This is a very exciting time to be alive. I imagine all times are exciting to be alive in their own way, but the events that are unfolding in the Middle East are a rare happening. Not since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe has anything on this scale, and with such a potentially positive outcome taken place. Of course, far too many people have already died in the protests and revolutions sweeping across north Africa and into the heart of the Middle East, and any number of deaths, especially of peaceful protesters, is unacceptable. However, what is wonderful is that this time the people look like succeeding in bringing down the old regimes and taking their destiny into their hands.
For far too long much of the Middle East has been economically stagnant, socially backward and technologically retarded. Outside of the high-flying, modernised economies of the oil rich and less populous UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the bulk of the people in Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Syria, Jordan, Libya, Iran, Tunisia and Algeria have been denied development opportunities. In all but a few states they have also been denied access to information, freedom of expression and the right to elect their own leaders under a system of universal suffrage. In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2010 lists ZERO full democracies in the region. It’s a disgrace. Badly led by dictators or sham “democracies”, dominated by narrow political and religious ideologies, strategic pawns of the West, the status quo has been tolerated to varying degrees in accordance with their stance on Israel and Palestine, Iran, Iraq and WMD. These people deserve to have the chance to modernise, to read what they like, to say what they like, to do and to go where they like and to give a shit about what they like – simple freedoms we take for granted in the West. That they may at last take these things for themselves is nothing short of magnificent.
Yes, revolutions are violent and destabilising, yes they can have negative consequences, yes they don’t always succeed, but the fact that the people, en masse, have risen up to express themselves and show their contempt for the way they have been for so long mistreated fills me with hope that at last the long-awaited seismic shift the Middle East needed so badly has happened. It seems now to be inexorable. From the western perspective, the principal concerns have not been freedom and democracy, nor human rights, but merely the ability of these states to contain the spread of terrorism, islamic extremism, WMD and to agree to non-aggression with Israel. It is a disgrace how long this situation has been allowed to continue under the guise of stability. When the vast bulk of Egypt’s 80 million people are dirt poor and ruled by a military dictatorship, that is not stability, it is slavery. Democracy has its own problems and is no stranger to corruption, but for Egypt to move forward it must now take its chances with popularly elected governments.
Right now, the situation in Libya is extremely tense. As I write this, reports are coming in of the airforce being used to bomb protesters. Alongside this are reports of pilots and diplomats defecting, of army commanders siding with the people, of mercenaries using mortars and other heavy weapons on protesters, of buildings burning in Tripoli, of the people celebrating driving the mercenaries out of Bhengazi and the defection of a crack military division, of the borders being abandoned and opened and Egyptian medical aid waiting to enter. It is a confused and confusing situation, with few journalists on the ground to report and lines of communication cut. Nonetheless the reports all point in one direction: The downfall of Gaddafi’s regime. It couldn’t come a moment too soon.
First Tunisia, then Egypt, now, fingers crossed, Libya. Rarely has such regional change been witnessed outside of a more widespread conflict such as the world wars. The collapse of communism across Eastern Europe is the closest parallel, yet that was facilitated by the withdrawal of the Soviet armies and a significant change in policy and outlook at the heart of the Soviet Empire. Here, in the Middle East, the process has gotten underway with nothing more than the utter despair and frustration of people kept back and held down for so long.
Perhaps, if this tidal wave of democracy succeeds and sweeps on through Yemen, Oman, Jordan and Syria, then the Middle East, once one of the leading lights of the world technologically and intellectually, will have a chance to move forward and be great again. Seeing the determination of the people – not led by religion or factionalism, but simply crying out in the loudest, the bravest voices for freedom and dignity – I feel great confidence that they can succeed. This is not a time for the West to intervene, but the West must take a role in helping these countries to construct their democracies when the time is right. There is much advice and technical assistance that they will require, and the developed world must do everything to help these people take and shape their destiny, in a non-exploitative manner. This is not a time for cutting business deals, it is a time for altruism.
The dazzling skyline of Dubai is a powerful symbol of modernity. It is vibrant, first class hub of investment, trade and development. The United Arab Emirates boasts an economy which has sensibly avoided being a one-trick pony; recognising the long-term, strategic limitations of its energy resources, it has invested massively in its construction and financial sectors. The UAE has spared little in creating a positive environment to attract skilled workers, including strong investment in its domestic tertiary education sector.
However, when it comes to the clearest indicator of real innovation – patent filings – Israel is the only state in the region keeping pace with the front-runners of the developed world. The Middle East is far behind the pace. The 2008 report of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), based on 2006 statistics – the only currently available figures from this body, show an alarmingly low number of patent filings across the region.
In 2006, no less than 408, 674 patents were filed through patent offices in Japan, and just over 400,000 in South Korea. During the same period the total number of patents filed by Middle Eastern economies, including Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the UAE, but not including Israel, amounted to just over 2000; 1377 of which came from Egypt alone. Israel managed an impressive 7496 applications, almost all of which came from Israeli residents. Of these applications, the total number of patents granted in Israel in the year 2006 exceeds the total number of applications for the eleven other economies listed above.
Clearly, there are other factors that must be taken into account: - the devastation of the Iraqi economy after long years of sanctions and war; the political isolation of Iran; the political turmoil in Lebanon and so on. Yet, irrespective of this, low levels of investment in the tertiary education sector and a lack of co-ordination between institutional research and industry, have resulted in what can only be described as a woeful record of technological innovation.
Take Syria, for example. The nation has a solid educational base – its primary and secondary system is based on the French model and, though monitored ideologically by the Baath Party, it’s tertiary sector is not exactly substandard. In 2006, however, on a per capita basis, Syria filed a mere 6 patents for every million citizens, whilst South Korea filed no less than 2591. It goes without saying that one cannot reasonably compare these two economies, but the gap is so vast as to be breath-taking.
In Egypt there are sound institutions and a swag of universities, yet they are overcrowded and underfunded. The real problem, however, and this is something that could be said to apply across the region, is that they do not foster an environment conducive to new research or innovation. Research is conducted primarily as a prerequisite to an academic career and posting. After this, however, the research output of Egyptian universities, and regional universities in general, is very poor in relation to faculty staff numbers. This shortfall in new ideas is then compounded by the absence of strong links between innovation and industry. Egypt’s innovators need an environment that offers them more incentives for new research and innovation, and which links these new ideas with industrial entrepreneurs.
Aside from the economic advantages of encouraging home-grown innovation, an expansion of the range of brands and products emerging from the Middle East can only help to improve perceptions of the region globally. Currently, aside from assorted financial services and highly reputable airlines, very few products and services that are notably Middle Eastern in origin are available in the West. The advantages in terms of positive reception and increased understanding can be seen by changing attitudes towards China, India and Korea, though positive gains can also be tempered by resentment. Clearly such a scale of output is unthinkable for most Middle Eastern economies. Yet if they can’t punch far above their weight, they must aim at least to punch according to their weight. R & D is languishing across most of the region and those with ideas and talent are looking elsewhere to get their ideas off the ground.
Egypt in particular has an impressive manpower resource which could be harnessed to more innovative local industries. Across the entire region there is a strong, intellectual tradition which, as has been proven in all successful developing countries, significantly shortens the journey towards prosperity. Of course, it goes without saying that responsible, green development is the better path to take, but this is by no means a barrier to more rapid development. Either way, the Middle East needs to learn not so much to work harder, but to work considerably smarter.