The term “knowledge economy” is a buzzword often thrown around by governments and IT companies in the Arab world.
It’s popular because knowledge is infinite, but oil isn’t. The idea is that many Arab nations will eventually extract enough money from research and development to continue their social and economic development after the oil fields have run dry—an idea that is even more appealing given the plunging prices for oil. The problem is that that the Arab world is often data poor, which makes it hard to gauge a country’s progress.
However, a report published last year by the Dubai based “knowledge-creating” company Madar Research and Development shines some light on this topic. By combining a variety of data resources with their own research, they have ranked Arab countries on a “knowledge economy index.” Unsurprisingly, the rich Gulf States fared well with the United Arab Emirates topping the chart. Djibouti came in last.
Some surprises in the data included a fairly impressive placement by Syria and the worsening performance of Oman regarding some of the metrics.
The availability of technology, specifically access to the Internet, is seen as crucial to the advancement of a knowledge economy—without the ability to distribute information new knowledge is unlikely to create wealth. With an “Information Communication Technology (ICT) use index,” the report shows that the Arab world has made significant improvements in this area. The index combines measurements of Internet use, access to cell phones and the number of installed computers.
Bahrain tops the list on this chart thanks to the prevalence of Internet access there. Qatar is second with the largest number of computers in the region. “The wealthy Arab gulf states are approaching European levels of Internet access,” says an education consultant, Michael Lightfoot, who completed his doctoral thesis at the London University Institute of Education on the Arab knowledge economy, but was not an author on the report.
There are encouraging signs for middle-income countries too. Jordan may not sit towards the top of the table, but it has improved its score between 2012 and 2013 by nearly 16 percent. Surprisingly, given its current war-torn state, Syria also improved its ICT use by over 12 percent in the same time frame.
The report did not just present good news. Saudi Arabia was basically stagnant on the index with a growth rate of just 1.3 percent and Oman is actually going backwards with a negative growth rate of -0.22 percent. The report attributes Oman’s meager performance to the influx of poor and unskilled migrant workers.
The price of access is probably the key factor determining the number of Internet users. The report totaled the cost of the cheapest landline connection, Internet connection and cell phone plan and measured it as a percentage of average income and as a percentage of income on the minimum wage.
Total cost of all these communication services comes in at just 1 percent of the average income in Oman, but when you look at it as a percentage of the minimum wage income, that figure jumps to 10.3 percent.
We shouldn’t place too much importance on the report’s ICT use index though, says Lightfoot.
He adds it’s not the solution, only part of it. “For a knowledge economy to thrive, you need top-notch researchers producing something of economic value,” says Lightfoot,
“There’s an abiding theology that technology alone will do this, but it’s not a magic wand.”
Lightfoot says that the real way to generate a knowledge economy in the Arab world is to move away from a dictatorial way of teaching to a more modern and interactive method. It’s through a modern education that you produce “top notch” researchers to use the technology, not the other way around, he argues.
Therefore, Internet access alone shouldn’t be seen as a metric of success, says Lightfoot. It’s better instead to look at what countries are doing with it, one example being the number of patents applied for.
With this metric, the report shows the Arab world to be less than impressive — at least at first glance.
Saudi Arabia was awarded more patents by the United States Patent and Trademark Office than any other Arab country, but it only came in 50th in a worldwide comparison.
However, this is based on data collected by the patent office between 2005 and 2009. The report by Madar points out that the patent situation is changing so rapidly in the Arab world that these figures are no longer accurate. If you look at the number of patents per million awarded in Saudi Arabia in more recent years between 2008 and 2012, the figure is 2.6 times bigger.
It’s part of what Lightfoot called a “paradox”. There is so little data on the knowledge economy in Arab countries, but when you get hold of statistics, they may not be accurate for too long.
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