You might be forgiven to think that this article is one of those that follow the pattern “X is the solution” where for “X” one might read “Islam,” “Democracy” or “Secularism.” You might think I am looking for a snappy way to pitch solutions to complex and painful problems. Every writer wants to attract the readers’ attention -- but not necessarily to themselves. They may want to open eyes to a unique angle on a subject as a means to enhance public knowledge and awareness, in the Arab region in my case.
What led my thinking in this direction was the following news item from the press department at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Cairo:
“Riyadh: A strategic partnership between the Riyadh-based Garage and Google for Startups was launched in order to support and empower over 100 emergent tech firms a year around the world. Garage is a pioneering tech firm in the Kingdom. The partnership will bring Garage and its fellow emergent companies into a network of the best business accelerator programmes in Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia.”
The article goes into further detail about the partnership and its goals, but the point is that there is a tech revolution in progress in Arab countries that have been implementing ambitious reform programmes during the past ten years. Specifically, these reforms started after the events of the so called Arab Spring drove the region to the brink of violence, war and anarchy. Their purpose was to pursue an alternative path. Based on a persistent pursuit of progress by breaking visions down into sequences of feasible and quantifiable steps, they aimed at comprehensive development.
Of course, the above-mentioned announcement was hardly the first such news regarding Saudi Arabia. For example, other exciting items covered the development operations in the Sabakh, the ancient marshlands that dried out centuries ago, leaving the terrain to grow arid and sand covered. As they are located in depressions, scientists and technicians plan to fill them with sea water and then link them together so as to create a large inland sea. Then, in addition to the cooling effects of the water, the steam that rises due to evaporation could be condensed into fresh water to quench parched earth yearning for cultivation.
Together, the two news items showcase how science and technology are being put to use throughout the country to optimise its geographic assets. We can already anticipate something of historic magnitude when Saudi Arabia becomes an agricultural country. But this is not just about Saudi Arabia. Over a decade ago, the UAE began to harness solar energy to power Marsad City, a suburb of Abu Dhabi. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE is an oil exporting country. But it is no longer exclusively dependent on oil revenues which now account for only 26 per cent of the UAE’s GDP. Egypt, for its part, has put technology to work in many ways, some towards the conversion to green energy. The solar power farms that started with Banban in Aswan and have since proliferated northward and can be found in various sizes in the Sinai and the Suez Canal corridor.
The breathtaking speed with which new cities and infrastructures were launched in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and other Arab countries could not have been achieved without modern technology applications. Generally speaking, this will be the result of a tangible increase in local science and tech capacities which are the output of newly built modern universities and technological institutes. Some of these academies have crossed seas and gulfs, as has the Saudi King Salman University, which will be within a stone’s throw of Egypt’s Suez Canal, and “NEOM” which will straddle the Kingdom and Egypt.
Returning to the heart of the subject, namely the “solution” in the title, there are three facets to that exciting truth. First, until the reform drives we see in progress today in leading Arab states, two centuries had not been enough for Arab countries to catch up with developed nations, regardless of the levels of wealth attained by some of those countries.
Secondly, both poor and rich Arab countries possess vast sources of wealth. Some are infinite, such as sunshine, which in modern scientific terms translates to green energy, and sand, which in the language of modern technology means silicone. In Egypt’s Suez Canal corridor, there is a factory using Chinese technology to turn Sinai’s sand and stones into flooring, doors and windows, furniture and even automobile frames. The seas surrounding Arab countries extend into the oceans and are thus both renewable and rising due global warming. They are the “blue” energy that promises to turn such areas as Sabakh into fields and pastures.
Last but not least is our history, which stretches deep into the past and is an infinite source of knowledge and enlightenment for mankind. In Saudi Arabia, archaeologists have discovered the remains of ancient settlements dating to over 8000 years ago. While Egypt’s ancient history famously dates to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt around 5,200 years ago, human settlement and civilisation in the Nile Valley extends at least another 2,000 years further into the past.
The third factor is that we should not take this “infinite” wealth as a reason to rest on our laurels and forget hard work. On the contrary, our purpose now must be to use technology to convert that wealth of sand, sunshine and seawater to the benefit of mankind. The time has come for the Arabs to stop being dependent on others for goods and services. It is time for the Arab countries that have embarked on the path of reform and progress to give to the world and help it advance, not just in the fields of commodities, services and energy, but also in the fields of thought and innovation. Like other parts of the world the Arab region is in the process of a major review of the state of the post-Cold War world. Essentially, there is more to the matter than the decline of the West and the rise of the East as epitomised by China. The fact is that globalisation or the fate of the planet should not have to depend on a single state or ideological camp, or two. The reform efforts currently underway in our countries are a practical expression of this outlook. In the 20th century, the foremost question for the Arabs was why we had fallen so far behind the West that we fell prey to colonialism and underdevelopment. Our question for the 21st century is what’s keeping us from joining the ranks of developed nations? Why should we not seize the moment to progress with all that means in terms of both moral and material advancement?
The new generations of Arab youth hold the answer to that question. It is they who proclaimed their existence loudly and forcefully in the squares of Arab cities at the beginning of the second decade of this century. It is they who, in this decade, are making themselves felt, this time calmly and deliberately, as they put their shoulders to the wheel in their studies, fired by ambition as the fourth and fifth technological revolutions made forays into our university campuses and classrooms and as even our institutions of learning, inspired by the power of the James Webb telescope, to open up new galaxies and universes to us all.
When Saudi Arabia hosts a gathering of Arab talents, this is not merely to applaud our young people as they forge their paths to the future. It is the expression of a vision for a vast sea of human wealth that transcends borders, not just between the Arab states but between these states and the rest of the world.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.