Smaller emirates grow research and development investment

The attempt by the United Arab Emirates to move away from reliance on oil and towards a knowledge economy has been led by the larger oil-rich emirates. But now a smaller and less affluent emirate is staking out its own research role.

The wealthy emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and, to a lesser extent, Sharjah have led the drive to become innovation-driven areas, but the pace is still slow.

According to Ala’a Al Deen Ali, from the office of strategic affairs at the Abu Dhabi Education Council, the country invests less than 0.01% of its gross domestic product in research and development. By comparison, Israel invests more than 4%, while the US and Germany invest around 2.6%.

“The majority of universities in the UAE focus on academic instruction,” Ali said at a recent labour market conference in Abu Dhabi. “Only a few institutions support research activities, and this is what we are working with other authorities to change.”

More recently, however, smaller and less wealthy emirates like Ras Al Khaimah, which is in the northernmost part of the country, have also started investing more in R&D.

In 2009 its ruler Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi established the Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research. The centre aims to address topics of relevance for the emirate and those of the country as a whole to improve economic and social development.

Last year, the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program ranked the foundation as one of the top new think-tanks in the world. Improving the quality of education is its chief goal.

“His Highness Sheikh Saud is really very passionate about education and wanted high-quality research to build capacity here,” said Dr Natasha Ridge, executive director of the foundation.

She said Saud established the foundation to generate more research that he could use as a basis for policy development in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, starting with education initially and then expanding to other social sectors including health and the urban environment.

The foundation is currently working with the Ministry of Education in Ras Al Khaimah to run training courses for English teachers at federal schools and for gifted maths and science students.

The foundation also sponsors international researchers.

Research output in the Middle East is not nearly as high as it is in Europe or in the US. To improve the existing body of research the organisation set up a scholarship programme to attract international doctoral students.

Ridge said doctoral students from America, Canada, Europe and Australia who do not have the funding to go abroad, can approach the foundation to conduct research that will benefit Ras Al Khaimah.

“It is good to send people from here overseas but we also want to bring in people from abroad to build a solid base of knowledge upon which researchers here can build their own continued research,” she said.

“We need to bring in the best and as such raise the bar for our researchers showing their work at international conferences,” said Ridge.

In addition to research activities, the foundation set up the Ras Al Khaimah Teachers’ Network and sponsors the Gulf Comparative Education Society. The latter was established to encourage academic, professional and educational collaboration in the Gulf region.

The Ras Al Khaimah Teachers’ Network, a social and professional networking site for educators, allows teachers from Ras Al Khaimah, from across the UAE and from around the world to come together to share resources, ideas and best practice.

Recently, after discussions with representatives from the Ras Al Khaimah prison for men, the foundation began an initiative to refurbish the library and collect books in all languages that will serve both an educational and recreational purpose for the inmates.

A final initiative is the Third Annual Education Policy Forum Series co-organised by the foundation and Middlesex University. This brings together key players in the education sector to discuss and debate a number of topics that have emerged as major issues of concern to the general public and the education community.