From Zero to Not Much More

  • 11/07/2017

MANY people try to keep a poker face when playing cards, but not when looking at adverts. Hamzeh al-Fuqha, a Palestinian living in the United Arab Emirates, turned this simple fact into a money-spinner. SmartAd, founded in 2012, uses facial recognition technology to tell businesses how people respond to their marketing. The software, used by Burger King among others, can also tell the age and sex of the viewer. It is a rare example of real innovation coming from the Arab world.

The region was once famed for its science and mathematics (including the invention of the zero). Yet it has fallen badly behind on measures of creativity, such as patents filed or academic papers published. Its rulers say they want to encourage more research and development (R&D), but few seem to try very hard.

Arab countries produce 5.9% of the world’s GDP, but the region’s governments account for less than 1% of total global R&D spending, according to UNESCO. Bahrain spends just 0.04% of GDP; Egypt spends 0.7% (see chart). By contrast India spends about 0.8% and Britain 1.6%.

Much of this is wasted. In Egypt government officials and scientists don’t talk much, so money is poorly allocated. Incentives are skewed, too. Promotions for professors depend on whom they know rather than what they discover.

The bigger deficit, however, is that private companies barely spend on R&D, which accounts for much of the cash elsewhere, says Nazar Hassan of UNESCO. Chinese companies, for instance, spend almost four times more than their government, and American ones more than two and a half times. Israeli firms are global leaders, contributing at least three-quarters of the country’s total R&D outlay. By contrast, in much of the Arab world the private sector’s contribution is less than 5%.

Rana Dajani, a Jordanian scientist, reckons the biggest problem is “the lack of an environment that encourages freethinking and exploration”. Schools emphasise rote learning. Rulers stifle political debate.

Many areas of research are hampered not only by oppressive politics, but also by a perceived clash between Islam and science. Medicine is one area that can be controversial, particularly in fields of research that involve embryos. Yet such barriers are not insurmountable.

After years of consultation with scientists and theologians Jordan passed a law in 2014 allowing stem-cell research. Among its provisions was that embryos could only be created from the sperm and eggs of married couples. To allay concerns that it might lead to abortions (which are banned in the kingdom) only state institutions may do such research.

Others are also making progress. Morocco’s technology parks and incubators have helped it become the Arab world’s leading exporter of high-tech products and software. It applies for the second-largest number of patents, after Egypt, despite its much smaller population.

And private innovators are trying their hand at tech startups, albeit in low-risk niches such as online retailing or Arabic versions of apps developed elsewhere. Careem, for instance, is the Saudi version of Uber, an American car-hailing app.

Ms Dajani notes that Arab scientists and innovators achieve far more abroad than at home. (For example, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was half-Syrian.) To foster creativity, the Middle East needs to allow more critical thinking. Such freedom might have other benefits, too.

Source: The Economist