» Arabic edition of UNESCO Science Report launched in Cairo
08.02.2019 - Natural Sciences Sector

Arabic edition of UNESCO Science Report launched in Cairo

© Getty Images / VitalyEdush, Alexandria Library in Egypt

A growing number of Arab countries are investing in the new knowledge economy, in order to provide employment for their burgeoning populations and embrace a more sustainable development path. So concludes the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030, the Arabic edition of which was presented to more than 100 high-level officials and journalists on 24 January 2019.

The launch of the Arabic edition was organized by the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology (ASRT), which had produced the Arabic edition through a copublishing agreement with UNESCO.

The ceremony was hosted by UNESCO’s office in Cairo. A succession of speakers addressed a room filled with former ministers, university rectors, heads of major research institutes, representatives of the League of Arab States, United Nations agency staff and diplomats from foreign embassies.

The Director of UNESCO’s Cairo Office, Dr Ghaith Fariz, invited Arab countries to take inspiration from the broad catalogue of approaches to science governance analysed in the report to design policies that could bridge the scientific and knowledge gaps in the region.

The President of ASRT, Professor Mahmoud Sakr, concurred. He recalled the importance of publications like the UNESCO Science Report which analyse STI indicators and stressed the key role that statistics play in informing future policies.

His colleague Dr Mohamed Ramadan, Director of the Egyptian Observatory of STI Indicators, presented some recent statistics on research and development (R&D). Egypt is one of several Arab countries which have established observatories in recent years to monitor their science systems. Other examples are Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Tunisia.

For his part, His Excellency Prof. Amr Adly, Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, stressed the importance of the findings of the UNESCO Science Report for the Arab region, in general, and for Egypt, in particular. He recalled his country’s growing commitment to scientific research and innovation.

Higher levels of research spending

Egypt is one of several Arab countries which have raised their level of domestic spending on R&D in recent years. Egypt invested 0.71% of GDP in R&D in 2016, up from 0.43% in 2010. This places Egypt on a par with Morocco for this indicator.

Only a handful of Arab countries have covered more ground in such a short space of time. Saudi Arabia devoted 0.82% of GDP to R&D in 2013, a considerable improvement on the 0.05% of GDP invested five years earlier. The United Arab Emirates flirted with the symbolic threshold of 1% of GDP in 2016 (0.99% of GDP), after doubling its level of commitment to R&D since 2011.

A number of Arab countries have announced plans to hoist their ratio of research spending to 1% of GDP – or more – over the next few years. The 1% target has even been inscribed in the Egyptian Constitution since 2014. This is an important goal, as the Arab world still boxes beneath its weight: in 2013, the region contributed 6% of global GDP but just 1% of global research spending, according to the UNESCO Science Report.

Of course, some countries’ research systems have been decimated by years of conflict. Once a leader for science in the Arab world, Iraq could only muster a research intensity of 0.04% of GDP in 2016.

The great majority of Arab countries hover around the 0.3-0.5% mark, including Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar. Jordan, however, has invested heavily in the construction of the region’s first particle accelerator, the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), which was inaugurated by H.M. King Abdulla II in 2017. The UNESCO Science Report stresses the need for more champions of science in the region.

Currently, the two Muslim countries with the greatest research intensity are Malaysia (1.30% of GDP in 2015) and Turkey (1.01% in 2014). Both countries have doubled their research intensity since 2004 and Malaysia is even planning to devote 2% of GDP to R&D by 2020. The world average in 2013 was 1.70% of GDP.

The number of researchers in the Arab region is growing. There were 391 researchers (in full-time equivalents) per million inhabitants in 2009 and 417 per million four years later, even though some countries in the throes of political turmoil have seen their pool of researchers shrink.

The greater human and financial investment in the Arab world is translating into greater scientific output. The volume of scientific publications from the region grew more rapidly (+109.6%) between 2005 and 2014 than in any other part of the world, according to the report, pushing up the region’s modest share from 1.4% to 2.4% of the global total (Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science, Science Citation Index Expanded).

The two Arab countries which produced the most scientific articles between 2008 and 2014 were oil-rent economies. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have put incentive measures in place in recent years to attract renowned foreign researchers to their universities.

'Oil-rent' economies striving to diversify the economy

The lack of economic diversification still hampers job creation in much of the Arab world. For instance, seven out of ten Mauritanian exports consist in iron ores (46.7%), copper ores (15.6%) and octopus (10.5%). Mauritania’s unemployment rate was a high of 31% in 2013, despite average economic growth of 5.9% between 2011 and 2013. The UNESCO Science Report deduces from this that growth occurred in sectors which did not provide the much-needed jobs.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been reducing their dependence on oil exports by developing other economic sectors. Faced with growing domestic energy consumption that is eating into the country’s oil revenue, for instance, Saudi Arabia has begun developing solar power.

Among Gulf States, the United Arab Emirates is also hoping to develop a competitive knowledge economy. It has successfully developed the business, tourism, transportation and construction sectors and, more recently, space technologies.

Bringing the private sector ‘in from the cold’

The UNESCO Science Report observes that ‘up to now, science technology and innovation policies in the Arab world have failed to catalyse knowledge production effectively or add value to products because they focus on developing R&D without ‘bringing the business sector in from the cold’.

In 2013, the Arab world contributed just 0.2% of the patents submitted to the US Patents and Trademark Office and, over the decade to 2011, just 1.9% of global business expenditure on research and development (R&D).

Given the modest role played by the private sector in the Arab world, it is hardly surprising that the share of high-tech products in manufactured exports is low, particularly for Gulf States. Morocco tops the Arab region for this indicator but, even in Morocco, low value-added products still accounted for about 70% of manufactured products and 80% of exports in 2012.

However, attitudes towards the private sector are changing. One of the key objectives of the Arab Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation cited in the UNESCO Science Report has been to ‘involve the private sector more in regional and interdisciplinary collaboration, in order to add economic and development value to research and make better use of available expertise.’

Since 2001, Morocco has managed to raise the business sector’s contribution from 22% to 30% of domestic research spending. This prowess owes a lot to the creation of the National Fund for Scientific Research and Technological Development in 2001. The government has encouraged companies to contribute to the fund to support research in their sector. Moroccan telecom operators, for instance, have been persuaded to cede 0.25% of their turnover to the fund and today finance about 80% of all public research projects in telecommunications supported through the fund.

Other Arab governments have put incentives in place to encourage technological entrepreneurship. The Qatari government, for instance, offers investors tax breaks and other incentives to support entrepreneurship and promote small and medium-sized enterprises. The Qatar Science and Technology Park focuses on the four priority areas identified by the Qatar National Research Strategy adopted in 2012, namely energy, environment, health sciences and information and communication technologies (ICTs).

Arab countries are developing technopoarks to foster a knowledge economy. Tunisia has more than a dozen of them. Many of these technoparks are focusing on ‘green’ technologies, ICTs, chemical industries, biotechnology and cultural industries. Morocco plans to become the African leader in wind and solar power by 2020.

Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates has one of the largest installations of photovoltaic panels on rooftops in the Middle East. This ‘greenprint’ for a sustainable city is sprouting around the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, an independent research-driven, graduate-level university set up in 2007 with a focus on advanced energy and sustainable technologies. Companies are being encouraged to foster close ties with the university to accelerate the commercialization of breakthrough technologies.

One underexploited advantage is the relatively large proportion of women researchers in the Arab world (37%). Currently, fewer than one in four of them work in the business enterprise sector, with the notable exception of Sudan (40%) and Palestine (35%). For half of the Arab countries reporting data, barely any women at all work in this sector.

A need for new skills

Arab countries are aware of the need to embrace the knowledge economy. ‘They can see the writing on the wall’, explains Dr Moneef Zou’bi, Director-General of the World Islamic Academy of Sciences and lead author of the chapter in the report on the Arab States. ‘After relocating much of their production to the developing world in the 1980s, where cheap, unskilled labour was plentiful, industrial countries are now investing in advanced manufacturing to revitalize their own domestic manufacturing sector. The cutting-edge fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology, informatics and cognitive sciences are converging to blur the boundaries between the virtual world and reality, services and industry. This rapid transformation – dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution – is creating new industries and jobs, while reducing the demand for unskilled labour’

It will be imperative for Arab countries to adapt university curricula to the needs of the new knowledge economy. Several have already begun reforming their higher education systems, including Egypt and Tunisia.

UNESCO, itself, has been helping Arab universities to modernize their curricula and nurture an entrepreneurial culture by developing linkages with industry in convergent technologies through the Network for the Expansion of Convergent Technologies in the Arab Region (NECTAR).

Curricular reform will be essential but will not suffice on its own to create jobs in the knowledge economy. The UNESCO Science Report observes that, in most Arab countries, ‘the education system is still not turning out graduates who are motivated to contribute to a healthier economy. Why not? Governments should ask themselves whether the fault lies solely with the education system or whether other impediments are stifling innovation and an entrepreneurial culture, such as a poor business climate.’


The original English edition of the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 was published in November 2015. The report monitors trends in science governance every five years, so the next edition is due for release in November 2020.

The Arabic edition was prepared by the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology through a copublishing agreement with UNESCO and finalized with the financial support of the Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud Foundation.

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