Arab world still far from becoming a 'knowledge society'

Posted: 10/30/2009 11:32:00 AM
Author: Jacob Kanter
Source: This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Oct. 29, 2009.

Arab world still far from becoming a 'knowledge society'
by Jacob Kanter

In his 2006 book, My Vision, United Arab Emirates Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum outlined his goals for the Arab world, writing, "I just want [all my Arab brothers and sisters] to reach the same advanced levels achieved by developed countries."

If that's the aim, then Maktoum's brethren have a lot of work ahead of them.

The Arab Knowledge Report 2009, released on Thursday as a joint project of the United Nations Development Program and Maktoum's own Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Foundation, contains a wide range of statistics relating to the production and creation of knowledge in Arab societies. And while it reports a great deal of progress in economic freedom, many more of the statistics combine to paint a bleak picture of Arab society trailing far behind "a rapidly globalizing knowledge society."

"Knowledge is a tool and a goal that influences all levels of society equally and involves all fields," Adel Abdellatif, chief of the Regional Program Division at the UNDP's Regional Bureau for Arab States, said in a statement. "It is a primary avenue for renaissance and human development in the region."

That the report is a product of the Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Foundation - a Dubai-based NGO that Maktoum founded in 2007 with a $10 billion endowment - as opposed to a non-Arab source, renders its findings doubly significant.

"This study points to one of the most interesting, dynamic developments in the Arab public today," said Dr. Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. "Arab countries are beginning to look inward at themselves, and thinking about how they can improve the domestic problems within their societies. This report is a clear reflection of this trend."

The report focused on the state of education, the use of information and communication technologies, and the importance of research in Arab countries - three factors that are connected to long-standing problems in Arab society, said Meital.

The state of education in the Arab world is a cause for "grave concern," according to the report.

Despite having spent 5 percent of its GDP and 20% of its general budgets over the past 40 years on education, more than a third of the adult population in the Arab states - 60 million people - remain illiterate, two-thirds of them women. Furthermore, close to 9 million Arab children do not attend classes, and many who do drop out after primary school.

The quality of university education in Arab countries is also a source of concern, as it often lacks emphasis on specialized science and modern techniques. As a result, the region lacks a critical mass of highly skilled professionals who are able to innovate and answer the needs of the marketplace.

Even more troubling is the state of innovation. Arab countries' investments in research and development usually do not exceed 0.3% of their GDPs, and 97% of scientific research in Arab countries depends on government funding.

The bleak situation in the education and research sectors is partially offset by gains in the use of information and communication technologies: the increase in the number of Arabic users of the Internet is the highest among the top 10 languages used on the Net. However, rates of Internet use are still below the global average of 21% in all but four Arab countries: the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain.

The report concludes with an "action plan" toward integrating the region into the global "knowledge society," which rests on broadening freedom of thought and expression and responding better to development needs.

Meital said that the source of the Arab world's inability to join the information revolution is deeply-rooted, but not too deeply-rooted.

"Most studies say that there's nothing wrong with Islam in terms of what's preventing [Arab countries] from improving and developing in these ways," he said. "The problem is at the political level, in the decisions made by the government. Many states have the resources to invest in these realms and are choosing not to, and many states simply don't have these resources."

While these changes will depend on open-minded, forward thinking leaders joining Maktoum in his quest - along with fundamental, widespread change on a number of levels - the Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Foundation is confident that the knowledge society will soon welcome most Arab countries as members.

"With solid commitment and long-term vision, the route to the knowledge society will not be impossible," Adel el-Shared, the foundation's vice chairman and managing director, said in a statement.

The report concludes by stressing that "urgent action is imperative to set the Arab region on the road to a knowledge-based renaissance, a prerequisite for any significant gains in human development."

The choice of the word "renaissance" is telling: Maktoum's vision will require more than a redefinition of Arab society; it will require a rebirth.