled cabinet ministers and numerous high-ranking public officials across the region.  

Ascent of the knowledge-based economy

However, the promise of this mass movement is yet to be delivered and many are pondering what the eventual outcome will be. A new book, The Real Issues of the Middle East and the Arab Spring, Addressing Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (of which we are co-editors), moves the focus from the political scene to look at the social and economic issues, including the ascent of the knowledge-based economy.

The book is the first to apply benchmarking and critical examination of such factors and policies in the context of the Arab Spring. It also represents a unique effort to make a link between the dramatic developments of the present and the long-term trends and history of the region.

At a fundamental level, the Arab Spring reflects the combined influence of demography and the arrival of new technology, especially information and communications technology and the social media. The populations of the countries swept up in this movement have an average age of between 21 and 25 years old. These large numbers of young people – now wired with the world - demand a greater say and more options for their future. A critical task is to reduce the economic dominance of natural resources and the public sector, and the concentration of investments that are tilted towards traditional tangible assets such as land and real estate, and to invest in education, entrepreneurship and civil society engagement.

Finding a footing

In the world that is taking shape, governments can no longer dominate and lead from the top-down. Strategies and policies need to be devised with genuine buy-in from those who will be involved in their implementation – and will have to live with their consequences. But at the same time, society cannot transform through street protest alone. Without some sort of re-balancing of society, through which citizens – and especially the young - are attracted to connect to in-depth inquiry, research, experimentation, and have access to high quality education, the Arab region will keep stumbling to find its footing in the world that is in the making.

Given the current backlash, the stakes are now high.  What has been gained may stand to be lost, unless policymakers are able to change tack. Arab countries need to adopt reforms that demonstrate and communicate strength and understanding of how to handle those factors that are now critical for prosperity. Science, research, innovation and entrepreneurship need to be put centre stage, along with the upgrading of education, learning for life and creation of new – real - private sector jobs.

Collaboration in this area must be made a priority, with policy makers working together in growing the talent and capacities of their young, without generating new bureaucracy that will stifle experimentation and development.

The following should be high on the reform agenda:

  • Enabling two-way links and inspiration between science and research on the one hand, and real-life needs and improvements on the other. Find ways to inspire the new generation to embrace science and technology;
  • Putting the development and use of new knowledge to work to resolve the outstanding major social, environmental and economic challenges, turning daunting problems into a source of opportunities;
  • Making relevant stakeholders partners in new investments, generating a vibrant university-society interface and promoting public-private partnership in education, research and innovation;
  • Shifting the role of government from doer to enabler, by for instance incentivising professional private service providers to support small and medium-sized enterprises;
  • Carving out niches that build on unique local values and assets, while countering herd behaviour and loss of own identity;
  • Investing in quality education and embracing brain circulation, between social spheres and with the wider world, and;
  • “Train the trainers”, including government officials, university management, teachers and other key professions, to achieve mindset change in support of horizontal, cross-departmental synergies and inclusive growth involving the population at large.

Professor Thomas Andersson is a former Vice Chancellor of Jönköping University in Sweden and Senior Advisor to the Government of Oman.

Professor Abdelkader Djeflat, is a former Dean of the Faculty of Economics of Oran University, Algeria and Senior Researcher at the University of Lille, France. He is also Chairman of the Maghreb Technology Network (Maghtech)

The article draws on The Real Issues of the Middle East and the Arab Spring, Addressing Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Springer, New York, co-edited by Djeflat and Andersson

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