Higher Education, R&D, Economic Development, Regional and Global Interface


Antoine B. Zahlan


This paper identifies causes of the prevailing knowledge gap and consequent crises in development in Arab countries and suggests ways to bridge this gap. The first part of the paper presents data and analysis through which the nature and extent of the Arab knowledge gap can be pin-pointed. The second part discusses measures that, if adopted, would enable Arab countries, singly and collectively, to work towards overcoming their developmental crises through effective use of their human capital and resources. The central problem in the interface between higher education and R&D, and the application of knowledge, is that the former has no direct influence on the latter. The influence that systems of higher education exert on society and the economy is through the research that they produce and through the employment of their graduates. The limited amount of research and the high level of brain drain curtail this influence yet this situation can be readily reversed.


Although knowledge can be stored indefinitely on paper or discs, it is of little value unless appropriately educated and skilled persons can access and transform it.

Even then, knowledge is ineffective unless those using it are appropriately organised and supported by suitable institutions and policies. A knowledge gap between countries may arise because of a variety of reasons including:

A shortage of human capital
Limited access to recorded knowledge
An absence or weakness of the organisations necessary to enable human capital to function
An absence of the vital economic and science policies by which to enable the acquisition, accumulation and application of particular knowledge
An absence of the organisations and/or supporting institutions that provides the necessary legal and financial services
The Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) published a volume on scientific activities in all Islamic countries which account for roughly 25% of the world population. The OIC reports that their share of the world’s research output during the past decade was roughly 2.5% of world output.

Arab countries emerged from the colonial period with very low levels of human capital. After independence, all Arab states expanded their educational systems dramatically, investing heavily in infrastructure and study abroad programs. In 1949, there were only 10 universities in the Arab world and some 30,000 university graduates. Since then, over 300 universities have been established and an estimated 15 million students have graduated. Research and graduate work in Arab universities remain on a limited scale however: Teaching loads are high and research funding is almost non-existent. As a result, Arabs have continued to depend on studying abroad for their post-graduate education. According to UNESCO’s latest (1999) statistics, the total number of Arab students enrolled in universities outside the Arab world was 120,602, compared with 106,036 Chinese students and 52,932 Indian students. Clearly, then, there are far more Arabs undertaking foreign study than either Chinese or Indians. About 82% of these Arab students are pursuing post-graduate education in OECD countries. European universities are the major destination of Arab students.

This paper estimates that 12,000 Arabs earn PhDs abroad annually and that 85%, or more, of these brain drain. This is a loss to the Arab world of around 10,000 PhD graduates annually. There are 60,000 to 70,000 Arab PhDs working in the Arab world, compared with an estimated 150,000 abroad. Of the scientific human capital holding a PhD in the Arab world, only about 10,000 publish one or more scientific paper in a refereed international periodical per annum. Most of the remainder have no opportunity to become research active because of poor working conditions and a lack of R&D funding.

Planners expect to recover the cost of educating human capital from the contributions made by graduates to the national economy. Thus, the ability to employ graduates productively is of great economic importance. The brain drain phenomenon has shown that a country may educate its youth, but without employing this youth productively, it cannot derive the desired economic benefits from the investment in education. Furthermore, the Arab world is a vast market for technological investments. The oil and gas sector, the construction industry, transport, manufacturing industries, ICT and many others have led to massive investments of over $3,000 billion between 1980 and 2000. Yet there has not been a corresponding increase in per capita income. Once again, a more efficient use of human capital would produce better results. Clearly, the problem facing the Arab countries is not one of a shortage of capital, human capital or even R&D. A solution to this problem undoubtedly lies in a better utilisation of human capital.

R&D Funding

This paper demonstrates that Arab countries, along with the less developed countries (who happen to be the poorest in the world) allocate the lowest proportion of their GNP to R&D. The GCC countries are amongst the lowest supporters of R&D in the Arab world in the percentage of their GDP devoted to R&D. The major area where the Arab countries are in deficit in comparison with China and India is in research funding. The Chinese and Indian governments devote far more towards R&D than any Arab government. This is, of course, an important reason why the Arab brain drain is much higher, on a per capita basis, than that of China or India. China spends 10 times more than the Arab countries on R&D per inhabitant; India spends 3 times more.

International cooperation among Arab researchers

The extent of cooperation between researchers is reflected in the conduct of scientific research resulting in co-authored publications. There are major differences between Arab countries in the level and patterns of cooperation. In 1995 for example about 18 000 scientific meetings whose proceedings were published took place around the world. Scientists based in Arab countries do not have a satisfactory rate of participation in such meetings. They contributed only a total of 200 papers to the 18 000 meetings that were held worldwide in 1995. In other words the connectivity of Arab scientists with the international community is at a low level.

Scientists in the Maghreb exhibit a high level of international collaboration but a very low level of regional collaboration. The level of international collaboration in four Maghreb countries underwent some changes between 1990 and 1995: Algerian collaboration fell from 80% of all publications to 69%; Libya increased from 31% to 60% Morocco from 64% to 74% and Tunisia from 29% to 64%. The average rate of international collaboration for the Maghreb increased from 54% to 64% during this period. Scientists in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia published a total of 1,264 papers in 1995; of these some 804 were co-authored with scientists outside their own countries. Very surprisingly only 11 of the 804 publications involved scientists from two Maghreb countries. Of these 11 only one paper was conducted fully by Maghreb scientists. Regional collaboration is thus exceedingly meagre.

The rate of international co-authorship in the Mashreq countries is close to the world-wide average of 25%. Co-operation within the Mashreq is also very limited.

Arab Science and Technology Systems

The crisis in Arab development arises from the fact that Arab countries are not receiving the returns normally expected from their investments in human resources, R&D and Gross Fixed Capital Formation. This is largely due to the underdeveloped condition of national science and technology systems (S&T-System).

The main barriers to future development include:

Public sector policies of pursuing technology-free turnkey contracts with international Consulting Engineering Design Organisations (CEDOs) with limited attention paid to the acquisition of knowledge
The vertical integration of major national industrial firms and their heavy dependence on international Industry Related Services suppliers thereby giving little attention to national and regional organisations
The limited adoption of out-sourcing and sub-contracting by parastatals and private firms
The weaknesses of national and regional professional and scientific societies
The limited efforts to unpackage technology and undertake reverse engineering
The very limited number of science policy studies undertaken in the region
The limited number of science and technology parks around universities and technical schools to promote technology transfer to small and medium enterprises
The poor quality of statistical and technical information services
The low level of incentives to encourage innovation
The low level of mechanisms to promote the diffusion of best practice
The limited attention paid to the promotion of competition
The low level of concern for labour productivity and quality control


The following changes are recommended:

Efforts to bridge the knowledge gap in the region should be prioritised as they are straightforward, low in cost and would contribute immensely to national self reliance and prosperity
An essential measure to increasing employment and reducing cost consists in the training and certification of the labour force. This should be prioritised to increase labour skills and productivity in technologies which are in high demand and to increase their mobility through their endowment with certificates that reflect their levels of skills
Consulting and contracting organisations are basic instruments for converting investments in education and R&D into economic benefits. Thus measures to enable Arab consulting and contracting industry to increase market share should have high priority
There should be an increase in funding of scientific meetings since this would enable scientists to network more effectively
A concerted effort to un-package the ICT components of large contracts would promote local participation in technology transfer and innovation in this vital domain and should be encouraged