Building research capacity in the Gulf Cooperation Council


D. McGlennon


This paper reviews developments in research, development and innovation performance in the GCC since the early 2000s, analyses current developments in higher education, particularly in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and proposes strategies for improvement.


The UN Arab Human Development Reports used numerous indicators as evidence of weak progress towards the development of knowledge economies in Arab States, and recommended the consolidation of knowledge acquisition and its effective utilization as one of three key drivers for progress. But the Arab States are not homogeneous and national differences in performance, trends and policy responses require more careful consideration. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have developed world levels of GDP per capita and yet investment in R&D remains at developing world levels.

The most recent international indicators related to research capacity have shown little or no improvement for GCC countries. For example, the 2006 Global Competitiveness Index (World Economic Forum) ranking of 125 countries showed competitive disadvantages for participating GCC countries that included quality of scientific research institutions (ranked between 49-117), industry / university collaborations (ranked 60-121), availability of scientists and engineers (ranked 60-96) and company spending on R&D (ranked 42-116). Additionally, the 2006 World Bank Knowledge Economy Index showed all GCC countries rated below the world average for the Innovation sub-index and the Education sub-index world rankings improved for the UAE and Bahrain only.

The development of research capacity and production is highly dependent on higher education in these countries as the private sector funds little R&D (UNDP 2002). With the exception of the UAE, funding of higher education is generally within or exceeds the range of 4-6% identified as optimal in developed economies (Steier 2003). And yet dissatisfaction with the quality of education is high and research productivity is low.


The UAE and Qatar have embraced crossborder delivery of higher education in recent years. The UAE has opened its doors to international providers and currently has at least 56 institutions in addition to the three federal institutions. Qatar has taken a different approach by inviting selected international institutions to establish single programs on one campus, with the stated vision of establishing Qatar as a leader in innovative education and research. The contribution to research capacity, production and utility of internationalized higher education is discussed. The development of research capacity, production and dissemination cannot be analyzed in isolation of the economic development policy environment. Several GCC countries have adopted a cluster-based development strategy by developing themed free zones and industrial clusters with the purpose of building critical mass in strategic industries. This strategy requires a number of key elements to be successful, including a highly skilled workforce of engineers, technicians and scientists, and strong basic research infrastructure in universities. The failure to concurrently develop these areas along with the physical infrastructure leaves some doubt on the sustainability of these ventures given the competitive global marketplace for skilled labor.

An integrated approach to developing research capacity is needed and, in the case of the GCC, the resources are available. A concerted effort is needed to develop university / industry / government interaction to establish a coherent, prioritized, well funded research strategy. A strategy is also needed to engage GCC nationals in the research endeavor, at scientific, technical and management levels, to ensure sustainability and relevance.
This can be achieved by developing research based graduate programs within countries and by providing incentives for nationals returning from overseas graduate degrees to enter research employment rather than government management positions. The engagement of nationals will ensure that research capacity is linked to the twin needs of economic development and national employment through entrepreneurship and innovation.