Not many international meetings close in an optimistic mood.The phrases “failed to agree” or “agreed to meet again” arementioned far too often at the conclusion of such events.But last month’s meeting of the World Economic Forum was abit different.
Convened in Jordan, the Forum brought together an impressivelist of international and regional leaders at a time ofeconomic boom in the Middle East. Bolstered by oil wealth,the region is enjoying a surge of confidence that can leadto an unprecedented change.
But economic confidence alone is not enough. The Forumdiscussions recognized that, despite the ongoing regionalconflicts, a business-led transformation is taking place,one that is hurtling the region into the globalizationprocess. And it was in this light that investing ineducation and reorienting efforts towards the creation of aK (knowledge)-economy were singled out as two the big“positives” for which to strive.
This recognition of education as a key driver for the futureof the Arab world received massive material support from HisHighness, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum,vice-president and prime minister of the United ArabEmirates and ruler of Dubai. He announced, as a personalinitiative, the establishment of the $10 billion “Mohammedbin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation that will be based in theUAE and aim to build a knowledge-based society throughoutthe region.”
Despite recent – and commendable – advances, the educationrecord of the region remains disappointing. This is only inpart due to the neglect of female education. Another reasonis that men may not be tempted to study beyond the pointthat is required for a public sector job. At universities insome GGC states, there is only one male student for everythree female students.
Education alone will not solve the problems of unemploymentnor will it necessarily accelerate the modernization of theregional economies. The 14% regional unemployment ratesquoted at the Forum are not the result of lack of educationor jobs – the presence of the many working expatriatesattests. Quite simply education is not something that canbear fruit if there are no incentives or a vibrant economy.
Here is where the Foundation can make a difference, that is,in addition to its focus on education, to help clarify theK-economy vision for the region. In simplified terms, thereare two polar approaches for the K-economy: the “enclave”approach that basically buys knowledge, technology and humanskills from outside while the nationals work for governmentand have exclusive business licenses or hold work permitsfor expatriates.
A more dynamic, and more appropriate, approach is to go foran “innovative society”, a vision that would foster and relymore on local entrepreneurs and less on the government toact as the employer of the last resort or protector ofmonopolies. The innovative society vision encompasses adynamic (not license holding) entrepreneurial environment,an efficient government, ability to use and capitalize ontechnological advances, attractive employment opportunitiesand a good work environment.
The Foundation’s objectives are in line with the creation ofthe more promising “innovative society” vision. In additionto education, the objectives include broader knowledgedevelopment, the establishment of research centers, supportfor scholars and intellectuals, and leadership programs foryoung people in government, non-governmental organizationsand the private sector.
What needs to receive equal recognition and attention isthat, compared to top-down approaches, the private sectorhas an important role to play in facilitating the evolutionof Arab culture and promoting the role of the individual asan innovator and agent in the region’s development.
Within this context, education needs to be made moreresponsive to the needs of the modern global workplace. Itshould impart entrepreneurship, create a willingness tolearn from failure and tolerate failure in others, as wellas instill a sense of meritocracy and “mutualresponsibility” between the state and its citizens (insteadof the single responsibility of the state towards thecitizen).
The Foundation’s endowment has been hailed as “the biggestin the Islamic world”. It therefore presents a uniqueopportunity to help define a dynamic vision for the region.It can contribute to the reinvention of the whole educationsystem around the highest international standards, not justenclave international schools or changes in the curriculacompared to the more challenging change of minds. It canhelp build a vibrant environment for businesses, offerrewards and, in turn, benefit from the productive employmentto nationals as well as attract firms and people from allover the world.
Professor Zafiris Tzannatos is advisor to the World Bankand former Chair of the Economics Department at AUB. Theviews expressed are his own and don’t necessarily representthose of the World Bank.