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The pursuit for an Arab Knowledge Economy; myth or a possibility?

For as long as I can remember it was common to hear the terms ‘knowledge sharing’ and ‘lack of local knowledge’ from our primary and high school teachers.  Looking back, most of our teachers had lived through the Arab wars and many conflicts and naturally they shared with us their strong sentiments when it came to what had become the Arab status quo.  They lived through the disappointments of the ‘Nasserite’ era, the struggle for Palestine, the civil wars and conflicts that erupted in the region and the industrial and knowledge revolution that did not happen.  

However as educators, our teachers seemed to be more effected by the reality that the Arab world had been left behind as a centre of knowledge and science in the face of the emergence of a knowledge, information and innovation economy in the West.  

“The West was guilty of not sharing much needed critical knowledge to Arabs” they told us, “restricting Arab societies to becoming consumers only of knowledge and products” we often heard.  In retrospect, I had developed this sense that having a career as a doctor or engineer was probably not the only purpose of my education; I was convinced –and I was not alone- that the stakes were higher.  

The present and future of the Arab world depended on how we used knowledge.  Knowledge was power after all.  Many of us believed that we were being groomed to bring back the nation from the clutches of dependence on Western technology, its products and knowledge to a day where knowledge is created and developed in Arab countries.
Fifteen years later, and it became evident to me that we had become our biggest antagonist Like a relay race, the West – and now also countries in East Asia and India – had picked up the ‘baton’ and ran with it.  They did what they were supposed to do.  We stood there idle with the baton in our hand instead of joining the race.   

Throughout my career as an employee and later as an entrepreneur, I realised it was quite easy for many in my generation to be sceptical about almost anything that came to us from foreign soil.   

Whether it was an expatriate colleague or manager, a partnership with a foreign company, the technology we imported from overseas or the foreign expertise we hired; many in the Arab world were suspicious about the true agendas of these and sceptical about the possibilities of such collaboration.  

Another challenge facing our pursuit to build a true ‘knowledge-economy’ lied in the fact that the Arab world had become trapped in what I call the ‘entitlement mind-set’.  

Listen close and you will hear it from the common person in the street to the rousing speech of a politician.  

The ‘victimhood’ complex had also grown to become a powerful obstacle among many in our generation.  

The common view was that we had become victims when it came to religion, politics, economy and society. Among our generation is a familiar voice which translates to “We are morally right and deserve sympathy. We are not responsible of the status quo, however ‘they’ are to blame because ‘they’ would not earnestly want to share with us this knowledge which they have attained or allow us to progress for that matter”. 
This combination of victimhood and entitlement has become so infectious in our societies that it has turned into a vicious cycle where the ‘sceptical’ seem to have no confidence in any home-grown knowledge and as a result would rather acquire that knowledge overseas from “them” in spite of his lack of conviction about the sincerity of ‘their’ intentions and purpose.  

My argument was always that we need to resolve some of the underlying attitudes within us which are the result of accumulated beliefs if we are to whole-heartedly pursue this big ambition of building a progressive knowledge based economy.  

I share the same belief that the Arab world needs to put more effort in fostering knowledge locally and support the empowerment of its local knowledge conduits.  And by all means, this can happen through a pragmatic partnership with international expertise if need be.  

Globalisation has made this incredibly possible.  Knowledge is important, because it ultimately creates wealth through innovation and much needed economic diversification in our countries.  

Knowledge is powerful, because a person with knowledge is an empowered person with a degree of autonomy to pursue his livelihood. I disagree, however with the naïvely optimistic view that this can and should happen through a ‘transfer of knowledge’ model.  Instead I believe that the way forward is through a model of ‘capacity building’ in our countries or across institutions in the Arab world.

Let’s call a Spade a Spade; our world is run by interests, whether they are conflicting interests or common interests; diplomatic, political and corporate agendas are determined by interests.  Knowledge Transfer initiatives failed most of the time, because there was simply no clear common interest between the stakeholders.  

‘Capacity Building’ on the other hand can be shaped to address all interests towards a common goal. The UNDP defines Capacity Building as “a long-term continual process of development that involves all stakeholders; including ministries, local authorities, non-governmental organizations, professionals, community members, academics and more. Capacity building uses a country's human, scientific, technological, organizational, and institutional and resource capabilities”.  

Capacity Building is about working together to build a system where local talent can enhance their existing knowledge and skills.  The ideal strategy to achieve this would be to focus on development of specific high potential sectors that can generate new activities and jobs.
Capacity Building is an interesting proposition that should be explored further There are countries in the Arab world that have made significant progress when it comes to developing local knowledge through some form of Capacity Building. I can see that progress evidently where I live in the UAE. The public sector is now virtually competing with the private sector by introducing quality services and some progressive initiatives although the country still has a lot of work to do to achieve its ultimate goal of building a knowledge economy.  

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia too seems to be intent to building a knowledge-based economy with a number of massive education and employment programs and this is more or less the case in general when looking at the oil-rich gulf countries who have realised the urgent need to diversify away from the dependence on their hydrocarbon reserves. 
Other countries such as Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco have also been pushing with their strategies in this area.   Although unemployment is considerably high in these countries, they seem to be showing encouraging results when it comes to fostering entrepreneurship and local expertise that can be deployed globally.  At the time of writing this article, another country with promising potential is sadly being dragged into political turmoil that risks to divide a young, promising and passionate society.  Egypt has historically led the Arab world in areas of industry, education and science to a degree, however we await eagerly for the country to assume its role in a fast developing world.

At the end, the institutional and macro-level efforts that are required to transform our societies to become knowledge and innovation based will realistically require time, patience and foresight. I strongly believe that in the meantime, we as individuals can make an immediate change. That change can happen when each one of us takes ownership of this responsibility we have to this dream of creating home-grown knowledge and expertise.  
To achieve this we will need to have the courage and wisdom to believe in ourselves and our local potential and give them a fair chance Because if we don’t who will?  I will leave you with this last quote that explains the complex nature of what we should be striving for in the Arab world if we are to build a knowledge economy: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” 

Saturday : 70 things to do instead of watching TV

Western Sahara and the relations between Algeria and Morocco