From women in tech to patents: Nine areas where Middle East is winning, and losing

Two big studies show where the Middle East and North African regions are making progress with tech, and where they're still falling short.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor
Wind farm

Several North African nations have ambitious plans to produce energy from renewable sources such as wind and the sun.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

From space exploration to renewable energy sources, the Middle East and North Africa region has big tech ambitions. But research suggests that many fundamental IT challenges still remain unsolved.

Analysis from the World Economic Forum and UNESCO has offered fresh insights into the state of science and technology in the MENA region, with nine significant trends emerging.

1. Research and development spend is low

The Arab states accounted for one percent of the world's R&D expenditure in 2013, according to the UNESCO Science Report, Toward 2030. In contrast, six percent of global GDP is generated by the region.

Spending on R&D is frequently seen as an indicator for investment in innovation. Although this one percent figure is disappointing, R&D spend in the Arab world is up from 0.8 percent in 2007.

"But the richest Arab countries have played a modest role in this progress," UNESCO notes.

2. Regional R&D efforts led by North Africa

Investment in this field as a proportion of GDP is highest in Morocco, with the country spending 0.73 percent of GDP in 2010, Tunisia with 0.68 percent in 2012, and Egypt with 0.68 percent of GDP in 2013, up from 0.43 percent in 2009.

Among the Arab nations, Tunisia and Morocco also devote the highest percentage of their GDP to higher education, spending 1.75 percent and 1.11 percent respectively.

Several MENA nations have pledged to increase their research spending. Plans to assign one percent of GDP for this purpose was written into the Egyptian constitution in 2014, whereas Turkey has suggested setting aside three percent of GDP for R&D by 2023.

3. Region global leader for women in tech

UNESCO's research featured the eye-catching finding that "although women's economic participation is generally low in the region, science and research is one area where Arab states are closer to gender parity than, for instance, Europe".

Its analysis found that "in 10 Arab countries, women represent between 34 percent and 57 percent of tertiary graduates in science, engineering and agriculture". In Egypt, where 43 percent of science grads are women, and in Bahrain, where that figure is 41 percent, these sectors employ "a relatively high ratio" of women.

4. North African nations betting big on renewables

Morocco plans to produce 42 percent of its electricity from renewables by the end of the decade. Contrasting with the UK's target of 30 percent for renewables by 2020, this ambitious goal has led to the creation of Africa's biggest wind farm and the world's largest concentrated solar power plant.

Launched in December 2014, the Tarfaya wind farm harnesses winds coming off the Atlantic to power 131 wind turbines spread over an area of 8,900 hectares. The site's owners says it "will generate enough carbon-free electricity for 1.5 million homes".

Meanwhile, a solar power station opened outside the town of Ouarzazate earlier this year. Currently the size of 35 soccer fields, the Guardian reported the plant "will be the size of the country's capital city by the time it is finished in 2018".

On a smaller scale, UNESCO's study also highlighted efforts by Algeria to adopt solar as it addresses "a possible depletion of its fossil fuel reserves". The nation is currently Africa's third-biggest oil producer and the world's 10th largest extractor of natural gas.

Nearby Tunisia plans to achieve 40 percent of power needs by 2030 from renewable sources, up from about 16 percent in 2016.

5. Several Gulf nations are investing in space tech

In 2014, Iraq launched its first satellite for environmental monitoring, called TigrisSat. UNESCO notes that the satellite "was launched from a base in the Russian Federation and is being used to monitor dust storms in Iraq, as well as potential precipitation, vegetative land cover and surface evaporation".

Bahrain launched its National Space Science Agency in April 2014, while the UAE government has announced plans to send the Arab world's first unmanned probe to Mars.

As noted by the official website for the Emirates Mars mission: "The spacecraft is set to arrive at Mars in 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE."

6. Innovation still to yield full potential

Despite these developments, both UNESCO and the WEF highlight several strategic areas the region would benefit from addressing.

These areas includes the low level of patents originating from the Arab World. A recent UNESCO article revealed "the Arab world contributed just 0.2 percent of the patents submitted to the US Patents and Trademark Office in 2013".

Although Israel was ranked fourth by the WEF for applications of tech-related patents behind Japan, Finland, and Singapore, the rest of the region fared less well.

With the exception of Qatar, ranked 21, smaller nations such as Iceland, Slovenia, Malta, and the Seychelles were all placed higher on this index than UAE's 40 and Saudi Arabia's 48.

7. UAE's world-beating IT vision

The WEF's annual Global Information Technology Report put UAE in 26th place and Qatar in 27th place. They are the top Arab nations in their Networked Readiness Index, closely followed by Saudi Arabia in 33rd spot.

Using 53 individual indicators, the WEF analysis benchmarks the evolution and deployment of tech in 139 different countries, with the primary index supported by a number of specific subsets.

In a number of these areas, the UAE does particularly well. The UAE government leads the way in digital connectivity and in "providing a consistent vision for the sector and achieving success at promoting it". It also came second globally in terms of government usage.

8. Scope for improvement

Outside these areas, the scores for the Emirates are lower. The authors say despite "businesses' adoption of and the economic impacts of ICT have been improving in recent years... a gap still exists with most advanced economies in this area".

They also remark how high levels of "mobile broadband subscriptions and households with internet access" are offset by "fixed broadband subscriptions [which in 2014] were still 11.6 per 100 people".

Addressing these considerations, along with relatively low general and tech-related patent activity, will be important if the UAE is to build on recent gains.

9. Growing digital divide between region's countries

The WEF paints a similarly mixed picture when examining wider regional developments, concluding that "top countries [are improving] their performance at the same time that the performance of the worst-scoring countries is deteriorating".

In several cases, internal variances at a national level are impeding tech progress.

Kuwait in 61st spot, up 11 places, and Lebanon, 88th, also up 11, are "two of the biggest movers" in the WEF's rankings. "Yet in both cases individuals are leading the charge with the business sector catching up and strongly contributing to the successful performance," the authors comment.

Administrations in both these nations are described as "lagging behind" in digital adoption, with Kuwait's government in 81st, and Lebanon's in 124th.

In Turkey, a potential regional tech powerhouse, these tensions are even more explicit.

The country's ranking remains unchanged, with cheaper phone tariffs and improving digital skills being "offset by a deteriorating regulatory and business environment as well as the declining importance of tech in the government's vision and promotion", the WEF said.

If these issues can be addressed, then the role and influence of IT in the Arab world has the potential to have an even greater impact on the economies and societies of the region.

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