The Arab World’s (Uneven) Progress

Kristin M. Lord
Kristin Lord
Kristin M. Lord President and CEO - IREX, Former Brookings Expert

February 20, 2009

A version of this opinion was also published in The National (UAE).

Mired in conflict, afflicted by joblessness, frustrated by unresponsive and oppressive governments, and flooded with images of woe, the world’s 22 Arab nations have much to lament.

Yet, they are also making rapid, if insufficient, progress in building societies that will thrive in the global economy and fulfill the potential of their citizens. Their success or failure will determine the region’s future. It will also influence American security for decades.

Five years ago, the United Nations published the Arab Human Development Report on Building a Knowledge Society. That widely read – and highly controversial – report found a “knowledge deficit” that threatens human development, economic growth, and the future potential of Arab societies. This week the Brookings Institution published a new study, in Arabic, that evaluates what has and has not changed since 2003.

Political instability may dominate the headlines, but advances in education, science, industry, and economic reform also deserve notice. Access to education has expanded markedly over the past five years. Jordan exceeded the international average on eighth grade science scores for the first time ever. New university campuses, including branches of world-class universities in Qatar’s Education City, has enrolled more students each year for the past six years.

In science and technology, scientific publications rose. Among nine Arab countries cited in the 2003 study, patent registrations rose. Private new initiatives, like the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, are investing billions of dollars in research and education. Arabs are embracing new technologies, such as the Internet and mobile phones.

Between 2000 and 2005, high-tech exports rose in Jordan, Morocco, and in Saudi Arabia. Egypt now employs more than 40,000 people in native and foreign information technology companies. Economies across the region have been booming, even those without oil. In an assessment of global business climates, the World Bank ranked Egypt as the world’s top reformer and highlighted reforms in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Kuwait, and Djibouti.

Despite these gains, the assessment is far from rosy. Other regions are progressing even faster, leaving the Arab world behind. As a percentage of GDP, Ireland’s research and development spending outpaces Jordan’s by nearly 300 percent. About 18 percent of Moroccan university students study science or engineering, compared with 40 percent of Malaysians. Internet usage in Egypt jumped, but only slightly compared with Peru and Slovakia. And intraregional trade increased, but it is still half the level of Asia.

Though spending on education is high, the quality of education does not meet global standards. Students perform poorly on international tests in math and science. Universities inadequately prepare graduates for jobs. Literacy rates are low: 83 percent in Syria, 59 percent in Yemen, and 56 percent in Morocco.

In science and technology, funding for research is insufficient; brain drain is high; scientific institutions are too scarce; and university professors are overtaxed, with little time for research. The links between science and markets are weak, hindering the commercial application of knowledge. Though a high proportion of young women study science and engineering, few women go on to careers in those fields.

Arab economies still rely too much on natural resources, imported technology, and low-skill microenterprises. Foreign direct investment, as a percentage of GDP, is only half that of East Asia. Executives cite the lack of qualified personnel as the largest obstacle to innovation, despite high levels of unemployment in the region. Demographic challenges loom: With 35 percent of the population under the age of 15, Arab economies must create 100 million new jobs by 2020.

Why does this matter? For Arabs, success or failure in building a knowledge society will shape their collective future. It will mean the difference between wealth and poverty, dynamism and stagnation, frustration and hope.

For the United States and the global community, thriving Arab societies bear the promise of less political instability, less anger and despair, and less animosity toward the West. Such societies would export fewer security threats in form of terrorism, economic disruption, and war.

As conflict fills the headlines once again, we must be cognizant that reform in the Middle East not only should happen, it is happening, however fitfully. In order to catch up with the rest of the world though, reform – indigenously led with international support – must continue, for the sake of American security, global prosperity, and the people of the Arab world above all.