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Towards a New Arab Spring?

Towards a New Arab Spring?

Dr. Anand Kulkarni

While a large part of the Middle East continues to be beset by seemingly interminable and intractable political, social and economic problems, there may well be a new dawn of knowledge, science and technology — a sort of knowledge-based Arab Spring perhaps? A new era of development? Looking at two countries, Iran and Jordan, with rich histories of intellectual discourse, we see some emerging signs of promise.


Iran is seeking to build a post resource-based future, including a key role for knowledge and innovation. The phrase “economy of resistance” has also been coined to mean a resilient economy that has been adapting to sanctions, as shown in a recent UNESCO Science Report. This recent UNESCO Science Report finds that sanctions have forced Iran to innovate and reconcile research priorities with pressing needs and have challenged small to medium sized enterprises (SME’s) to develop local capabilities (Ashtarian 2015).

Iran’s 20 year Vision, its immediate past and new 5 year economic development plans (Ashtarian 2015, Financial Tribune 2015) outline a number of key features including:

  • Promoting knowledge-based companies in upstream and downstream oil and gas and diversifying the industrial base towards information, communications and aerospace sectors
  • Providing a greater focus on research productivity and output, emphasizing socio-economic needs, and more multidisciplinary studies
  • Promoting industrial clusters and commercializing knowledge via SME’s
  • Deploying backbone infrastructure including broadband and big data storage and sharing of information
  • Enabling universities to establish private companies
  • Establishing a National Elites Foundation to tap into the Iranian Diaspora, which includes targeting overseas Ph.D graduates, academics, managers and entrepreneurs. (Interestingly though, the 2016-2021 plan seems to focus more on retaining people.)
  • Promoting Exports
  • Developing Renewable Energy

The UNESCO report charts Iran’s performance in recent years, noting rapid growth in tertiary enrollment. Very encouragingly, some 48% of tertiary students are females (a little less than the higher female/male ratio in 2007). There has been an improvement in businesses undertaking research and development, growth in the number of articles published and development of particular core strengths in nanotechnology. The growing involvement of females in the knowledge sector, especially in science and associated fields, is particularly noteworthy and warrants further attention. Women comprise about two-thirds of medical students and one-third of Ph.D graduates, strongly oriented to health, natural sciences, agriculture, humanities and arts. However, as in most Middle Eastern countries (and elsewhere), engineering is dominated by males although it is growing in interest for females (Ashtarian 2015).

Overall, despite of these emerging areas of capability, Iran is still ranked 106th out of 141 countries on the 2015 Global Innovation Index ranking (Cornell Uni, INSEAD and WIPO 2015). The key weaknesses, in particular, are the market sophistication ranked 139th (which includes access to credit, investment environment and trade and competition — no doubt about sanctions playing a role here) and business sophistication ranked 130th (which includes knowledge workers at 109th and Innovation linkages or collaboration at 107th). Iran also needs to pay attention to its basic foundational institutions (political and business environment), regulatory frameworks and accountability, transparency and governance. It is ranked 125th on political environment, 125th on regulatory environment and 93rd on Business Environment, with an overall ranking on these institutions of 126th (Cornell Uni, INSEAD and WIPO 2015).

Apart from weaknesses in the overall environment which constrain business, innovation and entrepreneurship from flourishing, Iran lacks a “connected” economy; both domestically and internationally, in knowledge dimensions.

It fares relatively poorly on knowledge diffusion (135th) and knowledge absorption (137th); which is in essence, knowledge from abroad. This suggests a cocooned and insular economy, clearly reflecting in parts that it is isolated from the world and also lacks a fully functioning integrated innovation system. Moreover, Iran’s position on knowledge impact (114th) is quite weak. This measures factors such as productivity and quality, although it should be noted that at 28th place, Iran performs well in high technology manufactures (Cornell Uni, INSEAD and WIPO 2015).

Consistent with our earlier discussion, Iran performs relatively well on Human Capital and Research, ranked 46th, according to the Global Innovation Rankings. It depicts a strong performance on tertiary education enrollment (48th) and incredibly, is number 1 in the world for science and engineering graduates. On knowledge and technology outputs, Iran is ranked 90th (articles produced and domestic patents), so direct outputs from the Higher Educational apparatus are not as evident as in other countries (Cornell Uni, INSEAD and WIPO 2015).

In short, what appears to be happening is that, while some of the knowledge foundations look solid, the diffusion and translation of knowledge into wider economic and social gains is not occurring as strongly.

However, it should be noted that Iran’s apparently positive performance of graduates in science and engineering is not translated into strong performance on Global University Rankings. According to the QS 2015-2016 Global University Rankings, the Sharif University of Technology is the best ranked Iranian Institution placed between 471-480th place (and there are only two ranked Iranian Universities) in the world out of 700 plus institutions (QS 2015-2016). This suggests that, despite its strong performance in producing science and engineering graduates, Iran does not possess the broader attributes that give rise to high university rankings such as breadth of performance in many disciplines, research outputs, presence of foreign academic staff and students. The highest rankings are still the domain of the major Western powers, especially US and UK. It takes time and investments to climb university rankings, so what happens over the next decade in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries will be worth watching.

Ashtarian (2015) also points to weaknesses more specifically in science and technology performance in Iran, including the still small business sector contribution to R&D (just 0.8% of GDP) and the limited business’ spin-off’s from research, which also point to considerable Intellectual Property and associated issues that need to be addressed.

Yet, we should be very careful not to unduly “sugar coat” things. Despite some promising signs in the empowerment of women in Higher Education, this is certainly not an economy-wide or society-wide picture. For example, Iran is ranked 114th out of 188 countries on the UN gender inequality index. It still suffers significant weaknesses in labour force participation of women especially, high maternal mortality rates and lack of representation in the nation’s body politic among other things (UN 2015).


Jordan is an interesting case. According to the Global Innovation Ranking (Cornell Uni, INSEAD and WIPO 2015), Jordan is considered an innovation outlier — meaning that its performance on innovation is better than would be expected, according to its overall level of economic development. Overall, Jordan is 75th out of 141 countries putting it substantially higher than Iran. Its best performance is in labour market flexibility, in fact number 1 in the world, and also records solid “middling” positions on tertiary education (60th), Human Capital and Research (81st), Knowledge absorption (67th), Knowledge and technology output (83rd), knowledge impact (75th; with an especially good rank for productivity i.e. 25th), 76th for business sophistication and encouragingly 69th on creative outputs (which includes trademarks, new ICT and business models, cultural exports, film and TV). Compared to Iran, Jordan is a more connected economy. It is 36th in the world on innovation linkages, i.e. core collaborations such as university and research collaboration and cluster development.

However, Jordan is at the lower end of the scale on market sophistication (118th with access to credit 132nd, for example) and secondary education (111th), suggesting that some of the fundamental enablers still require attention (Cornell Uni, INSEAD and WIPO 2015). Overall Jordan is on a positive trajectory in terms of innovation. What is instructive is that women represent more than 4 out of 10 researchers employed in medicine and health sciences, one of the highest in the Arab world, but this ratio falls away to 25.7% in natural sciences and less than 20% in engineering and agricultural sciences. Overall, females represent an impressive 65% of graduates in science and 73.4% in agriculture although, only 13.4% in engineering. However, these numbers need to be put into context. For both genders, the share of students graduating in science, engineering and agriculture, out of all fields, is only 11.9%, making Jordan the weakest performer among Arab States (Zou’bi et al 2015).

Jordan’s National Science, Technology and Innovation policy and Strategy (2013-2017) has a number of key aims and elements including (Zou’bi et al 2015):

  • Promoting Science culture in education and Excellence in skills formation
  • Linking Research to Development needs
  • Building Knowledge networks among and between constituent players in industry and research
  • Commercializing R&D

Key elements of the framework include investment in science and technology infrastructure (including being home to the region’s first Synchrotron), human resource development, directing research priorities towards water, energy and food, and reaching out to the Diaspora (Zou’bi et al 2015).

Overall, in a region which suffers more than its share of disharmony, there is some sort of promise of a new era, at least in the countries we have examined here; based on ideas, knowledge and science. This, however, is not in any way to diminish the immense challenges facing the nations of the Middle East. Much more needs to be done to raise empowerment of females, drawing on some of the lessons and experiences of women in the tertiary education sector, strengthen core institutions, accountability and governance, promote coherent innovation systems and engage in meaningful dialogue abroad in the world of ideas (so that the rest of the world also reaches in).

Dr Anand Kulkarni is the Senior Manager Planning and Research RMIT University in Melbourne Australia overseeing planning, analysis and strategic projects for the University. Anand has previously held Senior Management and Executive roles in the State and Federal Governments of Australia leading large scale policy development. Anand has particular research interests in the Indian Economy, innovation and industry development. Anand is also a Fellow at the Centre For Policy Development in Australia. Anand holds Honors, Masters and Ph.D in Economics.


  • Ashtarian K 2015 “Iran” in UNESCO Science Report Towards 2030
  • Cornell University, INSEAD and WIPO 2015 The Global Innovation Index 2015: Effective Innovation Policies for Development
  • United Nations 2015 Human Development Report: Work for Human Development
  • Zou’bi M, Mohamed-Nour S, El-Kharraz J and Hassan N 2015 “The Arab States” in UNESCO Science Report Towards 2030

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