In the Arab region, many countries are working on adopting a knowledge economy, though in most cases still in limited scope.
Most Arab countries tend to have agriculture and manufacturing-based economies, but in today’s information age, the global economy has moved towards the so-called knowledge economy that focuses particularly on high technology and services. Knowledge economies are more interconnected and globalised, and sources of knowledge, including human skills and technological expertise, are crucial factors for economic growth and important economic resources.
In a knowledge economy, products and services based on advances in the technical and scientific fields encourage innovation in the economy as a whole. In the Arab region, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken the lead in building a knowledge economy, and over the past 12 years it has paid close attention to knowledge as the key to achieving prosperity and boosting economic growth under the umbrella of its “Knowledge 4all” initiative.
This attention has been translated into organising an annual event that focuses on knowledge and its importance in achieving greater welfare, especially in the Arab region. The first Knowledge Summit was held in Dubai in 2014, the first of its kind in the Arab region, and since then there have been annual iterations of the event, with this year’s summit, the sixth, focusing on knowledge as the key to sustainable development.
The summit, held 19-20 November in Dubai, was organised by the Mohamed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Knowledge Foundation on the theme “Knowledge: The Path to Sustainable Development.”
The foundation was established in 2007 by Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, who allocated some $10 billion to this educational foundation that has adopted a number of initiatives aimed at disseminating knowledge in the UAE and the Arab countries more generally. The aim is to catalyse economic growth and empower future generations with a view to devising sustainable solutions to facilitate the process of knowledge and research in the Arab world through funding research projects, activities, and initiatives.
The foundation nurtures ideas and innovation while focusing on the main pillars of education, entrepreneurship, and research and development. According to CEO Jamal Bin Huwaireb, the foundation particularly targets developing human capital and the status of the Arabic language, threatened today by the use of foreign languages in Arab countries.
In an interview with Ahram Online at the sixth Knowledge Summit in Dubai, Bin Huwaireb said that the foundation was particularly interested in developing and executing knowledge management strategies with clear and specific objectives, along with providing the necessary support to ensure their achievement.
The idea was to deliver knowledge management initiatives that exceed the expectations of stakeholders, while achieving the highest satisfaction levels, including by introducing initiatives for conserving, disseminating, sharing and developing knowledge in the foundation, he said.
“Furthermore, it focuses on engaging employees effectively in building an institutional identity and culture that adopts best practices in knowledge management in order to create value propositions to our stakeholders about the level of quality provided, in addition to managing the balance between knowledge sharing and knowledge protection in the foundation’s knowledge areas,” he added.
Partnerships in knowledge
The foundation has cooperated with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to make such goals a reality.
Under the umbrella of its “Knowledge 4all” initiative, this partnership targets establishing a digital reference hub for researchers, students, and the general public in relation to various data and publications on knowledge-related topics.
The initiative currently focuses on Arabic and English-language resources on the Arab region, in addition to theoretical and conceptual work about knowledge from a development perspective, such as knowledge and development, knowledge localisation, youth and knowledge, knowledge spheres, knowledge generation, and knowledge dissemination across local, regional and international spheres, among other areas of interest.
According to Knowledge Project director at the UNDP, Hani Torki, the importance of the initiative stems from the core role knowledge plays in achieving development in modern societies and from the deficiency in data and publications about the knowledge scene and its various components in the Arab region.
One of the initiative’s landmarks was a “global knowledge index”, first released in 2017, that tracks 136 countries in regard to accounting for knowledge and achieving sustainable growth through it. The idea is to further entrench the “knowledge community” and “knowledge economy,” he said.
The initiative’s Future of Knowledge report has also managed to identify the challenges the world faces in the knowledge field and to suggest new strategies to deal with them, including knowledge as an instrument and as a path to sustainable development, he added.
According to the report, advanced technologies will allow decision-makers to accompany their countries’ citizens into a new era of opportunity. Businesses will need to transform into digital companies to remain competitive, however, as an estimated 70 per cent of new value created in the economy will be by digitally enabled platforms in the next decade, it suggests.
In the same vein, the report found that 66 percent of CEOs in the Middle East have introduced artificial intelligence (AI) to their businesses, or plan to start doing so in the next three years due to the importance of this to innovation and knowledge-sharing. Some $15.7 trillion is expected to be contributed to the global economy by 2030 as a result of education programmes in the Arab region must be reviewed and aligned with the skills requirements of the market, the report says, and they must teach students how to acquire the knowledge that will allow them to remain at the forefront of the latest technologies and meet the expectations of the projected 28.7 million developers who will appear by 2024.
The report emphasises the key role knowledge plays in economic growth, as well as in technological adoption, which itself has a positive impact on productivity and therefore also on growth. It adds that the UAE is the only Arab country in the 30 leading countries in the world in knowledge infrastructure, with the country coming in at 28th position worldwide.
Egypt on track
According to Bin Huwaireb, Egypt is on the right track regarding the achievement of sustainable development and progress on macroeconomic indices under the leadership of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
In his interview with the Ahram Online at the Knowledge Summit, Bin Huwaireb said that Egypt was experiencing improvements in all sectors, especially in infrastructure, national mega-projects, the performance of the Egyptian pound, education and healthcare, and unemployment and poverty rates, helping its economy to thrive.
“President El-Sisi has taken real actions to achieve Egypt’s sustainable development. He has also worked on knowledge as the path to this goal, helping Egypt to jump 17 places in the global knowledge ranking for 2019 to be at 82nd position instead of the 99th over the two previous years. This will help Egypt’s economy to expand in the coming five years,” Bin Huwaireb said.
“Egypt is changing, and change needs time,” he added.
Regarding the wider Arab region, Bin Huwaireb said that this faced “several challenges, the biggest one is to have the will to take actions that target the people’s prosperity and satisfaction, in addition to reinforcing economic development and growth. Decision-makers in the region have to pay more attention to sustainable development and entrench it in their countries, and they should put in place realistic plans to enable them to deal with larger tensions, especially in the economic, social, and services sectors,” he said.
“If the Arab countries do not take serious decisions regarding sustainable development, with knowledge as the way to achieve that, then they will be missing out on knowledge trajectories as a matter of survival for our region,” Bin Huwaireb said.
He said that while the world is working on fighting digital illiteracy, the Arab region is still combating reading and writing illiteracy. Arab countries still have 45 million people who are illiterate, he said, with Egypt having about 20 million illiterate. These are very concerning figures, he said, and they need to be faced as a matter of urgency, with Arab decision-makers not shying away from reviewing the region’s educational systems.
Happiness and prosperity cannot be achieved from oil and petroleum revenues alone, he said, as there are many countries that do not exhibit good human development indices despite their oil wealth, including Iraq.
The UAE Knowledge Summit, over its past six rounds and in the rounds to come, has helped to discuss knowledge and its outputs and to show how countries can leverage knowledge as a key engine of welfare and a way to make their economies stronger. Knowledge could also spur governments and decision-makers to adopt the right decisions to map the way forward towards a sustainable economy.
“High-level knowledge experiences are needed to get rid of terrorism, poverty, and all the other hurdles that hamper sustainable development in the Arab countries. Knowledge is the path and not only financial investments. The latter can only go so far, while knowledge is the infrastructure that can upgrade communities despite all challenges,” he added.
He emphasised that Arab countries have the potential and resources to reach high levels of prosperity, but they still lack the skills that come from greater investment in knowledge.
Climate change a threat
Former President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a speaker at the Knowledge Summit, drew attention to the role knowledge was playing in achieving sustainable development, but said that economic and political tensions were threatening a new recession.
Speaking Ahram Online, Grimsson said that climate change was one of the serious threats that the world faces and that it puts all economies at risk. It must be dealt with through concerted efforts to stimulate investment in renewable energy and clean energy resources, he said.
“The biggest corporations in the world, such as Walmart, Google, and Apple, are no longer establishing any new facilities or branches until they have made sure that the targeted country is adopting renewable energy. This trajectory will be a matter of survival for the world through the coming decade,” he said.
“The most fundamental challenge amid the economic and global tensions that are looming now is how to cool the mega-cities in Asia and Africa as a way of dealing with the risks of climate change to urban dwellers,” he added. A better use of knowledge could help to overcome such problems, he said.
On Africa, he said that many parts were blessed with resources that could be tapped to face climate change, but that the continent needed to move towards more responsible patterns of consumption and production, especially on emissions from fossil fuels. Climate change has become a health issue, he said, with the World Health Organisation publishing a report last year revealing that every year seven million people die from urban pollution, making it the fourth-largest killer in the world.
Grimsson noted that Iceland has 100 percent clean energy and that over the past 15 years the Icelandic model had been brought to other countries, including 80 Chinese cities that now enjoy cost-effective energy resources.