Frontier Technologies for the Gulf Region


The rapid pace of innovation and technology development is changing our lives constantly.  From the ubiquitous availability of mobile phones worldwide to our growing knowledge of human genetics, we are living in a time of great opportunity and uncertainty.   Societies around the world embrace the freedom and access to information that technology provides, while growing concerned that technology and innovation will make them professionally redundant or socially isolated.   And for the first time in world history, this is a shared challenge across geographies, incomes and demographics.   

The Arab region consists of many different types of nations, peoples and levels of economic development.  It therefore provides us with a microcosm for the impact of technology and innovation on the world.   A major goal of leaders in the region is to create strategic awareness among policy makers in the Arab governments on the opportunities offered by technology and innovation in accelerating and aligning national and regional efforts towards sustainable and inclusive development, as well as challenges imposed by technology and its role in development. 

Progress in smart phones, 3D printers, Social media, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, online education, digital economy, renewable and efficient energy technologies, water saving and irrigation technology, food production, smart cities, internet of things, climate change mitigation technologies, and biotechnologies, are all but a sample of the ample progress the region has achieved in and because of technology, taking in many cases a revolutionary and disruptive style as opposed to evolutionary or routine. 

Just like technology, innovation is a crucial element in the realization of inclusive and sustainable socioeconomic development. Innovation supports the development, adaptation and implementation of these technologies; however, it also plays a role beyond technology and technological products, in services, policies, programs, or processes geared toward the achievement of the SDGs on social, economic, environmental and political fronts, at all levels of society. Such innovation could focus on the development of technology or could use technology as support mechanism.  

Acknowledging these advancements, the opportunities they present and the challenges they may pose, is a key factor for establishing regional policy recommendations. What remains to be seen are the implications of these technological advancements to the Arab region on many counts including, but not limited to, job creation, social interaction, mobility of people, economic transacting and national cultural identities. 

Governments in the Arab Region should embrace a multi-step, multi-year plan of action for new categories of technologies as they arise.  The impact of genetic engineering will be very different than the impact of the Internet.  And yet, we cannot know exactly what the impact will be, or when it will take effect.   Nations, with their economic, social and political diversity, need to formalize the study of innovation and standardize a policy framework through which a technology can be viewed from lab to market, or from concept to ubiquitous availability.   

The rapid dispersion of mobile phones provides an important case study in the role of governments to manage innovation – or completely miss it.  According to researchers Diego Cumin and Martin Mestieri, the speed with which ideas zip around the world has increased. The “adoption lag”, or the average time it takes poor countries to adopt a technology, has shorted from 100 years in 1779 to just 13 years with mobile phone.   In addition, the nature of this adoption could not have been predicted.  When governments began approving mobile phones, they focused on the phone, and not the mobile.  They did not foresee the Internet, or social media, becoming the primary use of the devices.   

Policy makers in the Arab region must improve their R&D capabilities to stay ahead of new innovations and technologies as they become publicly known.   In addition to research agencies, there is a need for policy and technology analysts who can spot trends and predict, with some accuracy, the potential disruption caused by innovation.  The more policy makers can understand the underlying science and the business applications of technology, the more likely they are to manage its impact appropriately.   

Beyond R&D and analysis, policy makers in the Arab region must be able to envision the impact of specific technologies on their agencies and the sector of society they serve.  For example, educators must envision how the next generation of the Internet, Big Data and artificial intelligence will do for academic instruction and pacing, while also moving from paper textbooks to web-based content.  In health care, digital medical records, smart devices and genetics are all going to have a growing impact on how humans are treated.  And new technologies like 3D printing and drones could create entire new industries in the Arab region.   

Lastly, policy makers will have to broadly examine how to make the use of technology more efficient and available.  For example, mandating digital health records, once they are available, provides nations with important economies of scale to reduce the cost of health care and improve efficiency.    Or ensuring that skills training is available for new technologies so as to employ displaced workers.   

Technology and innovation will have an important impact on the economic issues facing the Arab region, from digitization, to direct jobs created and disrupted by ICT, and the importance of access to capital to create a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem in new industries. But technology and innovation will also impact human issues, from human development, socialization and inclusion, to women’s empowerment, culture and youth.   

Every technology and innovation discussed in the news media today will apply to the people and economies of the Arab region, but many have not yet been applied – either by external companies or regional players.  The next stage of frontier technology integration in the Arab region will call for this – experimentation, application, entrepreneurship, and the right policy framework to support it. 




Managing Technologies Impact  

Transformation with Technology 

Technology as a Tool  

Technology in a Diverse Region 

Developing A Common Vision for Tech & Innovation 

Public Policy for Technology 

Creating a Conceptual Innovation Framework for the Arab Region

Environmental Footprint 

Investment Climate for Technology Integration 

Global Technology Entrepreneurship Movement 

Emerging Entrepreneurship for the GCC

Economic Transformation in the Arab Region 

Impact of Technology & Innovation in the Region  

Achieving SDG 1: Eradicating extreme poverty 

Achieving SDG 8: Good Jobs and Economic Growth 

Achieving SDG 9: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure

Achieving SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production 

Impact of Technology & Innovation in Social Issues 

Achieving SDG 1: Eradicate extreme poverty 

Achieving SDG 3: Good Health  

Achieving SDG 4: Quality Education 

Achieving SDG 5: Gender Equality 

Achieving SDG 9: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure  

Achieving SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities 

Achieving SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities 

The Role of Technology and Innovation to Achieve the 2030 Agenda 

Addressing the Environment & Climate Change 

Addressing Food Security 

Improving Water Usage and Energy Efficiency 

The Cross-Cutting Impact of Technology & Innovation  

Achieving SDG 9: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure

Achieving SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities 

Measuring and Evaluating Technology and Innovation for SDGs  

Global & Regional Policy & Programming Trends 

Technology & Innovation Policy in the United States 

Technology & Innovation Policy in Asia 

Technology & Innovation Policy in Europe 

Technology & Innovation Policy in the Middle East 

Regional Analysis 

Best Practices in Technology Transfer 

Recommendations – Policy 

Recommendations – Process 



I. Introduction 


The world is going through an unprecedented burst of innovation, brought on rapidly increasing computing power as the planet’s computers and networks connect.    At the 2018 World Economic Forum, nearly every world leader highlighted the opportunities and challenges brought upon by this transformation, from blockchain and robotics to disruption, electoral interference and social isolation.  For the Arab region, the rise of the Internet, and its computational power, could tie the region together in ways that few eras have done before.   Online commerce is removing local barriers and connecting disparate buyers and sellers to each other.  Through social media, an entire Arab region is coming together to communicate, discuss, share and fight in ways that were not possible till recently.  And because of research breakthroughs and innovations in the areas of life sciences and agriculture, the Arab region could come together more closely to solve common challenges of food security, better public health, cleaner air and water.  In addition, this innovation and technology revolution could create economic opportunities for post-conflict nations, emerging economics and the economic diversification for the oil-rich Gulf region. 

In this paper, we discuss the two tracks of technology and innovation, the role they will play in the social and economic development of the Arab region, and their quest to achieve as many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)i as possibly by 2030.   In this paper, technology is defined mostly as information technology, including mobile applications, the Internet and computing power (cloud), converging with new frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence and data analytics.  Innovation is referred to in the context of life sciences, physical sciences and breakthrough research.  Every day there is growing overlap between these fields. But for the purposes of this paper, we have separated the two slightly.   


I A. Managing Technology’s Impact 

In order for the Arab nations to maximize the impact of technology on society, nation states and the region in a positive and productive manner, they must view innovation through a series of four transitional steps to be undertaken by the national institutions of each Arab nation separately.  It is through these steps that societies can best manage the impact of innovation and technology in order to make it helpful and positive, rather than negative and harmful.  Every nation in the world is facing these same steps and challenges in order to manage the disruption of technology.  

Steps for innovation transformation in the Arab region:   

  1. Understand the nature of frontier technologies and innovations  
  2. Improve capacities to utilize new technologies and innovations 
  3. Organize society around new innovations to manage their impact 
  4. Improve the infrastructure, policies, and frameworks to maximize technology’s impact on society 

The first step is to develop greater knowledge and understanding of frontier technologies and innovations in order to stay ahead of them from a societal and policy perspective.  We are in the middle of a period of great innovation driven by the expanding capabilities of computing technology – impacting the growth of the Internet, mobile communication, Big Data and even sectors like health care, life sciences and agriculture.  The recent price fluctuations of bitcoin, based on blockchain technology, provide a stark example of the challenges facing governments – most of whom do not understand the technology or its impact and are standing by while the market races ahead.  

Some, such as the World Economic Forum, have referred to this as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, while others refer to this as Industry 3.0.  There are some innovations, particularly in health care and cyber security, where Arab nations are playing a leading role, even though most current technology breakthrough are coming from outside the Arab region.   The investments by the United Arab Emirates, including the Dubai Health Care City and the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi partnership, have put the country at the top of the Philip’s Future Health Indexii – a measure of global adoption of connected healthcare.  In cybersecurity, according to PricewaterhouseCoopersiii, a consultancy, the countries of the Arab world suffer 6% more cyber-attacks than the rest of the world.  This has led to greater local investment in cyber-security technologies.  So, a concerted effort to understand the underlying technology, its implications in the long and short-term, and how to customize for local communities, is critical. 

The second step is to train society to utilize new innovations and technologies.  For example, we know that the Internet is changing how society learns.  The education sector must transform itself into a provider of much more technical education than it currently does.  Only the most elite Arab private schools currently offer significant coding programs or have modern scientific lab facilities.   In addition to the youth, there must be retraining opportunities provided to the adult workforce.   As New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, has said in his latest book, “Thank You for Being Late”iv, even adults must be prepared to retrain themselves every few years, so they can continue careers in industries as they are being disrupted.  In parts of the Arab world, it is often the most educated that have the highest levels of unemployment, because of the limited opportunities available to them.  The role of government in this phase is often to put its most creative and educated citizens to work on new technologies in lieu of existing training programs and workforces. 

The third step is to organize society around new technologies to manage their impact most positively.  This is probably the hardest step in the process.  While we have the ability to scout and understand technology and to input new curriculum and trainings into the education system, we have a much harder time changing societal behavior, which this step requires.  We must address issues of institutional process and norms, as well as the regulatory and policy systems that exist to manage technology and its applications.  For example, schools and universities must embrace online learning as an important means of teaching.  Rather than organizing school around the physical presence of a classroom and textbooks, educators must transition to the use of tablets, phones and laptops to share content, and acknowledge that many students will learn remotely.    In health care, the system is constantly adjusting to new drugs and therapies.  In the future, genetic engineering and telemedicine with speed up that transformation.   In this phase of technological transformation, the role of government is often to regulate a common playing field for use of new technologies and innovations as a means of protecting consumers, domestic industries and critical systems.   

Fourth, as societies transform their norms and behaviors to embrace innovation, they must use the power of government and trusted institutions to maximize the efficiency with which the technology and innovation is used.  Institutions must address issues of access, price, security, appropriateness and preparing for the transformation that innovation will cause to the existing status quo.  As education moves online and virtual, schools and universities will have to make computers and tablets readily available, provide wi-fi access and transform the structure of the day.  In agriculture, governments might have to arrange low-cost loans or subsidies to move farmers to healthier, more sustainable farming methods that ultimately lead to a healthier environment and population faster.   The role of government is this phase is often exemplified by the recent debate in the United States about net neutrality.  Fundamentally, this is a discussion about the role of government as traffic cop for the Internet.  Some believe that government should make content widely accessible, while others believe that costs may go down if people must select their own content.  This is an example of Stage 4 because it is a discussion that can only occur after Internet penetration was nearly complete.    


 New Industrial Model


Step One / The Barabas Group & Equal Innovation, 2016 Global State of Technology

I B. Transformation with Technology 

In every sector of life in the Arab region, technology and innovation will be transformative.  For the post-conflict nations of the Arab region, technology provides opportunities for empowerment, access to information and economic opportunity.  In their context, technology and innovation provide a means to rebuild communities with modern tools, such as 4G networks, to rapidly catch up to the rest of the world, or to invest in sustainable tools, such as water efficient seed varieties that can prevent over-reliance on underground water sources or prevent desertification. For the energy-rich nations of the Gulf, technology will be a means by which to make their key industries more efficient, and to use their wealth to invest in new technologies that will diversify their economies.   For other nations, such as Tunisia and Morocco, there is an opportunity to create technology clusters that leverage the skills of the local workforce.  Both of these nations can leverage their relative proximity to Europe to become destinations for technology investment in business processing, IT startups and local call centers.  In nations like Jordan, the technology startup community is growing steadily because of its location close to Europe and its close ties to America.  By leveraging their competitive advantages, these nations are creating local technology economies.  Through the Internet and mobile, there is a connectivity they can leverage to do business across the Arab region as never before. 

Similarly, in health care, targeted research about the genetic similarities of the Arab population, combined with knowledge about their traditions and diet, is making the treatment of health problems in the Arab world more relevant and useful.  This story is being told in every other sector as well, from agriculture to energy and infrastructure. 

With nearly all technologies and innovations, there is always the possibility of negative consequences.  We are certainly seeing this with the use of social media as a means of spreading false information, running criminal schemes and recruiting terrorists.  As governments are planning the four steps for their countries, the potential negative implications of technology and innovation must address forthright.  

Innovation is more than just technology and ICT.  Today, most innovation involves the use of technology to improve products and services in other fields.   In education and workforce development, artificial intelligence and data analytics are changing the way people learn and retain knowledge.  In life sciences, drug development costs are dropping significantly because of computer-aided drug design and genetic modification software like CRISPR.  In nearly all sectors, the innovation that is occurring is far more relevant than social media and e-commerce, because it will affect our abilities to work, live healthy and have a sustainable planet. 

In the Arab region, becoming more innovative is going to be as important as using computer technologies.  The capability to innovate involves making a greater investment in research & development (R&D) by Arab governments and private companies, creating the capability of private companies and capital to invest in emerging technologies, and a workforce that can integrate the technology, innovation and new business models to create a more vibrant economy and active society.  

I C. Technology as Tool 

However, as Arab nations ponder the implications of change, technology is simply a tool used by people to facilitate and speed change.  Certainly, these tools can lead to enormous change in the world, but they are often simply a more effective way to achieve a goal, and therefore catch on quickly.  For example, social media is a faster way to share photos than photo albums, but it is also a faster way to recruit unknowing victims to criminal and terrorist activities.  Government policy makers and community leaders should start with the premise that technology is a tool that will be utilized to change every sector.   And like any tool, it must be taught, correctly, to citizens through formal and informal means.   

Currently, the world’s fastest job growth is coming in the area of data sciences and analytics, or Big Data.  In the Arab region, research by Equal Innovation indicates there are only 12 universities that offer data analytics degrees.  Without the development of training programs for these new tools, the Arab region will be left behind.  In addition to more university programs for young people, members of the adult workforce will need to understand simple tools, like Google Analytics, to know how their company’s websites are doing, for example. 

I D. Technology in a diverse region 

The Arab region is a group of nations that fall into multiple categories.  There are certain nations that are in a post-conflict state of rebuilding.  And the region includes some of the wealthiest nations in the world.   For the region to utilize technology most effectively for economic and social impact, it will need to collaborate in areas where there is joint opportunity and take separate paths when necessary.  For example, the countries that are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have an opportunity to invest significantly more of their national budgets on R&D, patent creation and innovation ecosystems. They can do so domestically, and in partnership with one another, given the low barriers to migration, good capital available for investment and their strong infrastructure.  In addition, they have a long history of hosting migrants from around the world.  For other nations, such as Egypt and Jordan, the focus should remain on leveraging the skills of their large workforces and strong relationships with the West to create strong business process outsourcing and startup support ecosystems.    

In post-conflict nations, technology will be most important as a means of providing key information – in health care, education and for public safety, to citizens to ensure their safety and productivity.   As the public begins returning to traditional activities such as education, small business ownership, professional careers and community traditions, technology becomes the easiest way to communicate.   In addition, there will be an opportunity for donor nations and local investors, that are supporting reconstruction to jump to advanced material.  Solar energy accounts for about 3% of the energy of the Arab region today, according to the World Bankvi, and yet nations like Jordan receive sunlight for nearly 330 days a year.   By rebuilding nations with new, sustainable technologies such as water-efficient toilets, solar panels and LEED building design, many nations of the Arab region (not just post-conflict) can reduce costs and improve energy efficiency. 


Internet Penetration 

Source:; World Bankvii 

As the chart above confirms, there is near complete Internet penetration in the wealthier countries of the Arab region, while even those with emerging economies, such as Jordan and Morocco, have low Internet penetration by the standards of middle income countries.  Internet penetration, according to the World Bank, is a leading indicator of a country’s ability to participate in the global economy.  A first step in a technology and innovation agenda would therefore be to build Internet penetration through broadband, mobile networks and public WIFI.   


I E. Developing A Common Vision for Technology & Innovation 

As governments in the region continue to develop policies and programs to promote technology for development, a key for collaboration will be to emphasize technology opportunities that are common throughout the region.  At first glance, it is hard to see where a post-conflict society could have much in common with a Gulf oil-producer.  And yet, finding common areas creates pressure for change and motivation for resolving thorny issues between nation states.  There are several areas where a common vision can be created, including: 

  • Local startups creating content related to the preservation and promotion of Arab culture, language and arts.  Most of the content being created in the Arab world, for Arab populations, remains in the realm of international companies.  While Arab-language content is now the 4th largest, by language, in the world, it remains on the Arab region sites of American companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon.  Indeed, the acquisition of by Amazon for $580 million was the largest acquisition of an Arab-launched technology companyviii.   There is enormous opportunity in education, technical content, arts, and marketing to use technology to create consumer businesses with Arab-centric content on startups and companies from the region, to reach the majority of Arab citizens who lack English fluency.  In addition, there is a chance to create local call centers and business operations that target the Arab customers for the Fortune 1000.   
  • R&D and innovation to resolve public health crises around the region.  While countries may have differing geopolitical viewpoints, there is no question that health problems like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and heart disease are common throughout the region to an alarming degree.  A common agenda to fight these concerns, through research, government funding and a joint public health campaign using social media and technology, could have an enormous effect on quality of life. 


 R&D Spend


Source:; UNESCO Institute of Statisticsix  

  • Migration of talented workers.  Although this is trickier, a broader, pan-Arab approach to migration would resolve the problem of finding talented workers in the region.  Egypt, for example, has 250,000 of the region’s 600,000 engineers, according to the Arab Engineers Associationx, while the Gulf countries have few of Arab origin.   A better migration plan could match technical talent with growing technology companies. 
  • Access to capital for good ideas and entrepreneurs regardless of location.  Today, there is strong technology startup activity in Lebanon and Jordan, in addition to the United Arab Emirates. And yet, capital often faces constraints to invest in startups in other countries of the region, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  This is partially why those nations have not developed robust startup environments.  Addressing this challenge by finding ways to allow cross-border investment and allow crowdfunding of Arab-centric technology startups would unlock urgent capital for the region’s technology community.  In particular, the Gulf nations have the ability to jump start their own innovation economies without relying on foreign direct investment.    According to the Dubai-based Research and Marketsxi, there are 480,000 high net worth individuals with a combined wealth of $2.5 trillion live in the Middle East. And yet, only $165 billion is tied up in venture capital firms and foundations, with a majority of capital is most likely allocated to non-regional venture capital funds and foundations. 
  • A regional approach will also create economies of scale that will also reduce the costs of technology acquisition, scalable business models and broader regional collaboration.  
  • Negative externalities related to technology, such as the misuse of social media, can also be spotted quicker through a regional collaboration approach, whereby authorities and security agencies can better track trends and online activity before it spreads. 



I F. Public Policy for Technology 

New technologies, even minor “breakthroughs” like Uber, have the potential to change society and human behavior.  A key role for policy makers, political leaders and community activists is to create the rules for the fair, and safe use of these new technologies as they disperse through society.  Uber’s model of using private drivers that are connected to potential passengers through GPS on their mobile phones, has disrupted the transportation industry by creating new, low-cost transit for people. At the same time, the company has trampled on long-standing regulations aimed at regulating the taxi industry and ensuring safety for citizens.  Governments must learn to manage the positive and negative that come with these technologies.  There are three specific strategies that governments must undertake to prepare for the impact of technology: 

  1. Plan for the impact of technologies while they are still in their infancy.   Once it is clear that a technology can be transformative, government policy makers should begin to think about the impact, and what “gates” must be placed along the way.  This is not to stifle innovation or the growth of new companies, but to prepare for the challenges ahead.  An important example of this is CRISPRxii, which is a gene editing technology developed in the United States that has the potential, to one day, allow people to “edit” the genes in their future offspring.  This technology may help us to eliminate genes associated with specific diseases and ease suffering.  But it may also lead to “designer babies” that discriminate against people based on appearance, religion or other factors.  Governments must weigh the pros and cons of this and be involved at each stage of the technology’s development.
  2. Prepare for disruption, displacement and distortion.  Innovations such as Uber are eliminating traditional taxi drivers, while artificial intelligence-driven chatbots that can access enormous volumes of data are replacing customer service representatives for large companies and consumer website.  Indeed, this is transforming life in developed countries worldwide, as well as emerging markets like India and Philippines, where call centers are adjusting their models.  The use of technology and innovation is changing business models, bankrupting traditional companies, and throwing workers out of steady income.  In addition, new media platforms are distorting content and creating confusion between fact and fiction.  Policy makers must monitor the potential impact of early stage technologies to plan for such disruption, displacement and distortion.
  3. Organize society for the challenges presented by technology.  Government departments should be constantly planning for ways in which technology will change their sector – whether its online learning or water desalination technologies.  Some of the most common strategies to do this are to leverage high-level advisory panels of outside experts that share knowledge about the spread of technology alongside internal working groups that create plans and programs along the same lines.  In addition, recruitment of qualified bureaucrats to address the impact of technology is constantly needed. 

I G. Creating a Conceptual Innovation Framework for the Arab Region 

In order to create an effective policy framework for the Arab region, several critical questions must be answered about the capacity of the region to innovate vs. the capacity of the region to integrate innovation and technology developed externally.  Worldwide, according to a study completed by the Alliance for American Manufacturingxiii, nearly 60% of the innovations in the world, as measured by patent filings, relate to manufacturing and the creation of new products for society.  While innovation is often thought of as information technology and the Internet, much more of it is related to breakthroughs in manufacturing process, materials, chemical and biological compounds and the use of energy. A regional innovation strategy would therefore look at multiple components related to manufacturing in addition to ICT. 

Industries must look at the sectors of the economy where they have a manufacturing base, and partnerships with universities to fund new research and innovation. 

In the area of Internet and communications technologies, countries must ask where they can innovate in a way that is relevant.  As was discussed earlier, there remains an enormous opportunity to innovate for the Arab-centric content and startup businesses related to that.  But most of this will be business development, not innovation.  The areas where the Arab region can innovative will be energy and health care. 

Lastly, the Arab region technology and innovation strategy should have a long-term goal of creating a local manufacturing base for jobs creation, innovation and long-term economic diversification.  

I H. Environmental Footprint 

Although the Arab region is thought of as a leader in the oil & gas industry, and therefore, less willing to look at renewable energy sources, the reality is the Gulf region and North Africa countries have recognized their capacity to harness solar, wind and hydropower as well, and have begun to invest in those technologies.  An innovation and technology strategy for the region must include technologies to reduce environmental footprints. 

There must be a focus on reducing consumption of non-biodegradable substances and materials, along with healthier consumption of food. 

There must be more efficient use of energy and water usage. The GCC countries, for example, have the highest usage of air conditioning in the world, significantly higher than other regions with similar temperatures and GDP.   

In order to reduce their carbon footprint, Arab nations must look at supply side, such as more efficient energy supply chain, as well as demand side, where more efficient smart grids can reduce emissions and usage. 

I I. Investment Climate for Technology Integration 

There are three areas where the Arab region must improve its investment climate.  Often times, countries try to improve their standing in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” reportxiv.  These measures are important, but in order to attract private investment to the region for technology and innovation-driven startups, the region must do the following: 

  • Invest more in R&D at the national level and build the capacity of universities and research labs to innovate. 
  • Push for more corporate investment in the region, including R&D support, building facilities with the latest technology and invest in people. 
  • Recruit venture capitalist from around the world to plant their flag in the Arab region, and more importantly, convince regional investors to put their money behind local venture capital activities. 

There are multiple global trends in technology that the region should look at.  Some of the technologies being developed include: 

  • The Next Generation Internet:  We are somewhere between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0, where desktop computers no longer keep data on hard drives, but on the “cloud”, or a series of networked computers that share storage space.  In addition, the new Internet allows direct editing and collaboration, such as social media.  This has transformed the Internet from a passive, marketing vehicle, to an interactive tool that can be used productively by everyone in the world. 
  • Big Data and Data Analytics: The combination of data sets moving online and the growth in computation power has led to the industry known as Big Data and data analytics.  While governments, universities and companies have always kept data sets, it was impossible to mine those data until they were all online and connected.  Now, organizations are able to analyze all of their data – whether it’s about customers, innovation, human resources, marketing or finance, and glean insights to improve their business.  For the Arab region, this has tremendous the major industries of energy and logistics, but also for health care and sustainable consumption. 
  • Connected Devices: Drones, Internet of Things, 3D printing and Robotics Each of these categories is, by itself, positioned to be a multi-billion-dollar industry just in the Arab world itself.   The common feature is that these are all new products made possible because of digital technology, analytics and the Internet. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) is slated to become even bigger than the current Internet that we use, because it will connect every object on the planet with each other.  According to the Consumer Electronics Association, objects will be connected to five times as many objects as humans are to each other.  To date, the Arab countries do not have many IoT startups, even though the most immediate applications will be in energy, logistics, supply chain, shipping and retail – areas where the Arab world is strong. 

Robotics is a growing field with growing applications in home services, health care, surgery and conducting difficult manufacturing tasks.   Geopolitically, the Gulf countries, with small domestic populations by high GDP, are well positioned to be leading users of robots, particularly for consumer applications.  But to date, robotic companies have not spent much time in the region except for military sales.  

Drones and 3D printing are considered to be smaller sectors, but with significant potential in the region.  With 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, as its often called, remote towns, small companies and others can manufacture without the high fixed costs of contract manufacturing large quantities.  And drones have consumer applications in delivery, health care and defense, while in post-conflict situations, they can play a whole host of roles in agriculture, health care and safety. 

  • Personalized Medicine: This is the combination of data analytics, genetics and medical history.  Today, any individual can have their genome mapped.  When combined with a medical record and benchmarked against similar people, personalized medicine can be used to predict future illness, map treatment, and predict public health crises.  It is still in its infancy, but has the potential to impact the Arab world, where there is the challenge of refugee health care, malnutrition and other challenges in the poorest nations, post-conflict care as well as the diseases of the wealthy world, such as diabetes and heart disease. 
  • Life Sciences – Medicine, Diagnostics, Medical Devices 

In the life sciences, there are no shortage of breakthroughs going on worldwide.  The combination of Big Data and great research investment in the treatment of diseases like cancer, HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, has led to a boom in drug discovery and medical device creation. 

In the area of drug development, the Arab world certainly must invest in drugs that are useful to the unique genetics of the Arab people.  Worldwide, we are learning about the role of genetics in treatment.  To date, there has been some research on drug development at universities in Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia, to name a few, but not enough to develop drugs that will be approved for treatment of Arabs specifically. 

In the area of diagnostics and medical devices, the Arab nations would do well to invest in the purchase and collaborative technology transfer of these new products, which, combined with telemedicine, would improve the chances that diagnoses and treatments can occur more rapidly and with less error.  According to research by the Economist Intelligence Unitxv, the Middle East/Arab region spends nearly 3% of its GDP on health care, or about $127 billion annually.  This is a carrot to attract technology from around the world.    

  • Physical Sciences, Agriculture, Energy, Manufacturing 

As with other fields, there are multiple breakthroughs in the fields of the physical sciences, including chemistry and physics, that are affecting agriculture, energy and manufacturing. 

In agriculture, these breakthroughs are leading to better seeds that use less water and less pesticides, as well as supply chains that are more efficient.  In energy, it is about alternative energy breakthroughs, better battery technology and data analytics for oil & gas exploration.  For the Arab region overall, there is a great need for investment in improving food production to feed the growing population while utilizing land more efficiently, and doing so in a way that reduces water scarcity.  The regions of the country should invest in water-saving irrigation technologies and the development of climate resistant crops and tools to improve productivity, which can move thousands from the farm to the workforce.   

 The Arab region suffers from very low energy efficiency, particularly in housing, buildings, industry, transport, electricity and water networks. Under SDG 11, the Arab region should consider developing smart grids and smart cities for the purposes of improving energy efficiency, as well as water usage.   

 Patent Applications

Source: World Intellectual Property Organizationxvi 

 These technologies will create opportunities for jobs, companies and societal transformation..  However, these technologies will also result in job loss, job and industry displacement and income inequality, because more of the wealth will be concentrated amongst the owner class. 


I J. Global Technology Entrepreneurship Movement  

In the emerging markets of the world, entrepreneurship has been embraced as a necessity, because of the scale of the challenges.  In the Arab world alone, it is estimated that 60 million young people will be looking for economic opportunity in the next thirty years.    This “youth bulge” cannot be solved without innovation, entrepreneurship and new models of industry that can be created to employ the 60 million.  Government programs and large industries cannot do it alone.  As a result, innovation and entrepreneurship will be needed, and needed at scale. 

A major driver of this is also the global size of the emerging markets.  It’s estimated that nearly three billion people live at the base of the pyramid, or living on $3 a day or less.  While most of these people live in Sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, there are countries in the Arab region – Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Mauritania and potentially, Palestine, that qualify as the base of the pyramidxvii.  In addition, Egypt, Iraq and others have populations that may be held afloat by government subsidy and would fall below the poverty line measures without it.  For this group, innovation and entrepreneurship will be the only means by which jobs can be created as scale. 


 Startup Showcase Iraq 

In the Arab region, as elsewhere, part of the reason that we are seeing this burst of interest in technology entrepreneurship is that the old models of development are now outdated.  Formal government aid programs, while important, are often inefficient and hampered by outside political agendas.  They have shown progress only on limited occasions.  In the Arab region, Western aid donors have not been able to adequately solve any of the region’s major challenges and are currently reducing their aid footprint in the region.  Lastly, the Arab region itself has developed the capacity to solve many of its own problems with its own people.  As a result, many are looking to launch technology companies, innovate in new industries, and leverage the existing capital of the region and large markets to create a vibrant Arab economy. 

In addition, new models of development are forming in the Arab region, including lots of interest among young people in launching their own ventures – as for-profit startups, social enterprises and social innovator NGOs.  These hybrid models, that are run like business and strive for profitability, yet address societal challenges, are being funded by private philanthropy and impact investors.  These companies do not seek to maximize shareholder value, but instead to maximize social impact while running a profitable business.  Some well known global brands, such as Patagonia, Unilever, and Danone follow a social enterprise model where their profits are used to offset their environmental footprint or invest in employees and sustainability.   

Thirdly, corporations and investors have changed their priorities, asset allocation and strategy for growing markets.  We are seeing more and more companies leverage CSR and corporate philanthropy to learn about new markets and consumers.  Many consumer companies in the Arab region, such as Zain Wireless of Kuwait, are using grants to reach consumers in other parts of the world, build partnerships and build their own brand.   We are seeing companies view philanthropy as a source of market intelligence and investment capital for social enterprises, which can become business partners or at the very least, become good forces for society.  This change, to more impactful philanthropy and socially-responsibly investing, has unlocked capital for technology entrepreneurs seeking to positively impact Arab society, in addition to making a profit and building a business.   Indeed, impact investing in social enterprise, is the fastest growing asset classes in the world to date, according to McKinsey & Co.   

Technology entrepreneurship in the Arab region is still heavily dependent on capital raised in the West, or from the Arab diaspora with experience in Silicon Valley, Boston, New York or London.   According to CB Insights and GUST Consulting, only 78 of the 260 venture-backed deals in the Arab region were primarily funded by regional investors.   While Arab region sovereign wealth funds have talked about investing in local startups, they still invest most of their capital in Silicon Valley focused venture funds, such as Saudi Arabia’s investment in the Japanese venture fund, Softbank.   Arab investors have limited knowledge of local markets and limited experience investing in technology companies in the Arab region, with the exception of mobile phone companies such as Ooredoo and Zain.   

Lastly, the rise of crowd funding can be an important opportunity for technology entrepreneurship to grow in the Arab region.  Clearly there are several countries in the region whose citizens have significant resources.  A regional plan to legalize crowdfunding for startups serving the Arab region, whereby investors from across the national boundaries could invest in regional startups, could unlock hundreds of millions of dollars in private capital that can go directly to startup ideas from emerging markets like Jordan to large nations like Saudi Arabia. 

I K. Emerging Entrepreneurship for the GCC 

In the West, including North America and Europe, entrepreneurship is emerging out of economic necessity.  Over the last decade, over 50% of the jobs in the United States have been created by high growth startup companiesxviii.  Nearly all other job categories, such as old-line manufacturing, professional services and other areas are rapidly expanding in Asia, and American jobs are being lost to automation as well.  Similar statistics are beginning to show up in Europe and Japan as well.  For the GCC countries a similar challenge will occur. It is unlikely that large companies will place facilities there without significant government subsidies, and therefore, the creation of local, homegrown technology industries is critical.   

The West is losing the battle for jobs in competition with low-cost nations for manufacturing and service jobs, and it is causing significant economic anxiety at home.  This anxiety is manifesting itself politically, but also through greater local programs for entrepreneurship.  Indeed, innovation and entrepreneurship are becoming the preferred pathway for young people.  In the Gulf countries, a similar dynamic is playing out, where recent college graduates would rather find private sector employment rather than join a guaranteed government job, even when those jobs provide high pay and relative comfort.   

Every American city is striving to be the next Silicon Valley – an unlikely scenario. Indeed, even in the Arab region, states like Bahrain and cities like Doha, Jeddah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have positioned themselves as the “Silicon Desert”.  Economic development theory has moved from investments in infrastructure and public works towards investments in entrepreneurial ecosystems, including accelerators, incubators, entrepreneurship education programs and government sponsored startup funds.  Institutions such as universities are re-organizing themselves around innovation – as a means of attracting students and faculty, and as a revenue stream.   


Startup Showcase UAE 

 This is not a surprise, as the most sought-after cities in the world to live are those that are friendliest and teeming with technology entrepreneurs.  In the Arab region, only Dubai has been able to create the same buzz. 



Accelerator Characteristics

However, for the Arab region, much like the rest of the world, to succeed in this effort, it must address the barriers to building a technology entrepreneurship ecosystem.  To date, there is limited government support for technology entrepreneurship programs.  And there is no management class with experience investing in, or building, technology companies in the region that startups can recruit.  They must still look to the United States or India to fill senior vacancies.  And markets and products rarely follow the best laid plans of economic developers. 

But we do see success stories in the Arab region.  An annual conference in Beirut attracts several thousand Arab-region entrepreneurs, and private funds like Oasis 500 and Flat 6 labs have invested over $1 million each in several startups in the region over the last several years. 

 Showcase Saudi Arabia


I L.   

I J. Economic Transformation in the Arab Region 

The countries of the GCC have all agreed on the importance of diversifying their economics beyond oil and gas.  The strategic plans of Saudi Arabia (Saudi 2030) and Kuwait have both called for the creation of domestic private enterprise that is built on local talent, capital and regional opportunity.   

While these strategic plans have been agreed upon at the highest levels, they have not been translated into regional strategies for technology innovation and entrepreneurship. And without a regional approach, many of these markets are simply not large enough to sustain the investors model for technology startups.   

In addition, a strategy based on developing a local technology ecosystem has the potential to increase economic self-reliance and reduce volatility caused by uncertainty in the oil & gas energy sector.  Local entrepreneurship will create home grown businesses and industries, engage local populations and create economic growth benefiting the social fabric of society 

The region should also focus on easy transition opportunities, such as building a data analytics and Internet of Things ecosystem of startups dedicated to serving the oil & gas industry.   New sectors should be focused on that leverage the region’s geography and demography, particularly in energy and health care.  For example, in health care, large volumes of data about individual patients and regions, are still kept on paper records.  Throughout the Arab region, records can be digitized and “skip a technology generation” by directly moving from paper to sensor-based records whereby medical devices communicate directly with one another to transmit patient data.  In energy, this transition is being driven by the creation of smart meter reading for energy and water usage. 

An example of a recent effort is Startup Kuwait, which was launched by Kuwait University with support from the Kuwait National Fund for SME Development, to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem  

Platform for Innovation Economy 


II: Impact of Technology & Innovation in the Region 

In order to develop a plan for impacting development through technology and innovation, societies must expect an inevitable transition to the digital economy, build the capacity of their citizenry to innovate locally and compete globally, and create a positive role for technology in society. 

II A. Achieving SDG 1: Eradicate extreme poverty 

The Arab region only has four countries with people living under the poverty line. These are Sudan, Mauritania, Syria and Yemenxix.  In addition, these are the countries where a significant portion of their populations live below their national poverty line.   

Arab nations must have a strategy to use technology to address extreme poverty in these four countries, but also address poverty more broadly in their own societies.  What role can technology and innovation play in fighting extreme poverty in these nations?  Other than social media, what information technology tools exist to provide positive, accurate, productive, enabling information to their citizens? 

Should these countries focus on digital technologies, the Web and Internet in order to build consumer applications and provide education and relevant information to their citizens in local language, or should they invest in sustainable agriculture and water efficiency technology to provide basic needs to citizens. Given the limited resources available for reconstruction, these are challenging questions. 

For those countries with extreme poverty, the most common approach is to create local innovations in health care, agriculture and education to improve the productivity of the people in these countries when there is very little infrastructure or money to innovate.  These innovations are not technology-based per se, but around business model, use of materials or leveraging new partnerships to become more efficient in cost and delivery. 


II B. Achieving SDG 8: Good Jobs and Economic Growth 

As we have seen in other parts of the world, the Arab region can also become a hotbed of high growth startup jobs and see the bulk of domestic job creation coming from high growth startups.   

To create good jobs, Arab nations must undertake a deep analysis of the skill sets of their current working age population, and determine how many of them can be reskilled, and how many can be put to work.  Today, the unemployment rates of the Arab nations are: 

 Unemployment Rates 


Labour Productivity 

Theoretically, a decreasing trend of productivity could be either due to the fact that technological advancements stagnated over time are not capable of increasing production, or due to lack of production efficiency--meaning that the production process reached the maximum level of output with a given level of technology and human capital/labour, where any additional unit of labor will have  a diminishing return. The more obvious story in the region is that productivity growth has lagged behind due to the high number of employment compared to the growth in income between 2000 and 2016 and the stagnated( and sometimes negative) level of technology (known as total factor productivity). In the figure below, we plot the ratio of total output to labour force participation and the GDP trend for the Arab region. The recent years experienced a negative trend of labour productivity, especially after the crisis of 2007 and continued to be negative between 2010 and 2016.   

Figure 5: Labour productivity and output  

Labor Productivity and Output

 Source:  World Bank Data  


Unfortunately, we are lacking clear data about the number of job openings in the Arab region, particularly in new industries like technology. As a result, it is very difficult to evaluate which sectors of the opportunity are being held back from growth because of a lack of qualified human resources. 

The World Economic Forum and others have done studies about the fastest growing job categories worldwide, but as with the job figures, we have little data on the impact of those job categories on the Arab region.  For example, in the North America, Europe, India and East Asia, the job category of data scientist is constantly in the top 5 job growth categoriesxxi.   This may be the case for the Arab region as well, but we cannot be sure.  Certainly, the region will see the impact of data analytics, but whether those jobs will be based in the region is yet unclear. 

Governments must invest in clear data collection related to their current capabilities and future opportunities in new technologies and innovations and create training programs accordingly. 

In order to create good jobs in the ICT and technology sectors, the formal education sector, serving students age 3-25, will need to develop three important competencies over the next decade 

First, they will need to develop strong curriculum to teach new ICT skills.  Programming languages like Scratch, Drupal and Python can be taught at an early age to prepare children either for careers in coding, or the ability to use code in other occupations.  

 Scratch Block

MIT Scratch Team 

Second, schools and universities must accept that they will never be able to develop curriculum as fast as the technology evolves. Therefore, the implementation of internship and experiential learning programs, such as Northeastern University (United States) and the University of Waterloo (Canada) can connect students and teachers/faculty with the latest technology being used in industry.  Governments will need to invest in the development of such programs using its power of convening to bring large companies and large universities together to promote such internship programs. Governments can also play a role in creating domestic industries by using their insights about new technologies to develop local ecosystems before other nations can do the same.  In the Arab region, there are such opportunities with the Internet of Things, which has broad applications, but is spreading most quickly in sectors like energy, supply chain and agriculture – all regions where Arab region companies compete globally and where the region itself is an important market. 

Third, companies must accept a much larger role in the training of the regional workforce.  Companies must invest in retraining their own workers and sponsoring programs at schools and universities to introduce students to new technologies that will be useful when they graduate. 

The role of companies must be part of a broader strategy to retrain the adult workforce in the Arab region.  In several of the countries, there is a high percentage of college graduates that are being underutilized.  These adults must also be retrained to use new technology, whether its technical training in coding languages like Java, or call center software operation and social media for marketers.   

In new, innovation-driven sectors, the corporates will have to set up training programs, in partnership with universities, for opportunities such as drones and 3D printing (more relevant renewable energy, desalination technology, water efficiency and agricultural productivity, e-marketing, ) , where the Arab region has almost no startups or education programs. 

The big policy transformation need to achieve and sustain SDG 8 will be to create an education and training system that can constantly adapt to new technologies as they are rolled out. 

 STEM College Graduates

Source:; UNESCO Institute of Statisticsxxiii 


II C. Achieving SDG 9: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure  

There is a very large technology transformation that is affecting industry worldwide called “Industry 4.0”.   As Arab nations develop strategies to use technology, it makes sense to skip ahead to Industry 4.0.  In this phase of technology for development, companies are increasingly integrating new technologies like robotics and Internet of Things (IoT) to increase productivity of their manufacturing, supply chain and operations.  A summary done by the Barabes Group of Spain outlines the policy issues in building this Industry 4.0 ecosystem. 

Business Implications

The Barabas Group & Equal Innovation, 2016 Global State of Technology

For the Arab region to embrace and modernize with Industry 4.0, they will need to make reforms and invest resources in the following areas: 

  • R&D: Regional R&D is very low, with much of the R&D being spent on collaboration with Western institutions. Arab countries average .6% of their annual government budgets on R&D, vs. about 2-3% for leading nations, according to the World Bank.xxv 
  • Creating access to capital for lots of entrepreneurs.  Today, many countries in the region have investment funds, but they remain beholden to the wrong measures for investing or lending money.  Investors and government must take a much broader approach to investment as a means of economic development rather than for maximum return. 
  • Securing FDI for technology development.  There is a strong recognition that the size of the Arab region makes it an important market for all of these growing technology areas. And yet, without Foreign Direct Investment, local affiliates of international organizations and local startups won’t have the strategic investment partners they need to succeed. 
  • Improving trade and competitiveness policy in the region.  One of the biggest challenges facing international companies is to navigate the rules of the 18-member nations of the UN West Asia Regional Commission and others in the region that are considered part of the Middle East.  While all these problems will never be solved, looking at areas to compete better will be critical. 

In addition to integrating ICT and technology into their industries and infrastructure, the countries of the Arab region will need to increase the amount of startup activity in the region.  To date, it is one of the lowest performing regions when it comes to venture capital and startup activity.  Today, leading consulting firms such as Equal Innovation and GUST rate the Middle East/North Africa as the fourth most important startup region, with North America and Asia being the most important by far, followed by Europe and then the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.   

In order to support achieving SDG 9 in the region, the countries must work together to develop regional tech transfer protocols to spur joint R&D collaboration, startup creation and growth. 

The region also needs to ensure that the technology infrastructure in place is strong.  Countries must invest in the latest broadband and telecommunications infrastructure, including 4G networks and smart sensors on highways and energy grids.  It must ensure that computer and mobile phone penetration, while already near 100%, also has the apps and tools to improve efficiency.  And it must develop a smart cities strategy. 


II D. Achieving SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production 

As the Arab region will embrace selectively Industry 4.0 related technologies, it also has an opportunity to develop responsible production processes and technologies in a way that enhances its competitive advantage. While Western producers have to transform legacy systems, Arab producers can build new systems from scratch that integrate sustainability, effective supply chain and new technologies. 

In the area of improving consumption, the global trend is to use digital technologies, in the form of apps, dedicated websites and social media to educate and inform consumers about responsible consumption, management of waste and health information.  This is valued as a $343 billion opportunity worldwide.  In certain states, such as New York, USA and Paris, France, the state and local governments have mandated that restaurants, websites and retailers share nutritional information about foods and consumer goods.  In the area of transportation, cities such as Toronto, Canada and Amsterdam, the Netherlands, are using congestion, or surge pricing, to entice commuters to switch to public transportation.  Utilities are doing the same with home heating and air conditioning during peak months to promote more sustainable use of resources.   

On the corporate side, there are tremendous opportunities, through regulation and investment, to make corporate practices more responsible and sustainable, from reducing pollution to packaging and information.    Other areas of opportunity include more efficient, and less energy intensive supply chains, better use of alternative energy, and using regulations to reduce packaging and use of waste materials. 


III: Impact of Technology & Innovation in Social Issues  

Technology impacts every aspect of society – particularly consumer technologies that are aspirational, such as the Internet and social media.  In the Arab region, using technology and innovation for social good will not simply be about identifying new technologies and making them available, it will be about developing the capabilities in society to localize and build capacity around the new technologies.  Each Arab country, for example, will need its own version of a Smart City, depending on the level of technology, Internet penetration and the immediate needs of that nation.  For example, in the region, some smart cities may use GPS to manage traffic while others might simply need functioning traffic lights. Both can qualify as “smart” initiatives in the context of the Arab nation. 

III A. Achieving SDG 1: Eradicate extreme poverty under $1.25 per day 

Technology itself will not eradicate extreme poverty in the Sudan, Mauritania, Syria, Yemen or anywhere else in the world.  Research has shown that technology’s value is to increase the speed at which change can occur, and be the tool by which that change is introduced throughout society. 

Over the last decade, the rapid penetration of the mobile phone has been the greatest tool for development.  Historically, it has taken 79 years for a technology to become complete available and in wide use worldwide.  With the mobile phone, it took only 13 years to become ubiquitous.   


Mobile Phone Adaption 

Source:,; International Telecommunications Unionxxvi 


In these four countries, a key part of using technology for development will be the development of local content.   Digital technology is a strong tool to impact culture, as we have seen with social media.  The creation of local content for well-known social media sites, as well as television, radio and mobile, can connect citizens and residents faster and more effectively.  This will reduce poverty indirectly, by educating people on the margins, and connecting them to opportunities that may not have been easy to find before.  An important example of this in Asia has been ride sharing services like Uber, Ola and Grab, where the drivers are often working class and poor, and would not have access without the Internet and mobile phones. 

However, these four countries, along with post-conflict nations like Iraq, must also be aware of the challenges of culture being misappropriated or misinformation being spread with technology. 

Startup Showcase Jordan 

There is also the challenge of Western content spreading so fast as to crowd out local content.  Ultimately, the culture change brought about by positive technology used for community and social inclusion has shown to lead to a safer, more engaged society. 

III B. Achieving SDG 3: Good Health (Access to health care and quality treatment) 

Health care in the Arab region will make great strides as a result of innovation.  In the wealthiest countries of the region,there is a dual problem of “wealthy diseases” such as diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease.  In the other nations of the region, there is a lack of quality care to serve the large populations.  Digital health care, or the use of ICT to education and consult patients about their health care needs, holds a lot of promise for the countries of the Arab region. 

On the consumer side, we have digital health opportunities using apps, as well as wellness technologies, also known as wearables, that can be used to track the health of patients.  In addition, IoT sensors are being added to pacemakers, asthma inhalers and other medical devices to share information with physicians about how often patients are taking their medication or their condition.  This type of remote monitoring solves a major problem in wealth and poor by removing the need to physically see the patient.  

On the innovation side, there are multiple diagnostics being developed for the low-cost provision of health care, including diagnostics, subsidies for drugs for malaria, TB and HIV, and the use of synthetic biology and therapeutics to reach hard to reach populations. 


 pop below poverty line


III C. Achieving SDG 4: Quality Education (Free primary & secondary education for all) 

Given the fluctuations of the world economy, including the price of energy, the challenges of immigration and protectionism, and reduced international assistance, it appears that a quality education is certainly possible for all of the region’s children. Although it is not clear yet that it would be free.  Technology can be a tool by which supplementary content and instruction is provided. 

The first step is creating applications that excite students about education in general, but science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  Globally, Google has partnered with multiple NGOs and educators to provide free content and connectivity.  Sciences museums and education NGOs are also creating virtual science fairs to reach far-flung audiences.  In the Arab region, the biggest experiment in this area is in Egypt. 

The biggest revolution underway is related to artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics, which is quickly changing the way we learn and teach.   When teachers can track the exact progress of individual students and benchmark them amongst their peers nationally and globally, it can really transform the way students are trained. 

Digital learning will also be an important way to reach students in far-flung regions of the Arab world.  This is particularly poignant in post-conflict portions of the world, but also in large nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where distances between villages and small cities prevent full options from being provided.  Digital and online education cannot replace the classroom but can serve as a supplementary tool. 

The use of technology to reduce the costs of education is another obvious way that SDG 4 can be addressed.  If the goal is the provide education for free, or as reduced a cost as possible, then technology can play an important role.  In particular, most schools around the world, including those in the West, still maintain paper-driven records for back office functions such as record keeping, evaluation, attendance and human resources.  These can be digitized and money that is saved put into the education budget.  In addition, providing tablets and laptops to students is cheaper and more sustainable than textbooks. 

While the Gulf countries have had some success in the STEM fields due to the large and successful oil & gas industries in the region, there isn’t enough STEM graduates even in this area to effectively staff the national energy companies.   These nations should invest significantly in STEM education to maintain the drivers of their national economies, and reduce their reliance on foreign nationals.  Outside of the GCC, there also remains a shortage of STEM graduates, with enough skills to work in the innovation and technology skills.  According to UNESCO, only about 40% of the technical graduates of universities in the Arab worldxxvii are qualified to work in their industries.   In addition, out migration to the West remains a problem for the best and brightest technical and medical graduates of the region. 

III D. Achieving SDG 5: Gender Equality 

The challenges around gender equality in the Arab region are deep and cultural in nature.  Although women in this region have made significant progress over the last fifty years, there remain many barriers to their success. 

Technology can play several important roles in improving gender equality in the region.  The first is to be a tool to connect and empower women.  In regions of the Arab world where women are less likely to travel to meetings, community events or for work or school, the Internet can become the great equalizer.  Social media can be the means by which women become aware of the work of their sisters, the manner in which different families are addressing social challenges, and to find information about events and activities that they can strive to attend.  In more liberal parts of the Arab region, it becomes a tool by which women can further their networks, education and activity.   

Another important role for digital technology is to educate women about their health and wellness.  In many parts of the Arab world, women do not visit physicians and hospitals with the regularity that they should.  They are often embarrassed or discouraged from getting treatment for gynecological health or mental health.  The Internet and mobile web, while not always accurate, can be life-saving in this area by providing an alternate source of information and support for women.  For health care professionals, it also becomes a life line to reach their women patients, who may or may not be able to visit them as much as they should. 

Perhaps most important, digital technology can be an important tool in keeping women safe and secure.  The combination of mobile technologies like Facetime, along with GPS and apps developed just for women to share their locations and call for help, are making it easier for women to leave their homes for errands, school or work.   On the other side, police, law enforcement, women’s groups and family can use these same technology tools to ensure that the women in their family are safe and sound. 

Digital technology will, for these reasons, continue to create a sense of community and inclusion for women in the Arab region.  

In some countries of the Arab region, digital technology will also become an important tool for political activism and political education for women.  Digital technology remains a relatively private, discreet means by which to communicate information about rights, political positions and human rights.   

III E. Achieving SDG 9: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure 

The development of greater industry in the region will lead to a positive impact on social issues because a greater percentage of the work force will be gainfully employed and a more productive member of society. 

Innovation in social sectors, such as education, health care, community discourse and sustainable development is where we are really going to see impact. 

Innovations in agriculture and sustainable food security systems, including farming, supply chain, packaging and nutritional content will have a transformative effect on the health of the people of the Arab world, where one of the biggest causes of death is diabetes and heart disease, brought on by the high intake of processed foods and sweets. 

The advent of digital currency will also have a positive effect on the way of life in the Arab world.  As governments move toward digital payments and digital record-keeping, there will be a corresponding reduction in corruption and inefficiency.   For individuals, they will feel a strong sense of trust in their government when records are easily accessible, and fees/taxes are easily paid online without fear of corruption or incompetence.  For businesses, that trust will be even more important, as government permitting and record-keeping, tax collection and data management becomes more effective. 

III F. Achieving SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities 

Technology will be an important tool that enables people to improve their quality of life and purchasing power. 

One of the biggest challenges in the world is the mismatch between where jobs are available and where the potential job prospects live.  For example, Egypt boasts the largest population of engineers and scientists in the Arab world, and yet many of the job opportunities for engineers and scientists are in the Gulf countries and related to oil & gas, logistics or infrastructure.  In many sectors, technology solves this mismatch by allowing people to work remotely via technology such as email, Web communications like Skype and new tools like Slack.   


 Showcase Egypt

 Technology tools have also created job opportunities to previously impoverished communities.  Millions of entrepreneurs work globally simply on their cell phones and through the Internet.  In the Arab world, platforms like Instagram and Facebook have become an important channel for sales and marketing, even among the wealthy.  Entire restaurants, caterers and event specialists are running their marketing, logistics and payment through the Internet.  In addition, new sectors of financing like social finance and fintech are making it easier for entrepreneurs to access capital using the Internet, thus unlocking capital for entrepreneurs. 

However, here, as with other sectors of society, it is clear that broader innovations in life sciences and agriculture will have a much greater social impact on society.  While it is important to use digital health to track diabetes, it will be even more important for R&D to develop better sugar substitutes and organic food for the Arab population. 

III G. Achieving SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities 

Creating sustainable cities will only be accomplished through the innovations in energy use, pollution management, transportation and housing.  Indeed, the World Bank has calculated that nearly 50% of the world’s population will be based in cities by 2050xxviii.  This will put tremendous pressure on cities like Cairo, Baghdad, Amman, Dubai and others.  They will need to manage the needs of their growing domestic populations, and is the case with Amman, the ongoing integration of refugees. 

ICT technologies will play an important role in creating smart cities, where energy, transportation and mobile networks all communicate through the cloud, sensors and human input to better manage the daily commutes and consumption of their city populations. 

The more complicated innovations required are innovations in water usage, energy usage, sanitation, supply chain, air pollution management and housing to be more sustainable and efficient. In addition to smart devices that make us aware of our consumption, these new products must actually make the water cleaner, and the homes more energy efficient by using better materials and wasting less. 

The third stage of building sustainable cities and communities will be the creation of a regional plan with common goals and sharing of technologies.  This is important because otherwise there will be a race to the bottom among developers, business people and others. 

Creating sustainable communities requires the additional step of mobilizing the people in communities to do their part.  Here, social media is beginning to play a critical role in educating people about the decisions being made in their communities that affect water, air, waste management, transportation and quality of life.  Through online advocacy, we are seeing empowered citizens around the world push for sustainability. 

The creation of local content and opportunities will also be a part of building more cohesive communities.  The fact that very little locally developed intellectual property and domestically owned content is available today in Arabic is often cited as a reason for less cohesiveness in the region.  Sustainable communities are those that feel like they belong there, and local content is a part of that. 


IV.The Role of Technology and Innovation to Achieve the 2030 Agenda

IV A. Addressing the Environment & Climate Change  

We will use digital technologies and big data to measure change accurately.  In the United States, the data from the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration became the for-profit Weather Channel, which invested in data analytics to create much more detailed information about how climate is changing in the United States 

Innovations in clean energy and alternative sources of energy are growing and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.  This includes solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower.   In addition, investments in battery technology and wireless charging could transform our reliance on the oil, gas and coal paradigm. Project Sunroof by Google is connecting individuals with alternate energy providers by sharing how much sunlight falls on their homes and calculating the costs of conversion to solar power – thereby launching the conversation between solar services providers and consumers. 

Natural resource management tools will also have a significant impact on reaching this goal. These include the use of technology to track wildlife and natural disasters, and drones to manage resources remotely. 

There is certainly precedent for this.  The state of Texas, in the United States, is viewed as a stronghold of the oil & gas industry.  However, in 2010, Texas became the largest producer of wind and solar power in the United Statesxxix.  Indeed, many of the investors in alternative energy in Texas come from the oil & gas sector. Rather than being threatened by the rise of alternate energy, they simply viewed it as another source of energy, and therefore, an investment in a field where they had significant expertise and connections.  Similar conversations are beginning in the Arab region.  At the 2016 Startup Kuwait national competition, nearly 23% of the startup ideas related to energy efficiency and alternative energy. 


 Energy Supply Renewable

Source:; SDGsxxx  

IV B. Addressing Food Security 

Big Data will play an important role in improving farming by connecting farmers with information about every aspect of farming, including how to improve their yields and market conditions. 

In many parts of the Arab world, such as Sudan, Mauritania, Egypt and elsewhere, where poverty is greatest and food security poor, a lot of impact can happen by using technology to share best practices with farmers through agricultural extension and online learning. 

For commercial farming, Big Data and analytics will play an important role in analyzing crop patterns, the impact of weather, yield and other factors. 

For all farmers, Internet connectivity and social media will reduce the impact of the middleman / broker who extracts a large fee from farmers to take their crops to market.  Through their new-found connectivity worldwide, farmers are doing a better job selecting markets, knowing what their peers are getting for market prices, and negotiating sales. 

There are many innovations going on, many in the Arab region, that will improve the productivity of farmers in the region.  Through R&D in other parts of the world with similar climates, there have been breakthrough’s in seeds that use significantly less water than traditionally, and methods of irrigation, such as next-generation drip irrigation. 

Secondly, there have been innovations in the food supply chain of importance.  Grain silos, refrigerated trucks and produce storage facilities are all now connected electronically and constantly sharing information about temperature, time in storage and external conditions.  This is critical to ensuring food safety, freshness and speed to market.  Uber-like technologies, such as Logistimo’s Tusker, now in use in Sudan with the United Nations, are also connecting idle trucks with food stock to be taken to market, thus further reducing wastage.   At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in the United States, there was discussion about the smart supply chain, where the farmers harvesting tools, the refrigerated trucks and other transport, wholesaler warehouses, grocers and home refrigerators all commute with each other via sensor and Internet so that your refrigerator can automatically order new milk based on the data from the supply chain. 

IV C. Improving Water Usage and Energy Efficiency 

The water-energy nexus is a key priority for sustainable management of natural resources in the Arab region and holds a big potential for technological innovation, advancement and commercialization. As many cities and settlements in the region have witnessed the devastation of their urban infrastructure, water and electricity networks, the options for rebuilding on the basis of sustainability and resilience is a unique opportunity that would naturally include the development and adaptation of appropriate green technology. 

Digital tools to alter human behavior is going to be critical here.  From the consumer side, the adoption of new technologies like Nest thermometers and other smart technologies to measure water and energy usage, could reduce heat and air conditioning usage in the region, simply by measuring water more effectively. 

On the corporate side, there will need to be systems like this built as well, including smart grids that integrate all of this information and make water providers more efficient.  For industry, access to water for manufacturing and production is also critical.  Finding a balance between the needs of industry and consumers will remain a key challenge for the foreseeable future.  

Once these systems are in place, the smart grids will be able to communicate regionally, and share best practices and data on water usage.  Given the history of water-related disputes in the Arab region, this information is not just about improving water usage, but about preventing further conflict. 

There are also significant innovations in water around the world.  New chemical treatments are improving water for human use after industrial usage is complete, or to clean up previously polluted sources of water. 

Clean water filters are being developed at low-cost for emerging markets that improve home and community water usage, including simple, low-tech solutions to save water such as rainwater harvesting.  While that particular technology may not be the most relevant to the Arab region, certainly there will be other home-grown solutions. 

There are innovations in water desalination that are reducing the cost for homes and communities to desalinate, but also breakthroughs in systems thinking about water desalination that have led other nations to invest greatly in them. 


V. The Cross-Cutting Impact of Technology & Innovation

V A. Achieving SDG 9: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure 

The various ways to achieve impact towards SDG 9 through technology and innovation has been discussed at length in this paper.  However, the cross-cutting nature of technology on every industry and sector of the economy requires government involvement at the level of the innovation in order to best prepare for the implications of that technology. 

  • Public sector involvement in the work will be critical.  This can be done through external advisory boards, working groups, bringing in external experts. 
  • Regulatory tools to make it easier to innovate, access capital or FDI 
  • Program and grant tools, such as the creation of venture funds, programs in various agencies to innovate and be entrepreneurial. 
  • Adopting global best practices, such as the use of proof of concept centers, the creation of R&D agencies like the KISR and KACST. 
  • Address innovation beyond IT for all departments outside IT.  Far too often, a Chief Innovation Officer does not look at how to make the agencies innovative themselves. 
  • At each national level, there also needs to be an effort to create a national agenda for technology and innovation that ties and maps to the 2030 Agenda 

 Manufacturing Output


Source: http://data.un.orgxxxi 


V B. Achieving SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities 

Inequalities exist across societies, and innovation often will exacerbate those inequalities by creating a class of entrepreneurs and investors who “win” by amassing great wealth from the adoption of their innovations.  There are also winners among society who benefit from those innovations, such people with hepatitis that benefit from a new treatment.   

Governments must consider digital technology for societal stability and good governance. 

Globally, reducing inequalities will be difficult simply through technology.  For example, nearly every citizen of the world is becoming more productive because of technologies like WhatsApp and LinkedIn and their corporate cousins such as Slack. But the wealth being created from those innovations is disproportionally being amassed by the creator class and the investor class. 

Technology and innovation in urban environments to manage growth and reduce inequality.  Solutions such as low-cost, but better-quality housing, reducing costs of medicines through innovation, telemedicine, will all reduce disparities in care and living between populations in the Arab region. 

A little discussed, but important component of the technology agenda will be promoting open government as much as possible.  Governments should develop digital e-governance tools, make data available to citizens and entrepreneurs and leverage the “crowd” to source ideas for better governance 

V C. Measuring and Evaluating Technology and Innovation to Achieve the SDGs 

An important tool that governments are using technology for is the measurement and evaluation of any and all programs.   

Big Data: By moving to e-governance such as online document management of grants, reports and electronic payments, governments can develop Big Data tools to evaluate success. 

Internet of Things: this technology promises to be an important transformation connecting materials and objects that were traditionally offline.  By using sensors in all devices, from the home to the farm, office and manufacturing plant, governments and private employers will understand efficiencies across the board and improve optimization. 

New Models: More recently, countries have turned to crowdsourced digital tools as a means of measuring the effectiveness of their policies. For example, in many countries, taxes are now collected online.  Often, surveys of filers tell governments about the ease of the process, problems in their systems, and the general satisfaction of tax payers with the tax system and government programs.  In addition, smart transportation systems like Waze, where the “crowd” can submit information about crashes or traffic delays can be adopted across industries and government agencies to gain insights in real time. 

Lastly, governments have begun to adopt the Lean Startup model for government programs.  This methodology, developed by Eric Ries and Steve Blank of Stanford, pushes for entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and anyone launching a new idea, to use their pilot and prototype stage as a means of collecting data, feedback and user insights before scaling the program.  This has enormous potential for government programs, which are often launched at scale with very little evidence of success.  By using Lean Startup, governments can test programs at a small scale, with little money, before rolling them out at scale.   


VI. Global & Regional Policy & Programming Trends

The Arab region has many models to select from when it comes to the best technology and innovation policies to emulate. 

VI A. Technology & Innovation Policy in the United States 

In the United States during the Presidency of Barack Obama, a multi-pronged approach to addressing issues of technology and innovation was undertaken that affected regulatory change, policies and programs, and building the capacity of the government agencies.  This was coordinated out of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy through a National Innovation Strategy that was released every 2 years.  While the specifics of the American policy will be different from every country in the Middle East, the buckets of policy and change are the same. 

On the regulatory side, the United States focused on making it easier for technology to be commercialized and scaled as a private enterprise.  The first part of this was the legalization of crowdfunding, which is the practice whereby many small investors can invest in a company, rather than a smaller, more elite group of experienced, or “accredited” investors.  This move unlocked hundreds of millions of dollars in capital for small entrepreneurs who would not receive venture capital equity investments or bank loans because of the R&D-driven nature of their innovation.   

In addition, the Obama Administration made it easier to commercialize research funded by the US government.  Until that time, many of the most innovative breakthroughs in the United States were done by government-run labs.  In the areas of biologics and energy, many of the most impressive innovations were coming from government sources without the legal ability to spin those technologies into companies.  Many Arab governments have similar challenges, where all intellectual property created by research is owned by the public universities or government.   It has created little incentive to commercialize research among faculty or researchers in the region. 

More recently, the Trump Administration rescinded rules for “net neutrality” which will now allow broadband telecommunications providers to select what applications and technologies are made available to their users.  This may have the potential to greatly reduce innovation and content in the United States, or it may lead to greater investment in 5G networks.   

On the Programs and Capital side, the United States has transitioned its outlook on economic development from one of infrastructure to one of innovation and entrepreneurship.  Multiple US government agencies created programs to support local innovation center, entrepreneurship incubators and university entrepreneurship programs.  In particular, funds were set aside to help leading research institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic, University of Virginia and others that had innovative work, but limited access to venture capital or entrepreneurship programs. 

Secondly, US government agencies like the Small Business Administration made capital available to venture funds for investment in startups.  Traditionally, the SBA lent capital to banks to re-lend to small businesses, which were often viewed as higher risk.   This capital was targeted to areas including Maine, Michigan and Louisiana, where venture capital did not exist, but startups ecosystems were sprouting.  

Third, nearly every major US government agency created an R&D commercialization program that encouraged research grant recipients to think about the economic value and societal applications of their work.  These programs were meant to ensure that the United States economy (where 50% of the jobs are being created by high-growth, innovation-driven startups), maximizes the return on its federal R&D.  These programs provided additional capital for institutions to look at commercialization, flexibility in the use of grant funds for entrepreneurial preparation and fast-tracks for patent filings. 

Major United States government agencies all looked internally to build their innovation capacity.  As was discussed earlier, a significant portion of R&D in the United States occurs within government facilities, such as the Departments of Defense, Energy and the National Institutes of Health.  Each of these agencies invested in training their own staff about innovation commercialization, entrepreneurship and licensing technologies to the private sector.  Each developed more robust policies internally and set up alliances with corporations, venture capitalists and industry in a manner reflecting technology transfer offices at universities. 

Lastly, each agency set up its own high-level commission with experts from the public and private sectors about specific technologies that they deemed most important.  These commissions provided insights on the direction of investment, opportunity and where the US government must develop expertise in order to regulate and lead effectively. 

VI B. Technology & Innovation Policy in Asia 

There are multiple lessons for the Arab region to learn from the various efforts being undertaken in Asia around digital policy.  Like the Arab region, Asia countries struggle to manage large, diverse populations.  They struggle to connect their citizenry to government services and to maximize the efficiency of governments.   

Several Asian governments have begun implementing biometric and electronic ID systems that reflect the nation’s literacy and diversity.  These ID’s become their individual’s connection to the formal economy – from which they can apply for bank accounts, government services and file their taxes and other forms with the government.  This Unique ID solution also solves a common problem in the Arab world, where family nomenclature, heavy urban populations and large immigrant populations can lead to confusion.   

On top of these ID systems, governments are authorizing the developing of the “Stack”. The Stack is a platform upon which apps, software and other technologies can be built.  Once everyone has a Unique ID, they can open a bank account.  That bank account can then be used to pay for services on these new platforms.  The bet for these large Asian countries, such as Indonesia, India and China, is that in twenty years, they can move the majority of their populations to formal systems for home, work, education, banking and other sectors. 

VI C. Technology & Innovation Policy in Europe 

As a whole, the European Union has not undertaken the same level of steps for the development of their own innovation, technology and entrepreneurship systems as the United States or Asia.  Individual European nations, such as Spain, Great Britain, Finland and Germany, specifically, have developed innovation and entrepreneurship friendly policies.  Each has taken a slightly different path: 

  • Spain urged its large companies, such as Telefonica and Banco Santander, to anchor the Spanish entrepreneurship ecosystem by investing in new technologies, incubating technologies and developing services for technology startups. 
  • Finland and Norway have developed technology clusters built around their national industrial leaders.  In both countries, the oil & gas sectors are important, and therefore, the ecosystems being built are focused on Big Data for the energy sector.   
  • Germany and Great Britain have followed a model similar to the United States by making it easier for technology to be commercialized and for investors to provide capital for risky technologies.  In addition, both have leveraged their historic apprentice ship programs to connect young people with startups. 

VI D. Technology & Innovation Policy in the Middle East 

The Gulf nations of the Arab world have taken an approach to technology and innovation policy that reflects the manner in which they often launch new initiatives.  Many have created venture funds that will look for local startup investment opportunities.   In Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the national governments have created national investment funds that make capital available to local entrepreneurs.  In some countries, such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., they have also invited in global startup programs such as 500 Startups and Tech Stars to incubate local startups.  

The Kuwait National Fund for SME Development, for example, has taken the approach outlined below, developed by Citizence, a consulting firm that it had engaged through Kuwait University.   

 Showcase Kuwait

Regional Economic Transition


Kuwait National Fund for SME Development with Kuwait Universityxxxii 

Showcase Bahrain

In other parts of the Arab world, countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and to a lesser extent, Egypt Tunisia and Morocco, have built vibrant local ecosystems for technology entrepreneurs.  There, the governments have not invested as much in entrepreneurial programs, nor have they created large venture funds as a means of driving economic diversification.  Instead, technology entrepreneurship in these nations is being driven by necessity.  These nations are blessed with a large pool or technically talented people and a lack of private sector opportunities.  As a result, many have taken to tech entrepreneurship.  Often it is simple, early stage stuff like web apps for food delivery or local news and content.   


VII. Regional Analysis  

VII A. Best Practices in Technology Transfer 

Today, because most R&D is conducted by researchers at public sector institutions and not-for-profit universities, developing robust processes for technology transfer is critical.  Unfortunately, this discussion often gets caught up around issues of intellectual property.  But technology transfer is much more than intellectual property.  IP, as it’s called, is simply a piece of paper – it does not help get the technology to work, or build a team or change consumer behavior to use the technology. That is where the Arab region needs process development.  While progress has been made in this area, including UNESCWA’s work to create a National Tech Development and Transfer System in several Arab countriesxxxiii, the challenges of intellectual property will only be resolved when there is a critical mass of technology that has investors, startup teams and cross-border partnerships, but being held back because of IP issues. 

The Arab nations must view technology transfer and innovation collaboration as a three-step process. 

  1. Develop much stronger tie-ups with American and European universities on research and access to the technology.  A good example of this model is the Rusnano venture fund, which was set up by the Russian government to manage the IP rights for technology within Russia, but give researchers and innovators free reign to commercialize outside Russia.  The model has been a win-win for the Russians and nanotech entrepreneurs.  Similarly, most Arab region universities mostly have tie-ups for undergraduate student exchange, scholarships and faculty training.  Research collaboration, particularly in areas like energy and agriculture, are critical.   
  1. There needs to be better regional collaboration between universities and government researchers in the region.  For example, the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi has built an incredible facility, but struggles to find research partnerships in the region.  Meanwhile, other nations in the Arab region do have research institutes, such as the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS), and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST).  Both of these institutions have much stronger relationships with Western Universities than with each other. 
  1. The private sector must be encouraged to support local R&D as a long-term investment in the region.  In particular, as with the Texas model, the oil & gas industry should be investing in technology entrepreneurs in the areas of Big Data, IoT, nanotech, biotech, AI, Green tech, drones and robotics.  In addition, they should be looking at leveraging the vast sunlight and hydropower capacity of the region as extensions of their world-class energy expertise.  Companies are doing many things in this area, highlighted below. 

 Acceleration Industry 4

Source: Barabas Group, 2016 State of Global Innovationxxxiv 


VIII. Recommendations - Policy 

Because of the enormous implications of technology and innovation on our society, no single set of recommendations can be accurate.  In addition, each of the eighteen-member nations of the Regional Commission have different geographies, demographics, and while bound by Arab culture, many different iterations of it.   

The Sustainable Development Goals provide a good framework around which to develop distinct technology and innovation programs.    The digital technology component of the SDG plan is focused on the Internet, social media, Web 2.0, data analytics, mobile applications and cloud computing.  The innovation plan would be focused on breakthroughs in hard sciences, life sciences, and telecommunications, such as manufacturing processes, green technologies, drug discovery, medical devices, routers, robotics, drones and additive printing (3D).   


SDG Goal 

ICT & Digital Technology 


1: Eradicating Poverty 

For the most impoverished, focus on using ICT as a means of alleviating the physical challenges of attending school or getting health care through information and connectivity 

Support R&D and investment in technologies that could empower the poor, such as low-cost diagnostics and medical devices to quickly and effectively increase the productivity and availability of people  


Develop technology platforms that connect people to direct government programs to make direct aid payment 

Invest in technologies in agriculture, transportation and infrastructure to improve income and access to jobs or markets  


Use fintech solutions to connect microfinance to rural entrepreneurs and BOP populations 

Invest in innovations in housing, including indoor sanitation, alternate energy and smart systems to eliminate stresses caused by poor housing 

3: Good Health 

Use ICT tools to provide information to people about their health care, ailments and signs to look for 

Invest in R&D for low-cost diagnostics, medical devices and therapeutics to provide health care at high quality and low cost to people 


Use ICT to connect health care professionals to hard-to-reach populations using telemedicine and wearables such as Fitbit’s 

Make it easier for life science and health care startups from around the world to work in the Arab region. 



Support, through R&D and investment, breakthroughs in genetics, like CRISPR, that may be relevant to Arab populations for specific disease areas 

4: Quality Education 

Create online training programs for young people in schools, universities and community settings with a focus on emerging technology not yet taught formally 

Use artificial intelligence to better understand how Arab children learn and design curriculum based on this 


Encourage young people to use tools like LinkedIn and create Arab-centric versions of the same to connect young people to the global economy 

Use cloud computing, photo recognition and analytics to better track progress at the individual, national and regional levels 

5: Gender Equality 

Support NGO programs and entrepreneurs developing content and applications for women to learn about activities, build community, become active citizens 

Support R&D and investment in health care products for Arab women, for women’s hygiene, specific diseases and long-term care. 


Work with law enforcement to create tools that women can use for safety and security 

Support R&D to understand the health care challenges facing Arab women better 

8: Good Jobs & Economic Growth 

Create online training programs for youth to learn about new technologies and adults to retrain for economic transitions 

Invest in product innovation in key national and regional industries where job growth and economic opportunities are expected, such as energy, transportation/supply chain and agriculture.   

9: Industry, Innovation, Infrastructure 

Create opportunities for the youth to become technology entrepreneurs or create local tech content in Arabic and local dialects 

Support R&D for new sectors of the economy, including sustainable agriculture, alternative energy, efficient supply chain, defense, logistics, IoT, robotics, drones and 3D printing 


Replicate the success Egypt has had in recruiting companies like Sutherland to build business process outsourcing operations in the region to serve Arab customers 

Create investment funds for entrepreneur or mid-size corporations to tap into to introduce innovations  


License and support creation of coding and data sciences academies at universities and by the private sector to build a workforce that is able to use the latest software and analytic tools 

Loosen regulations that are preventing innovation from reaching industry and consumers because of IP restrictions, antiquated regulation, or foreign collaboration 


Create investment funds (in small amounts) that are available to local entrepreneurs to start technology companies 

Develop partnerships with international research institutions to access global breakthroughs and identify their relevance to the Arab world 


Leverage the Arab diaspora to serve as mentors and investors in Arab-region startups 

Leverage the Arab diaspora to create research partnerships with global universities 

10: Reduced Inequalities 

Connect disaffected and unemployed youth through technology platforms to job and training opportunities -perhaps in other parts of the Arab world 

Create training programs that quickly make jobs accessible in new fields and technologies to candidates, such as training the poor to become solar panel installers or manage 3D printing stations locally 


Use the Internet and social media to make people aware of opportunities that were previously only known to connected elites 

Provide accessible financing to families and business to invest in new innovation, such as crop insurance for new seed varieties and assistance to install solar panels 

11: Sustainable Cities & Communities 

Monitor social media and create positive social media forums to build the social fabric 

Support R&D for the creation of sustainable tools for water management, waste management, efficient housing, IoT for the smart grid in cities and transportation systems, and many other areas 


Invest in the creation of Arab-centric and Arab-language content for the Internet through grant programs and support for entrepreneurs developing the same 

Support entrepreneurship accelerators and provide financing to entrepreneurs seeking to implement sustainable solutions 


Carefully monitor communication on to ensure safety and accuracy in their usage 

Support innovative products, such as clean water systems, that will have a major impact on communities (such as slums) and build a sense of sustainability 


Develop campaigns to promote cultural heritage and identify by leveraging the vast populations online 

Use community-led innovations when possible to create local sense of ownership 

12: Responsible Consumption & Production 

Use the Internet to push for sustainable consumption by educating people to manage waste, water and food better 

Support R&D to develop better packing materials for common items in the Arab world 


Use the Internet to educate citizens about health information related to their lives – food, health, exercise to improve consumption 

Integrate IoT sensors to connect devices, machines, vehicles and other objects to track efficiency and reduce energy usage 


Use data analytics and IoT to reduce waste in industry production, supply chain, packaging and sales 

Invest in alternative energy through research and investment in startups.  


In addition, each nation must develop its own set of strategies to address issues of appropriateness, reliability and affordability.  These have always been critical concerns that arise whenever new technology and innovation are released. 

In addressing appropriateness of technology, there are many “filters” on the market and available for download that allow parents, schools, and governments to limit content.  However, a broad-based policy to limit content will significantly hamper a nation’s ability to achieve the SDGs in other areas, where access to information is important.  Nations must find ways to ensure that appropriate content is available without placing too many personal biases on what could be judged as “inappropriate content”.   To date, efforts by Facebook and other companies to place human monitors to review content has proven more effective than algorithms and filters. Sites like Wikipedia have for years now been able to clean up bad content simply by relying on the efforts of the “crowd”, or volunteers dedicated to keeping Wikipedia as trustworthy site. 

Countries must also develop strong laws against “hacking”, or the infiltration of computer networks by rogue elements to cause mischief, steal data or wreak major havoc on society.  This area will not be discussed in detail in this paper, but given the post-conflict nature of many of the countries in the Arab world, is significant investment of time and resources to build cyber security defenses, and to train personnel to identify hacking, will be critical. 

The reliability of the Internet infrastructure is an issue in many of the smaller, middle-income nations of the region.  While mobile phone penetration is strong, and access to the Internet through phones solid, there is concern about connectivity in far-flung regions and among marginalized populations.    Reliability can be addressed by ensuring that the government, either directly or through private partners, has made broadband and mobile access available to all at low rates.   

Another issue of reliability relates to appropriateness.  For the Internet and technology to be reliable, it must be considered trustworthy.  If the content is not viewed as reliable, the use of technology will quickly diminish.  We are seeing this in the United States, where subscriptions to cable television are dropping quickly as consumers begin to distrust some of their traditional sources of information.   

Lastly, Arab nations will need to address the affordability of technology, the Internet and content.  While mobile penetration is high, phones are not the best tools by which to conduct work or learning.  For this, computers, tablets and networked workstations are much better.  Through government programs or subsidies, the Arab nations must increase the penetration of computers that can be used to improve society.  For post-conflict nations, a model similar to the way in which mobile phone companies in Asia and Africa have reduced the costs of Internet browsing may be the best.  


  1. IX. Recommendations- Process

 5A Framework Journey


Regardless of the area of innovation, the technology opportunity or the capital available, each Arab nation will need to develop very specific, targeted processes by which to bring technology and innovation to their communities.   There will need to be national process and strategic planning all the way down to cities, towns and large government institutions.  Although there are many frameworks through which to do this, it essentially comes down to the following: 

  • Assess the Capabilities to Innovate 

Organizations need to identify areas where they are best suited for innovation, as government, company or investors.  While governments can wade into sectors in which they have no experience, this has generally not been successful.  From this point, organizations must develop their own capacities to support innovation – as funder, NGO, company, university or corporate leader.  They must build the capability of staff, vendors, and their larger networks to collectively identify targets.  They must then contextualize the innovation process for their nation – which will be different in every Arab nation depending on their resources and partnerships.  They must develop an innovation strategy that maps out their focus on how they will roll out new technologies, and lastly, they must create an aspirational vision for innovation and large-scale impact that can inspire the whole company or organization.  

  • Accelerate Ideas, Technologies and Innovation to bring them to market 

Technology acceleration means different things in different environments, which is why it is important for organizations to contextualize their innovation for their nations and sectors.  For Arab nations, acceleration is about building a culture of moving from ideas to successful product launches.   Some of the standard processes here include the promotion of idea generation, accessing perspectives and research through outsiders, and making each round of idea generation more complex than the previous.  It involves prototyping, piloting and implementing multiple ideas in parallel, called rapid prototyping, and making decisions quickly about which ideas are making progress and which are not.  And for governments and universities, acceleration involves sharing and strengthening their innovative ideas through knowledge sharing forums and documentation.   

In the second stage of acceleration, organizations must prepare to go through these steps again and again until successful ideas are proven and paired up with the capital and partnerships needed. They must put in the effort to identify seed funding, business leaders with experience in these technology sectors, and create a company or NGO that can move forward.  Accelerators are not limited to tech startups, even though the media highlights this to our detriment.  Accelerators can be used in nearly any sector, as well as by governments for their own programs, and for NGOs to launch social innovations.    

To date, only about 3-6% of the world’s startup accelerators are in the Middle East. We don’t know for sure because the countries of the Arab region are measured as part of Africa or Asia.  But in general, most of them are just startup training academies, where the earliest stage companies go when they are testing their ideas out.  And in most cases, these accelerators provide the same combination of services – office space, access to mentors and advisors in their field, and targeted training in entrepreneurial education.    The startups in the region today are very IT-centric, with a heavy emphasis on IoT, Big Data and Fintech.  An appendix is attached with more information.  

  • Activate technologies and innovations from research and prototype into products and services 

Arab nations will need to develop more long-term capacity for them to be able to “activate” more local technologies and innovations.  In this stage, when technologies and innovations are proven in the market at a pilot stage and launched as a company or program, they must put in place the systems and management practices that any organization needs.  They must be able to fundraise from investors if they are a technology backed business, or raise debt capital from friends/family or banks.  In either case, it’s important that there are startup showcases where technology entrepreneurs can showcase their products and companies to secure their capital.  More importantly, they need support recruiting connections to large corporations, government agencies to secure contracts. This remains very difficult in the Arab region because of the lack of local corporations that invest in R&D or conduct deals with startups.  And most challenging will be to help these technology startups to recruit talented managers and leaders with technology startup experience.  Over the next few years, Arab world startups will still be heavily reliant on Arabs in the diaspora or foreign nationals to take some of these spots. But in about a decade’s time, there will be a technology sector management class in the region that can play this role. 

  • Analyze the success or failure of technology and innovation to achieve change 

As the startup ecosystems grow in these countries, each nation will organically develop large data sets about technology and innovation.  They will be able to assess the success and failure of various technologies, as well as conduct comparisons to similar technologies or startups worldwide.  At this point, governments can begin to look at sector and market intelligence, along with industry reports, local events and feedback and best practices to build programs that further build the capabilities of their startup ecosystem.  

  • Associate with global technologies and innovations that may be useful 

In the nations of the world with the most vibrant startup ecosystem – the United States, Germany, India, China, Singapore and the Philippines, there is much cross-border collaboration.  But this was not possible until each ecosystem became mature and capable of collaborating with external partners on technology development.   For the Arab region, there is an opportunity to associate with technologies in the region, but also worldwide.  There will be an opportunity, for example, to learn global best practices in safety apps for women that are developed in local languages, and how they are received in different countries by women.  They will be able to set up university collaborations more easily worldwide.  In addition, investors from around the world will begin to find Arab-region based startups and begin investing locally.  There will be a tipping point at which the world becomes aware that the Arab region, and large cities such as Cairo, Dubai, Abu-Dhabi and Amman are developing good products and have talented programmers and engineers.  At that point, all of these collaborators, investors, researchers will begin to show up on their own. 


 Foreign Direct Investment

Source:; World Bankxxxvi 




Top Startup Sectors 





Startup Incubators / Accelerators 



Startup Incubators / Accelerators 


Bring IoT MENA 


Saudi Arabia 

GearUp Saudi 







Tenmou Applications 



The Space 


GearUP Bahrain 



Lean Startup Circle 


Influx Trust Global Hackathon 



+ 15 more 


Al Jebra Foundation 



Fast Forward 


GearUP Qatar 


Stars of Science 




Lean Startup Circle 





Open Coffee club 







RAK Incubation 2017 





Intelak Incubation Program 





in5 Innovation Hub 





The Basement Project DMCC 



Startup Moroc 







AstroLabs Dubai 



Impact Lab 


+ 40 more 



Lean Startup Circle 


GearUp Kuwait 



MENA Apps 

Oasis 500  



Savour Kuwait 





Startup Kuwait 

Sirdab Labs 




Microsoft (MIC) Incubator 


GearUp Oman 





Wadi Accelerator 





OFT Accelerator 















The Nucleus 








Juice Labs 

Greek Campus 







Startup Next 










Lean Startup Circle 





+ 10 others 





ICTI Bootcamp 





Lean Startup Circle 





Solar-E-cycles produce bicycles and other vehicles powered by solar panels. 






Meddy is a platform for booking healthcare appointments. 




nextProtein is developing a large scale and sustainable insect based source of protein. The bioconversion of fly larvae fed with organic waste generates valuable feed components for fish, livestock and pets. Headquartered in France with operations in Tunisia. 




 Solar Cycles


Solar-E-cycles produce bicycles and other vehicles powered by solar panels. 







Meddy is a platform for booking healthcare appointments. 





nextProtein is developing a large scale and sustainable insect based source of protein. The bioconversion of fly larvae fed with organic waste generates valuable feed components for fish, livestock and pets. Headquartered in France with operations in Tunisia.