Knowledge is power

Qatar is leading the region with its ambitions for a knowledge-based economy, with ICT at the heart of its plans. Eliot Beer reports from Doha on how its plans fit into the global push for knowledge parks.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  May 11, 2008

Qatar is leading the region with its ambitions for a knowledge-based economy, with ICT at the heart of its plans. Eliot Beer reports from Doha on how its plans fit into the global push for knowledge parks.

Many states across the Middle East are making concerted efforts to diversify their economies away from dependency on oil. Bahrain has finance, Dubai has construction and tourism - and now Qatar is set to attempt the most ambitious transformation yet, to a knowledge-based economy.

The Gulf state has been making increasing amounts of noise about its long-term plans for diversification.

Last month, at the Knowledge Parks Conference, held in Doha and organised jointly by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and Qatar Foundation, state officials put out some of the most concrete statements yet on Qatar's plans for investment in knowledge-based industries, from education to research and ICT.

Our investment – 2.8% of GDP per year – is intended to make us the acknowledged research hub of the Middle Eastern region

"We are making this investment in education because we know that the wealth we are currently enjoying is unsustainable in its present form, based as it is on the export of raw material.

Apart from our gas, the only asset we possess is our people, and we realise that we must nurture this potential so that it can, in time, bring us a favourable return," stated Dr Ahmad Hasnah, associate vice president for higher education at Qatar Foundation, in his opening speech to the conference.

"Our investment - 2.8% of Gross Domestic Product per year - is intended to make us, first, an internationally recognised centre for scientific research, and, secondly, the acknowledged research hub of the Middle Eastern region. By this stage we expect to be already an exporter of knowledge, as well as gas," he continued.

Hasnah outlined Qatar's intended approach; starting with healthcare, environmental technology, computer science and nanotechnology, Qatar will invest its 2.8% of GDP in research project in these areas, and will then use the new Qatar Science and Technology Park - due to open later in 2008 - to commercialise some of this research.

This is a highly ambitious project, certainly more so than other diversification plans, which do not deal in the same intangible issues as developing a viable foundation for research and technological development. And it certainly made a fitting opening to the Knowledge Parks Conference.

The event drew together specialists from education, research and development, ICT and government, among other sectors, in order to share and develop ideas on the role of knowledge parks in society, and how to disseminate the benefits these centres bring.

A theme at the heart of almost every presentation at the event was technology - how it can be used to broaden the reach and sphere of influence of knowledge centres, and also how it can be made appropriate for populations and economies without highly-developed ICT infrastructures in place, or the capacity to develop them.

Interestingly, although this remains an issue, Rinalia Abdul Rahim, executive director of Global Knowledge Partnership, pointed out in her presentation that the digital divide has narrowed considerably in recent years: "The ratio of internet users between the developed and the developing world has narrowed from 73x to 8x up to 2004; the ratio of mobile phone subscribers has gone from 27x to 4x; fixed telephone lines from 11x to 4x."

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