GCC countries set their sights on knowledge economy

The King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre (KAPSARC) in Riyadh: Research is one of the key drivers of the knowledge economy through its capacity for creating more jobs in the region. (AFP)
Updated 02 December 2019

GCC countries set their sights on knowledge economy

  • A PwC survey has identified key challenges confronting the GCC research ecosystem
  • Saudi Arabia leads the pack when it comes to GCC academic research, says the report

DUBAI: The member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are increasingly moving toward becoming knowledge-based economies, a new report says — with an important caveat.

Despite recent progress, the volume of research publications remains low compared with non-GCC countries, and is a long way behind more established knowledge economies, according to the report by Pricewaterhouse-Coopers (PwC).

The survey’s findings and discussions with the region’s research universities, have helped PwC to identify key challenges confronting the GCC research ecosystem.

These include attracting and retaining post-graduate and post-doctoral students; applying successfully for competitive funding; getting on board new researchers; mentoring and training of new researchers; and administrative support, such as grant application writing.

“GCC countries are very well aware about the issue (of poor volume of research),” said Sally Jeffery, global education network leader at PwC.

“When we speak to ministries and universities, there’s a common understanding of the issues they face, and they recognize the importance and urgency of it,” she said.

Developing quality education, and introducing training for the local labor force are examples of initiatives that are expected to generate the PhDs of tomorrow. (Shutterstock)

“What’s needed today is to move beyond the planning and start implementing. They can figure out the governance issues through piloting.”

To succeed in overcoming the problems, the report says, GCC governments will need to develop a clear national research agenda, establish supportive legal frameworks, distribute research funding effectively, incentivize academic and industry collaboration, and empower institutions and individuals. Universities also need to invest more in their research facilities.

“You’ve got to create those communities to support researchers on a day-to-day basis, for example how to apply for a grant, how to find the best supervisor, how to collaborate internationally,” Jeffery said.

“It takes a broad range of skills to be a successful researcher … Some of the best universities are the ones that support researchers with the administrative and knowledge management challenges that they face, in addition to academic and scientific support.”

In a major move, Saudi Arabia is setting up a research development office, and is encouraging collaborations and joint teams between international researchers and Saudi researchers.

“They’re providing funding competitively, encouraging researchers to collaborate more with them, and the impact of that is much more powerful,” said Jeffery.

“You’ve got to make funding available and provide support for those researchers to be successful.”

The PwC report found, on the basis of  2018 data, that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar account for the bulk of GCC academic research, and that the largest proportion originated from Saudi universities, with 23,448 publications.

In terms of population size, Qatar was found to be performing well regionally, with a ratio of 1.6 publications to every 1,000 inhabitants. In the UAE, seven universities dominated the country’s research output. “The current gap between the GCC countries and more mature countries comes as no surprise, but it’s expected to be bridged during the decades to come,” said Anthony Hobeika, CEO of MENA Research Partners.

“It’s only recently that regional governments started implementing their long-term transformational visions, where education is a key component on the agendas,” he added.

“Developing quality education, boosting private-sector participation, introducing training for the local labor force — these are a few examples of initiatives that are expected to generate the PhDs of tomorrow, and hence a wave of research publications.”

Hobeika expects Saudi Arabia to keep attracting large numbers of researchers, given the size of its population and economy.

The PwC report says GCC governments are taking action to increase the number of post-doctoral researchers and PhD students, but they have a long way to go.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the number of PhD students per 1,000 inhabitants is 0.34, compared with 2.69 for the UK. “It’s not easy given the global competition for research talent. The region’s top researchers are easily tempted to work in other countries where the ecosystem is more mature and they stand a greater chance of making an impact more quickly,” Jeffery said.

That being said, some Gulf public intellectuals believe it is not the number of publications that matters, but the quality. One of them is Dr. Sabah Binali, CEO of Universal Strategy. “When looking at the figures, the actual usefulness of the data provided in terms of understanding where GCC countries stand in research is almost meaningless,” he said. 

“Simply put, 1,000 publications that don’t lead to actual market innovation add nothing to the local economy. But a single publication that leads to market innovation can add great value to a country’s economy.”

Binali said it is not vital for the GCC to improve its research, as it is one link in a long chain of economic value addition. 


34 - PhD students per 100,000 inhabitants in Saudi Arabia.

“The research needs to lead to product or service innovation. This then has to be marketed to clients, and so on. A simple example is Amazon, one of the largest companies in the world by market capitalization, which wasn’t built on research but on customer service experience.”

“What’s missing in the GCC is an entrepreneurial environment where monopolies are dissolved and it’s OK to make mistakes. The most celebrated companies, such as Careem and Souq, are all about entrepreneurship.”

Jeffery says research is one of the key drivers of a knowledge economy due to its capacity for creating more jobs in the region.

“If you look at the amount of goods we import in the region, we need to create a stronger manufacturing sector, more jobs and reduce dependency on oil revenues. One of the biggest benefits of a serious R&D (research and development) capability is jobs and economic growth,” she said.

“Large industry players often choose to commission research from outside the region, so you need to encourage the faculty that you’ve got to work more closely with industry and convince them to spend more money here.”


A project helps Syrian entrepreneurs in four countries escape the shadow of war

Updated 13 December 2019

A project helps Syrian entrepreneurs in four countries escape the shadow of war

  • Start-ups are offered competitions, bootcamps and training programs
  • 'Spark' has been running an entrepreneurship program for five years

CAIRO: The Startup Roadshow was founded in 2018 to help Syrian refugees and expats in four different countries: Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan.

It was established when Spark, a Dutch organization supporting youth projects all over the world, reached out to Jusoor.

“We have been running our entrepreneurship program for five years, and we’ve been running training boot camps and competitions for Syrian startups,” said Dania Ismail, board member and director of Jusoor’s Entrepreneurship Program.

“We have also developed our own proprietary training curriculum, which is tailored to Syrian entrepreneurs, in the region and around the world.”

Spark sought out Jusoor to create a project to support Syrian entrepreneurs in those four countries, later bringing on Startups Without Borders to handle the competition’s outreach, marketing and PR.

“We came up with this idea where a team of trainers, facilitators, and mentors would move from one city to another because it’s hard for Syrian youth to travel around. So, we decided to go to them,” said Ismail, a Syrian expat all her life.

The competition goes through five cities: Beirut, Irbil, Amman, Gaziantep and İstanbul.

The boot camps last for five days in each city, and throughout the Roadshow, 100 entrepreneurs will undergo extensive training and one-on-one mentorship to develop their skills and insights into the business world.

“We have five modules that are taught on different days. Then, the pitches are developed, practiced and presented,” Ismail, 39, said.

“In each location, we pick the top two winners — in total, we’ll have top 10 winners from each city.”

The top 10 teams pitched their ideas live in front of a panel of judges, at the second edition of Demo Day 2019, which was held in Amman on Nov. 4.

The best three Syrian-led startups won cash prizes of $15,000, $10,000, and $7,000, respectively.

They also had the opportunity to pitch their business ideas during Spark Ignite’s annual conference in Amsterdam. The competition aims to give young Syrians the hard-to-get chance to secure a foothold in the business world.

“We’re trying to empower young Syrians who are interested in the entrepreneurial and tech space. We want to empower them with knowledge, skills and confidence to launch their ideas,” Ismail said.

Despite the limited duration of the Roadshow and the lack of financial aid, the people behind the program still do their best to help all applicants.

“We try as much as possible to continue supporting them on their journeys with mentorship, advice and connections through our very large network of experts and entrepreneurs,” she said.

Jusoor’s efforts to help Syrian youth do not stop at the Roadshow, and the future holds much in store for this fruitful collaboration.

“We’re expanding our entrepreneurship program, and our next project will be an accelerator program that will continue working with a lot of the promising teams that come out of the Startup Roadshow,” Ismail said.

“We want to provide something that has a partial online component and a partial on-ground one, as well as an investment component where these companies receive funding as investment, not just grants and prizes,” she said in relation to the second phase of the Entrepreneurship Program, which is launching in 2020.

Ismail said: “The Roadshow was created so that Syrian youth can have the chance to change their reality, becoming more than victims of an endless war.

“The competition gives them the tools to become active members of society, wherever they may be, contributing to the economies of those countries.

“Once you’ve built up this generation and given them those skills and expertise, they’ll be the generation that comes back to rebuild the economy in Syria, once things are stable enough there.

“We hope that a lot of these young entrepreneurs the Startup Roadshow was able to inspire, train or help will be the foundation for the future of a small- to medium-sized economy inside Syria.”


• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.