Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

The State and Innovation in the Gulf Working Group I

The State and Innovation in the Gulf Working Group I

On December 8–9, 2013, CIRS held a working group to launch the State and Innovation in the Gulf Research Initiative. Regional and international scholars and experts from various multi-disciplinary backgrounds convened to discuss issues related to the pursuit of a knowledge-based economy (KBE) throughout various states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Within the last decade, members of the GCC have individually drafted, formulated and launched development plans and strategies that convey the common drive among these states to create a knowledge based-economy. Although they have experienced large-scale rapid development due to abundant hydrocarbon rents, rulers and public officials of these states have increasingly stated that economic diversification is necessary for the sustainability of economic growth. Diversification has been used almost interchangeably with the concept of developing a “knowledge-based economy,” underscoring the ultimate goal of these states to reform education, R&D, ICT, and other sectors that enhance productivity and scientific progress.

Investment in higher-education has been one of the most prominent manifestations of this drive towards developing KBEs. As a result of the lack of capacity and expertise of national public universities across the region to produce the necessary skillsets in their graduates fit for a KBE, governments have increasingly invested in international branch campuses (IBCs). While IBCs are not a novel phenomenon across the globe, organizations such as Qatar Foundation in Qatar have adopted unique organizational practices and arrangements of IBCs that are cluster-based. Graduates of these hosted top-tier US and European universities’ IBCs gain degrees that are identical to those obtained by graduates from the main campuses. While this model of imported universities is meant to transfer knowledge from one campus to another, certain types of “knowledge” have more complex forms of adoption. Participants discussed the relative seamless transfer of the sciences, while humanities programs that are embedded in social and cultural values may need to be adapted to fit the specific locale.

The investment in IBCs and research institutions indicates that the infrastructure to build a R&D culture and economy is present; however, retaining the human capital to carry out research has proved to be a much more difficult feat. Small national populations throughout the GCC have resulted in the large import of human capital to satisfy labor market needs. However, the resulting demographic imbalance between nationals and non-nationals has shaped the stringent residency rules in these countries, which offer no formal pathways to citizenship. Although recruitment of labor has not proven to be much of a concern, retaining a work-force that has a sense of long-term commitment and ownership over their work is something that organizations have to contend with. Thus, while GCC states have attempted to create an environment of innovation and knowledge production through financial and infrastructural investment, the ability to seed and harvest innovation with a largely transient population in place remains a question. Achieving sustainability in innovation requires a comprehensive approach that looks at the social dimensions of this transition to knowledge-producing economies.

While higher education has been the focus of investment for these aspiring KBEs, there has been a relative neglect of primary education systems in the GCC. Participants argued that in order to effectively enable systems for knowledge production and knowledge sustainability, states should aim to produce knowledge “societies” rather than “economies” per se. Rote learning and functionalist approaches to education are prevalent from the primary years of education and act as hindrances to harvesting innovation. With critical thinking undermined and the value of knowledge beyond the labor market requirements rarely articulated, fostering knowledge production and a risk-taking culture may be a distant achievement for the GCC states despite the presence of top-tier research universities.

Labor market employment of nationals continues to be a main priority for GCC states. The nationalization of the education and tourism sectors reflect the government’s attempts to diversify their economies, while minimizing national unemployment. Within the GCC, there is also a big push for entrepreneurship and SME development, which act as modes of employment that concomitantly spur innovation. Participants noted, though, that a multitude of systemic and ideational challenges face the state in encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation. Among other factors, the systemic hurdles include institutional competition, overly bureaucratic procedures, as well as endemic inconsistencies between policies and monopolized market conditions. The ideational challenge on the other hand, poses a hindrance that hits at the root of entrepreneurship development—the limited motivation for entrepreneurial innovation amongst citizens of the Gulf. Participants noted that the rentier path dependencies and the dual-wage structure between the public and private sector across the GCC obstruct incentives for innovation and entrepreneurism amongst nationals. In fact, state attempts to invigorate the private sector through SME development, has further embedded the public sector within the economy and entrepreneurship has become a new mode of state patronage and means of accessing rent.

As GCC states strive to develop “innovation cities”, policy adoption and diffusion from well-established global KBEs is at play. What may be much more complex, however, is tackling the social dimension that is required to transition to a KBE, and tailoring these policies to fit the local conditions. Fostering innovation may lead these states to revisit their rentier dependency policies aimed at nationals, and to develop motivational mechanisms that incentivize the citizens to play a key role in the development of a knowledge-based economy. 

Participants and Discussants:

  • Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, United Arab Emirates University
  • Osama Abi-Mershed, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Matt Buehler, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Nerida Child Dimasi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • John Crist, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Crystal A. Ennis, Balsillie School of International Affairs
  • Barb Gillis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Martin Hvidt, Zayed University
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Tanya Kane, Texas A&M University at Qatar
  • Hiba Khodr, American University of Beirut
  • Daniel Kirk, Emirates College for Advanced Education
  • Jim Krane, Rice University
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Rabi Mohtar, Qatar Foundation
  • Anne Nebel, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Firat Oruc, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Dwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Andy Spiess, GCC Network for Drylands Research and Development
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Kenneth Wilson, Zayed University

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS