In past years Arab governments gave little priority to science and technology (S&T) initiatives. The UN’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report stated that the average spending of Arab governments on R&D was as little as 0.2 percent of their gross national product. (US R&D expenditures in that year were around 2.5 percent of GNP.) This is not for a lack of resources, as the region contains 61 percent of the world’s proved oil reserves. Saudi Arabia alone claimed 264.2 billion barrels at the end of 2007 and contributed almost a third of OPEC’s $884 billion in oilexports earnings for 2008.
However, Arab support for S&T has recently shown a drastic change for the better. In 2006 Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, announced that the country would spend 2.8 percent of its GDP on research. The UAE completed its first satellite in 2008, which will be launched this year. Saudi Arabia is planning to open the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in fall 2009; the university is supported by a $10 billion endowment — one of the largest in the world — provided by the king himself.
One major offshoot of this increased spending is the phenomenon of S&T parks, which have flourished in the region over the past few years. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the Gulf countries alone have some 15 S&T parks that are in their planning stages or beyond.
S&T parks are organizations that network institutions such as universities and research centers with industry to stimulate and manage the flow of knowledge and technology between the two. Many view the region’s sudden investment in S&T parks as the result of Arab leaders realizing that their countries’ natural resources are limited and that they need to diversify their economies.
That is the perspective presented by Qatar Science & Technology Park’s (QSTP) marketing manager, Ben Figgis. “Qatar is blessed with the world’s third-largest oil and gas reserves,” he says. “However, this country’s leadership is looking 10, 20, 100 years into the future and saying we don’t want to be reliant on oil and gas forever. We want to be reliant on the brains and capabilities of our people.”
Figgis describes the park’s three-pronged approach to developing the country’s R&D capacity: to provide career opportunities, to increasingly do R&D in a commercial/applied environment, and ultimately to develop intellectual property as a prime resource.
Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, the wife of Qatar’s emir, has spearheaded an effort to recruit several American universities to this end. Several, including Carnegie Mellon and Weill Cornell Medical College, have already established campuses near QTSP. Graduates can then move on to the local research centers of multinational corporations based at QSTP, such as ExxonMobil, GE, and Microsoft, in addition to several domestic startups.
There is, however, some skepticism over what corporate partnerships can actually provide in way of development. Waleed Al-Shobakky, a Qatar science journalist who has covered science parks extensively, notes that talented researchers in the region often leave to work in the US and Europe. This means that some multinational corporations forgo R&D centers in the Gulf’s S&T parks, opting for sales and marketing outposts instead, he says.
Arab leaders are realizing their countries’ natural resources are limited and they need to diversify their economies.
Farouk El-Baz, director for remote sensing at Boston University and former Egyptian science adviser, sees the potential for the overall success of these parks, though it won’t come without some setbacks. “Perhaps there are too many of them in the same field, and perhaps many of them have a small number of researchers and people that can actually produce,” he says. “But if some progress very beautifully and others progress very little and have to be forgotten, that’s okay.”
One reason for optimism is the support these parks have received from the highest levels of government. “I have not seen that in the past,” says El-Baz. His main concern is whether this support will be maintained over the many years necessary for lasting development to take place. “We need to see the stamina for staying on course and for the leadership to think of this as a long-term objective.”
If leaders sustain this support, their nations have much to gain. With S&T parks becoming increasingly specialized, there are high expectations that they will work in region-specific fields, such as water desalination, petrochemicals, and renewable energy. The intellectual property they develop in this effort could form an important practical and financial resource for the region.
Neighboring countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, are hopeful that the Gulf’s newfound support of S&T will spill into the broader Arab region. These nations are rich in qualified human capital but less so in terms of financial capital, making prospects for trans-Arab institutional collaborations appealing. If these S&T parks can also open new funding sources for region-specific R&D and create more job opportunities for Arab scientists, they will form the basis for true long-term sustainability. — Nadia El-Awady is president of the Arab Science Journalists Association.
Originally published February 3, 2009