Arab world faces serious intellectual challenge

A Staff Reporter
Filed on October 30, 2007

DUBAI — The Arab world faces serious institutional, socio-political, cultural, organisational and intellectual challenges that can be resolved only through concerted study and research, said Dr Antoine Zahlan, an international consultant in Science Policy in London, who also worked as a professor of physics at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, for 20 years.

Dr Zahlan made these comments at a session exploring scientific research and development in the Arab world on the final day of the Knowledge Conference, which concluded yesterday in Dubai.

His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President

and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, had earlier marked the opening of the conference with the launch of several unique initiatives that complement the Foundation’s mission to strengthen the region’s knowledge capacity.

Organised by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, the two-day event brought together prominent Arab thinkers, researchers and academics to formulate strategies to raise the standard of knowledge, research and university education in the region. The forum is the Foundation’s first initiative since its launch in May this year.

Established with an endowment of Dh37 billion, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Foundation aims to build an intellectual infrastructure by investing in human and knowledge development and in higher education in the Arab world.

Main Hurdles

Outlining the reasons for the lack of development in the Arab world, Dr Zahlan said it could be due to paucity of human capital or weaknesses in the enabling environment.

Advocating an improved system of education, he said: “Data suggests that Arab countries fare better in education than either China or India on a per capita basis. However, the Arab world has significantly contributed to the brain drain of skilled personnel to OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, equalling China and 30 per cent higher than India.”

He added the Arab world is unable to retain its professionals as much as China or India due to insufficient R&D (research and development) spending. “China devotes nearly $155 billion towards R&D or 35 times more than the Arab world on a per capita basis. This indicates that both China and India have been more effective in establishing a knowledge-based society,” he added.

Brain drain

Attributing the brain drain to a weak enabling environment and lack of sound policies on scientific development, Dr Zahlan said the way forward lies in empowering the existing human capital of scholars and scientists with facilities that augment research and development.

He added: “By contributing to the mobilisation of available human capital in a manner that positively impacts intermediate organisations and universities, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation can attain multiple positive objectives that include institution building, research and development in the Arab world, as well as problem solving.”

Dr Ali Fahmy of the Faculty of Computers and Information, Cairo University, who also participated in the session, focused on ways to boost applied scientific research in the Arab world. He highlighted the need for a national and regional research strategy.

He said: “There are many skilled researchers in Arab universities looking for a fair system of research funding. Effective research is a mechanism that takes funding as an input and produces quality publications and patents as output.

“Fortunately, a number of promising large scale initiatives for boosting R&D have recently been announced in some Arab countries, including the National Priorities Research Program (NPRP) of Qatar, and Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation.”

National Research Strategy

Dr Fahmy pointed out that a national research strategy is not simply a long or comprehensive list of research project titles or topic areas. “It should be based on the vision that countries and the region aim to be known for or excel in.”

The problem of improving and boosting research in the region is multi-dimensional, said Al Fahmy, citing the region’s education sector as one that needs sweeping reforms. He also stressed the need for political courage to implement decisions that drive the education sector forward.

Dr Fahmy recommended a number of solutions, including building a pan-Arab research foundation, developing a programme of priorities and medium-term objectives or actions in strategic research areas, and creating a fund for research in priority areas to serve the needs of national and regional development.

The Knowledge Conference drew to a successful close, following two days of intense, collaborative discussions on ways to build the knowledge capabilities of the Arab World.

Mohammed Al Gergawi, chairman of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, said: “The informed discussions that took place during the conference have laid the ground for increased collaboration between Arab intellectuals to carry the region forward. This, I believe, is a testimony to the conference’s success.

“We are happy with the outcomes of this event, and we aim to work alongside the experts to present to the world a new image of the Arab World, as a region ready to witness tangible growth.”

Pointing out that the responsibility of the Foundation does not stop with the conference, he added: “The Foundation is keen to pursue its goals and will follow up on all the initiatives, ideas and solutions recommended in the fields of scientific research, translation, innovation and development of knowledge society in the Arab world.”

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