By Dylan Bowman
The Arab World has to establish a “free-thinking intellectual playground” if it is to create an environment conducive to innovation, and foster successful research and development.
The Arab World has to establish a “free-thinking intellectual playground” if it is to create an environment conducive to innovation, and foster successful research and development. Failure to do so could make it harder for countries in the region to maintain sustainable economies, a senior Microsoft executive has warned.
In an exclusive interview, Jonathan Murray, the software giant’s chief technology officer for EMEA, said the problems countries in the region have had in setting up knowledge economies could be addressed by establishing an environment in which an intellectual and highly skilled workforce felt able to think freely and innovate.
Murray had earlier raised these points at the Arab Strategy Forum, held in Dubai late last year, while concerns over innovation in the Middle East were highlighted earlier this year in a report published by Dubai analysts the Madar Research Group.
“My point is that if you want to attract what I call the hyper-skilled workforce, then these are people who intellectually are free thinkers and they are going to want to live and work in an environment where they feel able to be free thinkers,” Murray said.
He said this intellectual playground, as a foundation for innovation, was an important part of creating a sustainable economy. Currently much of the region was not investing enough in this, he warned.
“The foundation isn’t there to stimulate primary research and development in some core areas that, over the next 20 to 30 years, is going to build a sustainable engine,” Murray pointed out.
“The question becomes… is what you’ve built something that has a foundation to it, or is it something that can just vaporise very quickly if environmental factors or the economic system changes?”
Middle East countries currently fall well behind the developed world in fostering successful research and development. According to the most recent World Bank Knowledge Economy Index, MENA’s innovation index stands at 6.57 out of ten, well below the world average of 7.18, and Western Europe’s average of 8.77.
The index, which is based on the number of researchers involved in R&D, patent applications granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office, and the number of scientific and technical journals published in every country, ranks Lebanon the highest in innovation with a score of 6.43, then the UAE, Jordan and Qatar.
Yemen comes last with a score of 1.25.Murray said that countries were taking steps to create an environment in which people and businesses could innovate, but that more had to be done.
“I think the political leadership here actually understands this issue and I think they are making the steps forward to putting that environment in place,” he added.
Within the Arab World, Murray highlighted Qatar as demonstrating that it understood the importance of research in building a broader economic ecosystem. He pointed to steps the emirate’s government has taken to stimulate innovation through partnering with international universities, and the establishment of the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) in Education City. Recently the government pledged to dedicate 2.8% of GDP to R&D.
QSTP CEO Eulian Roberts said a renewable form of economic growth like R&D gave a country a more stable economic base. “It gives robustness and it gives the ability to not just have to live with certain economic changes,” he said.