Studies 18 January, 2015

Transformation of the Arab Gulf Economies into Knowledge Economies: Motivational Issues Related to the Tertiary Education Sector

Martin Hvidt

is professor at the Zayed University in Dubai, and formerly an associate professor at the Center for Contemporary Middle East Studies, University of Southern Denmark. For the last decade his research has focused on the economic development of the Gulf countries. He recently published a paper entitled “Economic Diversification in the GCC Countries: Past Record and Future Trends” (London School of Economics).


Over the past ten years, Arab Gulf states have made it an explicit aim to transform their economies into Knowledge Economies.[1] Former Minister of Economy and Trade in Qatar Sheikh Mohamed Ahmed Jassim Al Thani defined the motivations for this transition precisely, when he said: “[i]n recent years, the ‘knowledge economy’ concept has become an essential part of the Gulf states’ strategic vision and plans for economic diversification.”[2] However, changing economic platforms is no easy task for a state, and the success of a Knowledge Economy rests on the intricate relationship between knowledge, entrepreneurship, motivation, enabling economic and institutional regimes, and a great deal of other factors. The most common mistake for those transitioning (or aiming to transition) into a Knowledge Economy is the belief that the education of a state’s population will be sufficient to make the switch. The successful realization of a Knowledge Economy means fostering a special mindset among target societies, a mindset that focuses on building, on winning opportunities, on visions, and on creating a vibrant home base for globally competitive business.[3] As Stiglitz spells out, successfully establishing a Knowledge Economy requires a broader change in culture that focuses on citizens’ participation (in economic activities), ownership of processes and active learning so that motivation, aspirations and entrepreneurship will become intrinsic ethos of the individual.[4] The crux of the issue, and the focus of this paper, is on the individual as the key to this transition. Since the individual holds the key, any realization of a Knowledge Economy depends on the willingness of individuals to participate within it. Accordingly, this paper will analyze the challenges faced by the GCC states in transforming into Knowledge Economies.

In order to carry out its analysis, the sections of this paper are laid out as follows: First, the concept of the Knowledge Economy will be defined and quantified. Second, the performance of the GCC states on the Knowledge Economy Index will be ranked. This ranking will show that the GCC states perform relatively poorly when it comes to the indices of education and innovation. After these initial sections, the paper will go on to discuss and analyze the reasons for GCC states’ dismal performance on two major indices. This discussion will begin with an assessment of structural issues, in particular the quality and performance of the educational system at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Finally, the paper will turn to examining the individual as a key resource in building a Knowledge Economy, and turn to an analysis of what are identified as a lack of incentives to pursue learning and innovation, as the major stumbling block for Gulf Arab youth specifically, and a Knowledge Economy more generally. The paper uses for its analysis a combination of critical texts and interviews, which were undertaken in the region over the last decade, from the vantage point of a professor of Emirati students at Zayed University in Dubai.

To continue reading this Research Paper as a PDF, please click here. This paper was originally presented as part of the ACRPS' 2014 Conference of Arab Research Centers, devoted to the study of the Gulf Cooperation Council. You can read more about the conference here.

[1] This article is an edited version of an article titled: The State and the Knowledge Economy in the Arab Gulf countries: Structural and motivational challenges, forthcoming in The Muslim World and which is an outcome of the working group on “The State and Innovation in the Gulf” hosted by the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, 2013/14.

[2] Mohamed A. J. Althani, The Arab Spring & the Gulf States: Time to Embrace Change (London: Profile Books, 2012), 51. Also see: Govt. of Bahrain, Our Vision: The Economic Vision 2030 for Bahrain (Manama: Bahrain Economic Development Board, 2008), 20,; Govt. of UAE, UAE Vision 2021: United in Ambition and Determination, (Abu Dhabi: Governement of United Arab Emirates, 2010), section 3.1,; GSDP, Qatar National Vision 2030, July 2008 (Doha: General Secretariat For Development Planning, 2008), p. 6,

[3] Jean-François Rischard, The Knowledge-Based Economy: Worldwide Trends and New Ideas, Presentation November 26, 2007 at (Dubai School of Government, 2007).

[4] Joseph E. Stiglitz, Public Policy of a Knowledge Economy (London: Department for Trade and Industry and Center for Economic Policy Research, 1999), 6-8.