GCC countries invest heavily in research infrastructure, but must now turn focus to improving research quality and output

Wednesday 26 September 2018
Dr. Yahya Anouti, principal with Strategy& Middle East
Dubai - MENA Herald:

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are investing heavily in state-of-the-art labs, university buildings, and research facilities. Their total capital expenditure from 2010 to 2030 will reach $38.4 billion. However, so far, they have not put similar efforts into high quality research and development, according to a recent study by strategy consulting firm Strategy& Middle East (formerly Booz & Company), part of the PwC network. Consequently, GCC countries require importing knowledge, which is often difficult to adapt to the specific context of Gulf States, or may not even be available.

  • The study reveals that R&D spending (including capital expenditures) is much lower in GCC countries compared to their global peers. R&D spending in the UAE, for example, amounts to 0.9% of GDP, and just 0.1% of GDP in Bahrain. By contrast, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries spend, on average, 2.5% of their GDP on R&D.
  • To be in line with OECD average, KSA will have to increase its R&D spending by an additional 1.7% of its GDP; 1.6% for UAE; 2% for Qatar; 2.2% for Kuwait; 2.3% for Oman and 2.4% for Bahrain.
  • Despite GCC governments allocating large shares of their budgets to state-of-the-art facilities, there are still major obstacles behind the lack of research coming out of the GCC. These include:
  • Structural limitations within academia
  • Scarce partnerships with international researchers and the private sector
  • Limited contribution to the public-sector agenda
  • Insufficient Intellectual Property (IP) regulations

Commenting on the obstacles to academic research in the GCC, Dr. Yahya Anouti, principal with Strategy& Middle East, said: “At present, private-sector led and academic research is limited. Local universities have few channels for collaboration with international universities, the private sector, or the government, while the region’s legal system does not effectively protect researchers’ intellectual property and provide them with commercialization support.  This reduces the output and quality of their research, and precludes innovation and any meaningful input into social and economic policy. This means that GCC countries pay a high price to import knowledge, an unsustainable solution that does not always answer their specific needs.”

Countries in the Gulf are therefore missing an important growth opportunity. The study found that an increase of 1% in R&D could add 2.2% to economic growth, helping to facilitate the transition toward a diversified economy, better manage an array of societal challenges, and reduce dependence on imports generally.

Dr. Shihab Elborai, Partner with Strategy& Middle East, said: “GCC countries have made admirable investments in research facilities, but must now turn their focus to fostering the research ecosystem. By encouraging the output and quality of academic and corporate research, they can enable innovation and the development of new products and solutions, enhance workforce skills, and inform public policy. As a result, these advances will contribute to adaptability and increased productivity.”

The Strategy& Middle East report outlines five initiatives to help GCC governments build a comprehensive research ecosystem:

1)      Putting research at the center of the GCC public-sector agenda: GCC Governments should include clear goals for research initiatives in their national development and public policy visions, as well as design the right framework to channel research efforts and monitor them effectively. In addition, they should leverage the evidence-based information and analyses of academia to tackle complex societal and economic challenges.

2)     Nurturing and empowering local researchers: GCC universities should create an environment of research collaboration and individual excellence to empower local researchers. With the support of their governments, they should launch initiatives such as introducing sabbaticals for professors to focus completely on research, funding professors’ participation in conferences, or establishing faculty exchange programs.

3)      Introducing a performance-based funding model: To improve the quality of university-led research, GCC governments need to rationalize and standardize the allocation of funding based on performance. Traditional performance-based funding relies on one of two models: bibliometric assessment or peer-review assessment.

4)     Promoting the university-industry link with commercialization enablers: GCC governments must encourage more collaboration between universities and the private sector. Such mobility is critical for the transfer of knowledge in form and informal ways. Formal relationships include R&D contracting, policies, IP management, and spin-off activities, while informal contacts can mean exploiting research results published by universities in public journals.

5)      Establishing an effective IP legal framework: GCC governments need to upgrade their IP laws and build an effective supporting judicial system to implement them and streamline related procedures. Stronger IP laws would help decrease the possibility of patent infringement and validity issues, while established dedicated IP courts would handle any IP-related issues.

Alice Klat, Director of the Ideation Center, Strategy& think tank in the Middle East, said: “A strong local research environment will be instrumental in promoting innovation across GCC countries and helping them achieve economic growth. Governments should launch structural initiatives to shore up this ecosystem starting within academia and, more important, acquire a better understanding of the ways in which academia can contribute to societal and economic improvement. However, the real impact will be generated by enterprising and fruitful collaboration between universities and corporations.”

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