A decade of opportunities awaits Arab countries

China’s rise as an economic power offers the Middle East a strategic advantage through growing investment, with analysts predicting the region will return to its historic role as a bridge between Africa, Europe and Asia. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 27 December 2019

A decade of opportunities awaits Arab countries

  • Saudi Arabia and the UAE are expected to see some of the Middle East's first smart cities
  • China is the UAE’s largest non-oil trading partner even as UAE’s trade with other Asian countries keeps growing

ABU DHABI: From China’s emergence to the need for smart cities, the Middle East is well placed to benefit from what the future holds, according to a number of experts who attended the region’s first SALT Conference, held recently in Abu Dhabi.

Their verdict chimes in with the remarks made by the UAE’s Minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future Mohammed Al-Gergawi in his opening speech at Dubai’s Arab Strategy Forum earlier this month, where he spoke of the possibility of a “bright future,” provided Arab states take advantage of upcoming opportunities.

“Our region still has an increasing strategic importance and possesses huge human potential,” said Al-Gergawi, who noted that more than 100 million Arab youth were predicted to enter the labor market over the next 10 years.

Parag Khanna, managing partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario-based strategic global advisory firm, used the term “West Asia” to describe the Middle East while discussing the region’s prospects in the context of the Asian growth story.

“If this collection of countries in Asia, such as Pakistan and India, grow at just 5 percent, (they will have) a combined GDP equal to China’s present GDP in less than 10 years,” he said.

Among the key drivers of Asian financial growth and reform identified by Khanna are savings and consumption, local currency liquidity, capital-account liberalization, and purchasing-power parity.

“Asia has been getting a lot of things right in economic and structural reforms. What Japan and South Korea have already done, and China is doing with its capital account, means a lot of countries want to do that too and manage their balance of payments. This copycat effect is going to continue to play out,” he added.

“We are currently living in a tripolar economic world, with North America, Europe and Asia standing as very important pillars today.

“The mobility of people and the growing mobility of capital are going hand in hand. In the last 15 years, China accelerated (the pace of) its outbound investments into infrastructure.

“The regions that have benefited the most from Chinese outbound investments are Europe, Africa, West Asia, East Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt,” said Khanna.

Referring to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, he pointed out that the trend it represented was irreversible, adding that the regions that belonged together in the “Silk Road” spirit were going to continue to reconnect no matter what.

Today, China is the UAE’s largest  non-oil trading partner even as the UAE’s trade with Southeast and South Asia, particularly India, keeps growing.

“In terms of the geography of the UAE and Abu Dhabi, when historians talk about the ancient Silk Roads and the pre-colonial world, (we talk about) Afro-Eurasia,” Khanna added. “It captures Africa, Europe and Asia – and the 16th-century world was Afro-Eurasia.

“What’s happening today is the resurrection of this Afro-Eurasian system. So, there couldn’t be a better time to be based in the UAE and looking multi-directionally into how to be a connector and a bridge between these three very important demographic and economic regions.”

In his remarks at the future-focused Arab Strategic Forum, Al-Gergawi had also posed the crucial question: In which direction are (Arab) countries heading?

The answer, strictly from the standpoint of urban development, is smart cities.

Conceptually, a smart city integrates information and communication technology and various physical devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) network to optimize the efficiency of different operations and services and connect to citizens.

In recent years, interest in smart cities has grown in tandem with technological, economic and environmental changes such as the shift toward online retail and entertainment, climate change, greying societies, urban population growth, and pressures on public finances.

With 60 percent of the global population – or 5.5 billion people – expected to live in cities by 2050, a gradual move over to smart cities is inevitable, according to Thomas Bardawil, director at Plug and Play Smart Cities.

A $16 billion high-speed railway linking Makkah and Madinah highlights major changes in the ‘mobility industry’  as technology drives the
rise of smart cities. (AFP)

However, the way cities have been built, reflected in current levels of traffic, pollution and property prices, is “unsustainable,” said Bardawil. “We are not changing to smart cities because we think it’s cool. We are changing because we have to.”

In an interview with Arab News on the sidelines of the SALT Conference, Bardawil said that Europe, with its built infrastructure, did not hold as much promise in regard to smart-city development as the Middle East did with its vast swathes of unused land.

So, cities in the GCC region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are where he expects to see some of the first smart cities emerge, as well as in China, where “promising” work is currently underway.

Bardawil cited three industries that he works closely with as part of the value chain of a smart city and essential for its development: mobility, energy and real estate.

“There is a big shift in the mobility industry and new generations don’t seem to want to own cars anymore. So, we see mobility as a service becoming a major disruptor of the mobility industry, specifically for car manufacturers.

“They will not be about producing cars anymore. Rather they will be about how they can move cars around in the most efficient way possible,” he added.

As far as energy was concerned, a revolution was happening in the industry at the moment, and Bardawil said: “Producing one kilowatt of renewable energy today practically costs as much as producing it with traditional energy sources. The marginal cost of producing renewable energy is close to zero, with solar and wind.

“So, we see that everyone is going to be producing their own green energy and then sharing this energy with networks. People will be buying and selling energy off the grid.

“In a nutshell, it will bypass all these vertically integrated energy companies and all those middlemen that kept us from connecting to each other, and this is what we call ‘power to the people.’”

As people’s lifestyles evolved under the influence of sustainability, industries such as real estate would have to follow suit, Bardawil added. And with less human interaction thanks to innovation, he expected new technologies centered on the community as well as mixed-use buildings to gain ground.

“We build an ecosystem for innovation. We bring all the players together to connect them and provide them with information and the best practices because, at the end of the day, it’s about the knowledge.

“We need startups, governments, regulators and corporations, but it’s about doing it as a team. It’s all about the network.”

Bardawil pointed out that the construction of more efficient, resistant, sustainable and safe buildings using wood would soon be a reality.

“We are working on technology startups to actually make wood smart,” he said. “A smart city is one that has been thoroughly thought-out to be efficient, sustainable and able to adapt to the growing population, without having to compromise on the well-being of its people.”


● Can OPEC survive in a decarbonizing world economy?

● Will economic sanctions lead to Iran regime collapse?

● Will nuclear proliferation accelerate?

● Will water scarcity heighten security risks for the Middle East and North Africa?

● Will gas fields off the Cyprus-Lebanon-Egypt coasts promote regional stability?

● Will countries fragment in the 21st century?

● Is US dominance in military, economic and other spheres weakening?

● Will US-China tech conflicts become opportunities for collaboration?

● Will the world trade system survive the populist trend?

● Are the world’s major economies increasingly vulnerable to cyber warfare?

● Will steady growth with brief downturns define the global business cycle?

Source: Good Judgment and Arab Strategy Forum

Education in GCC region seeks a ‘new normal’ as coronavirus crisis drags on

Updated 13 August 2020

Education in GCC region seeks a ‘new normal’ as coronavirus crisis drags on

  • Schools across the bloc searching for a balance between health protection and instruction
  • Opinions differ over whether to reopen schools for the new academic year in September

DUBAI: For over a billion students around the world, something as mundane as going to school has been abruptly excised from their daily schedule for much of the academic year.

Following the spread of the coronavirus in early 2020, most countries closed their schools and other educational institutions in an effort to protect communities from the pandemic.

In February, Bahrain and Kuwait became the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to announce school closures. By mid-March, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE had suspended all educational institutions until further notice.

According to UN, 1.5 billion children and young people in 165 countries — or 87 percent of the world’s student population — were affected by such closures in March.

The challenge was even greater in the Arab region, where conflicts had already driven 13 million children and young people out of school. Global monitors confirmed that school closures caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) affected more than 100 million learners across the region.

Five months later, with no specific COVID-19 medicine or vaccine around the corner, this grim situation persists. As schools remain closed for the summer holidays, there are clear differences of opinion over whether to reopen them for the new academic year in September.

“All schools exist to serve a community,” said Darren Gale, principal of Horizon International School in Dubai, adding “there is no right or wrong” when it comes to making this decision.

Gale believes that schools are much more than their buildings and divisions. “Whilst aspects of the physicality of school may look slightly different, the culture, ethos and expectations will remain the same,” he said.

Governments in the Middle East continue to work together with educational institutions to determine an optimal strategy on reopening schools and universities. A decision to welcome back students or to continue virtual education will be based mainly on the strict measures and protocols in place by the end of summer.

A picture taken on March 15, 2020 shows school buses parked outside a closed school in Dubai. (AFP/File Photo)

After all, one thing all parties seem to agree on when determining education’s “new normal” is that safety comes first.

“At the forefront of any school’s decision to open fully or as part of a blended model will be community health and safety, the ability to manage and suppress the possibility of transmission, and the ability to give as meaningful learning experience as possible within the context of a school’s campus,” Gale told Arab News.

What children will need in September is “strength in relationships,” he said. “The only new in the ‘new normal’ will be arrivals, movement through the school, drop-off and some groupings for lessons.”

Considering children’s adaptive nature, activities such as repeatedly washing hands, good hygiene and wearing a mask are no longer novel,  but part of the daily routine when leaving the house, he said.

“We should be reassuring children what will remain the same rather than solely focusing on what will be different. There needs to be a balance if we are going to be role models to children of how to effectively manage change.”


GCC Education and COVID-19

- 87% Portion of world’s student population affected by school closures.

- 100m Students in Arab region affected by closures in March 2020.

- 50% Reduction in class size in many GCC schools due to reopen.

Expressing a view common among the region’s educators, Gale pointed out that schools should not be seen “as a standalone solution or the sole risk” to new outbreaks. Instead, schools are part of a community strategy to suppress the transmission of COVID-19, he said.

Bharat Mansukhani, managing director of International Schools Partnership (ISP) Middle East, says schools owned and operated by his group in the region have conducted school-specific risk assessments in preparation for the new year. Those assessments have been cross-checked against their schools in the US, Spain and Malaysia that have already reopened.

“There will be visible changes as the schools adhere to the guidelines provided by the authorities which will include, but not be limited to, temperature checks, masks for teachers and children aged 6 and above, smaller class cohorts, physical distancing, reduced bus capacity and an increased emphasis on washing hands and environment sanitization,” Mansukhani told Arab News.

ISP schools in the UAE and Qatar will focus on maximizing the time children can spend on-site while offering the broadest curriculum possible through a variety of flexible learning models, Mansukhani said.

“While our aim is to have all students on campus every day, our priority remains a healthy and safe environment for our entire community where learning is continuous and uninterrupted.”

A picture taken March 18, 2020 shows school buses parked in an open area after closure of schools in Riyadh amid measures to combat the novel COVID-19 coronavirus disease. (AFP/File Photo)

A similar mentality pervades nurseries catering to smaller age groups. Shaun Robison, governor of IDEA Nursery in the UAE, said the decision to reopen nurseries should be consistent with all other sectors in the country, noting that childcare centers, camps and hotel playgroups have reopened.

“Nurseries are an important function for a thriving economy that encourages dual-income households, and a female workforce,” he said. “Everyone is ready, and prepared to reopen.”

The same cannot be said of other GCC countries. While Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education has announced that schools will reopen on August 30, the decision depends on the health conditions in each of the country’s regions and communities closer to the start of the school year.

Each area will be issued a red, orange or green evaluation to indicate one of three scenarios: Full in-person attendance, a combination of in-person and online learning, and full-time virtual learning.

Class size will be reduced to 50 percent in various parts of the country depending on the number of COVID-19 cases in the community.

Tatweer Educational Transportation services Co., the ministry’s school transport provider, has urged students attending public schools that require their services for the upcoming school year to apply for seats ahead of time due to limited availability

A drone image taken on April 27, 2020, shows school buses parked in a lot in the Emirate of Dubai, during the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)

However, some parents would like distance learning to continue. “I really don’t think it’s a good idea right now when the world hasn’t yet found a cure. I’m not sure if I’ll be sending my son to school,” Amal Turkistani, a Saudi mother, told Arab News. “I would prefer that they continue schooling remotely, or part-time.”

Her view was seconded by another mother, Reham Al-Mistadi, who said: “It is difficult to have children attend school. They’re just kids, unaware of the importance of social distancing and using sanitizers.”

Meanwhile, Oman, which has reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the GCC bloc, has not settled on whether to open schools or continue remote learning. A national survey was launched on July 12 to monitor the immunity levels of residents in order to help the government reach an informed decision on reopening schools, colleges and other facilities.

While governments continue to search for an appropriate solution in the next few weeks that ensures a smooth start to the new academic year as well as the safety of young people, many schools are prepared to jump on the virtual train to learning once again, if needed.

“The flexible education models that we have planned for at each of our schools ensures that we can adapt to any change in guidance, as well as any change in the overall situation related to COVID-19, without disrupting the delivery of the high-quality education our schools are known for,” said Mansukhani.

“We believe that if our school communities work together and adhere to the protocols put in place, then we will all be in a good position to minimize the risk of infection.”

As for concerned parents in Dubai, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority released a statement giving private schools and parents the power to determine the best educational model for the new year. The options are physical attendance of all students, scheduling lessons in staggered shifts or to continue part-time or full-time distance learning.

Only time will tell what the outcome will be.