The Brain Game


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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Qatar's diversification project came back under discussion this week, after visiting former US President Bill Clinton laid out his blueprint for Middle Eastern economic growth.

At the same time, the debate has turned on the crucial issue of attracting foreign talent and technology creators to the region, and the creation of knowledge-based economies.

Clinton was speaking at a conference entitled "The Power of Prosperity: An Opportunity for Growth, Development, and Reform in the Middle East" run jointly by the Qatar Foundation and UCLA's Ronald W Burkle Center for International Relations.

The former US leader said Qatar had a special role to play in driving technological innovation throughout the region, giving a symbolic boost to the nation's efforts to recast itself as a knowledge hub.

Yet, as Ben Figgis, marketing manager at the Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP), told OBG this week, Qatar still has some way to go before reaching that illusive status of "knowledge-based economy".

Qatar has a no homegrown IT start-ups - something which the QSTP plans to change. Situated on a 48.5-ha tax-free zone in Doha, it has been paid for by the Qatar Foundation and is administered by the UK's ANGLE technology, a consulting firm that has helped UK universities commercialise their projects.

"When you see the first Qatari CEO, the local papers will go nuts," Figgis said. "The test will come when we ramp up our business incubation programme in mid-2007."

That is when the Qatar Foundation, which has been tasked with oil revenue re-distribution, adds a $100m venture capital fund to the mix. "We've seen a few technology entrepreneurs in the Middle East so far, but it will be a while before launching a new company after college becomes as commonplace as in, say, Boston," Figgis said.

The park is scheduled to be fully open by the end of 2006.

"What QSTP has done well so far is attract genuine research activities. There are many real estate projects in the region with a technology flavour, but QSTP is being so strict that to come here you need to be doing real technology development," Figgis added.

ExxonMobil and Shell both have facilities at the QSTP, as do General Electric and Microsoft, said Figgis. Not surprisingly, given the country's ambitions, ExxonMobil, the world's largest publicly trade oil and gas company, has a major stake in the country, playing an instrumental role in developing Qatar's reserves into liquid nitrogen gas, and now planning a $7bn project to develop a cleaner diesel fuel. Figgis stated in another report that international companies have already committed more than $100m of investment in research and commercialisation at QSTP over the next five years.

The comparison to university-rich Boston is apt, for the centrepiece of diversifying Qatar might just be Doha's Education Park, where five US universities have established mini-campuses in recent years. Proponents say these could add greater meritocracy to the admissions process than is typical in region and eventually send a lot of engineering graduates to the QSTP across the street.

At this point, the schools are small by Western standards, offering degrees in business, chemistry and engineering and with Weill Cornell offering a two-year preparatory programme and a medical degree. Students learn from the same curricula as their US counterparts and, once registered at one Education City institution, can also take courses at the others. The country began establishing relationships with the schools back in the late-1990s.

The Qatar Foundation expects Education City to gain at least one mini-campus each year through the rest of the decade.

Also in the works for 2010 is medical facility attached to Weill Cornell, with an $8bn annual budget and an annual research endowment of nearly $150m - about twice that of Cornell in the US. As with Qatar's overall effort to diversify, the universities remain a work in progress.

At the same time, some analysts wonder about the potential damage to indigenous Qatari culture that may go hand-in-hand with so much foreign expertise. There is also a worry about the degree of dependency on imported labour that results.

"A tribe of foreigners is educating the kids, building the buildings, running the businesses," Ben Reilly, who teaches history courses at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, commented on recently. "There is a very real fear that modernisation might be ephemeral if the expertise leaves."

Building a pool of local talent is therefore an important task - with the QSTP and Education City key factors in the country's future.

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