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Arab Nations Experiment With Blockchain Technology, but Universities Rarely Teach It

Blockchain technology is at the heart of the virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, that have won many investors’ hearts. More widely, blockchain is regarded as a technology that will revolutionize the electronic tracking of all transactions, and some Arab nations are taking steps toward embracing it. But Arab universities appear to have been slow on the uptake in teaching the technology’s basics.

The transparency, trust, speed and reliability the technology promises could have a transforming effect on almost every aspect of modern life, including the delivery of government and health-care services. Moreover, the Covid-19 crisis and the global disruptions it caused have made adopting the technology more urgent than ever, especially in the Arab world, some educators and policy experts say.

“The current technologies weren’t enough to solve some of the problems that appeared during the crisis,” said Fatima Alsebaie, a blockchain research fellow with Derasat, the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies.

The technology has potential applications for both high-income Arab countries with their sophisticated financial and economic systems, and lower-income states where a decentralized data storing system could offer reliability in times of political and economic uncertainty.

But while some Arab countries have started experimenting with the technology, few higher-education institutions in the region have introduced it in their curricula. The lack of trained experts and scarce academic research pose challenges in developing the technology and benefitting from it in the Arab world.

Efforts to Teach the Technology Lag

Blockchain technology is best known as the technology behind Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but its applications are far wider. Some Arab countries, mainly in the Gulf region, have started adopting blockchain technology in providing government and commercial services and managing supply chain systems. In 2018, the United Arab Emirates launched a strategy aiming to transform 50 percent of government transactions into the blockchain platform by 2021.

But efforts to teach the technology in the Arab world are considered too simplified and slow in comparison with the speed of implementing it in the business and services sectors, Alsebaie said.

In Arab countries where this technology is embraced, its novelty and rapid evolution and the lack of qualified scholars in the field are reasons for its absence from the curricula of most universities and scientific research organizations, though there are some exceptions, such as King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, and the Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance.

Underdeveloped and simplified curricula at higher-education institutions will result in a gap between IT students’ academic qualifications and the needs of the market, Alsebaie said.

Classes at Students’ Request

Yehia Tarek, a computer engineering graduate from Ain Shams University, in Egypt, said new technologies are offered in selective classes if students ask the university administration for them. In the blockchain class he took at the university, he learned the basics and low-level applications which a junior engineer wouldn’t use immediately after graduation.

“If you want to learn skills in order to make a product or make money, you have to learn it yourself out of college,” Tarek said, adding that the practical part can be compensated for in the graduation project, where students can choose to research any new technology they want to study.

“If you want to learn skills in order to make a product or make money, you have to learn it yourself out of college.”

Yehia Tarek  
A computer engineering graduate from Ain Shams University, in Egypt

In other Middle East countries, the conflation between blockchain as a technology and cryptocurrency as one of its applications has made many governments—especially those whose national currency is insecure, like Lebanon and Egypt—cautious about exploring and regulating the technology, and hence pushing for including it in higher-education programs.

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Ibrahim Alnafrah, a blockchain applications researcher at the at the Arab International University, near Damascus, said the low level of complexity of the economic activities in many Arab countries makes teaching the technology meaningless, since there will not be any demand for this kind of qualifications in the market.

But he said it was necessary for Arab higher-education institutions to start teaching blockchain as a separate course or master’s degree program to build the required qualifications needed to apply it in projects that serve society and the economy.

Bureaucratic Hurdles

Bureaucracy is also barrier in Arab public universities.

“There is always resistance from senior professors because they want to include only what they know in curriculums,” said Rand Kouatly, a former vice dean of the Faculty of   Information Technology at Damascus University.

University systems are usually inflexible, Kouatly said, and a new course needs to get many approvals by different committees and would take months before actually being taught, which might be too long for such a fast-developing field.

The scarcity of the technology in public higher-education has pushed private academic institutions to take on the opportunity of teaching it, offering short-term classes for up to $2,000.

“Blockchain is such a hot, trendy topic right now, private universities, motivated by profit, want to fulfill this thirst for content,” said Ibrahim Subeh, a Saudi blockchain research analyst.

“Blockchain is such a hot, trendy topic right now, private universities, motivated by profit, want to fulfill this thirst for content.”

Ibrahim Subeh  
A Saudi blockchain research analyst.

Subeh said it’s only a matter of time before Arab universities recognize the importance of the technology. “Eventually, they will have to do it, because if they don’t teach blockchain, they are missing out,” he said.

Translating Blockchain Terms into Arabic

Attempting to fill this gap, Karam Alhamad, a 30-year-old Syrian living in Berlin, along with a group of friends and engineers, started an online interactive platform called Ze.Fi to teach blockchain and cryptocurrency concepts and to foster research in the Arab world.

Alhamad, an economics and politics graduate of Bard College Berlin, said he was attracted to the freedom and decentralization that blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies offer and the promise of an alternative to the current financial global system and its vulnerabilities.

He decided to create the platform after reading about cryptocurrencies in English and noting the absence of Arabic translations for many of the technology’s terms.

“There are many applications for this technology in the Arab world but to target the region, we have to start from the basics, and these don’t exist,” he said.

Ze.Fi’s curriculum was designed from the team’s practical experience in cryptocurrencies trading and blockchain development, Alhamad said, adding that the novelty of this science and the absence of references pose both a potential for creativity but also a challenge of disorientation.

The platform’s founders don’t claim that it will become a reference for the science in the Arab world, he said, but an applied academy where students can learn and put to use what they have learned.

“The evolution of the blockchain technology is instantaneous, and no traditional university can keep up with it,” he added.


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