Education, a critical asset

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Khaleej Times, October 18, 2011

The second Horasis Global Arab Business Meeting took place in Ras al Khaimah over 9 -10th October.

It was opened by His Highness Shaikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, who called upon Arab businesses to look for innovation and invest in knowledge. In this he follows an old line of Arabic patronage, from the 9th century in fact, when the `House of Wisdom´ was created in the Abbassid-era in Baghdad, becoming a major influence during the Islamic Golden Age (770-1258 AD). Herein philosophers, scientists and engineers of the Islamic world contributed strongly to their region´s success.

In the first Global Arab Business Meeting held in September 2010 one concern that emerged (well before the uprisings of the youth that eventually led to the Arab Spring) was the impending doom of the region´s – mainly the Maghreb´s and the Levante´ – many unemployed people, especially the young. Delegates at the second Global Arab Business Meeting reiterated this, and noted that it was not correct to aggregate all the Arab nations under one simple index as each country possessed critical differences across several important criteria. Even so, `education´ has now to be a major investment thrust for all governments, instead of concentrating only in the tangibles, such as the infrastructures of new projects, though these do have their place in the development mix.

The elicitation, classifying and storing of knowledge is a slow process. Long ago Sun Tzu during the `Warring States Periods´ in China (475 -481 BC) wrote his Art of War. Almost rising above all his edicts is that of knowing… know the other, knowing the other´s disposition, and knowing one´s self – to combine all into a winning strategy. Today one major issue within the knowledge management community is how to gather new data and which old data to delete, how to manage the vast data banks and how then to explain results of analyses to others to enact the emergent strategy. Many people `in the loop´ wish to protect the data they have derived through their own work to further benefit their own futures. If they shared their data and solutions then all around could gain and we collectively could extend our energy to other more complex matters. This was a hope expressed by Shaikh Saud.

Speaking also at the meeting, Shaikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister of Foreign Trade, said “Greater economic integration is the best way to sustain peace, stability and prosperity in the Arab world”. This is indeed absolutely correct, but for many poor and relatively uneducated people across the region such a broad sentiment still remains a dream. Yet if they had been granted good education earlier they might have been able to grasp the good sense of broader regional economic integration – that was a theme suggested by Shri Kamal Nath, the Indian Minister for Urban Development.

Later in the meeting, Nabil Ali Alyousuf, Chairman, AlJal Capital, UAE noted that there was a distinct difference across the education sector between the public and private sectors. The private sector – represented by him as an investor – had to make a return on its investment and had thus concentrated on limited sectors having rapid payback – such as the niche markets of hospitality and tourism. These are sectors identified also by governments, but the latter had to undertake a broad approach, while the private sector could `cherry pick´ – and with great effect and efficiency he noted.

We note that the US and maybe some European governments are concerned to make clear the not-for-profit nature of private schooling. Yet those institutions´ managers are adamant that the profit element will allow them to plough-back cash into better provisions for the students. They also point out that they can have their conversion performance measured by referring to the incoming potential of students vs. their out-going achievement years later using standardised tests.

Throughout delegates repeatedly returned to the need for good education and for an opening up of regulations that restrict small private investors. The latter need to know that over the long term their investments in capital and human assets will be honoured by governments, and that the governments will instill both learning and a work ethic into their young children. In the meanwhile many governments will have to attract good overseas talent to jump-start the business of innovation and entrepreneurship that will lead on to the results hoped for by Shaikh Saud.

We must also allow for failure to become acceptable across the Arab world. All in all it was a very positive meeting. The Arab Spring seemed to be a spring-board that governments may be looking for to reinvent their education systems, local entrepreneurship and inventiveness that once made the Arab world great: perhaps a new renaissance is beginning.

Frank-Jürgen Richter is Founder and Chairman of Horasis that hosts the annual Global Arab Business Meeting