Even as the specter of political instability weighs heavily on the region, the Middle East is quietly experiencing a technological and societal transformation that could hold the keys to a better future. The foundation of this change is based on two powerful components: the rapidly increasing access to technology in the Middle East, and the region’s comparatively young population, over 30 percent of which are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. The interaction of the two, combustible as it can be, is also likely to provide a historic and unparalleled opportunity.
We believe that only a “big bang” reform focused on creating an economic ecosystem conducive to technology-enabled entrepreneurship—which has equal ramifications across the broader economy—with dramatic changes in regulatory, financial, trade, and educational systems will be ambitious enough to overcome entrenched business as usual. In fact, ignoring this opportunity risks that it will become harder to ever catch up over time.
Principles and Objectives Guiding a New Choice: Unleashing Human Capital
A. The ramifications of tech-enabled entrepreneurship
The ramifications on entrepreneurship for economic growth and job creation are readily apparent in examples across the world. Such enterprises not only experience higher and faster growth because of the low costs inherent in starting a business and reaching and marketing to new customers, but offer a multiplier effect of creating new investment and new entrepreneurs as enterprises succeed. Such enterprises are similarly the largest and most successful job creators.
B. Education for the twenty-first century economy
Essential to an economy’s vibrancy is the quality, relevance, and applicability of its education sector. Overall, policy should focus on students’ need to think critically as well as skills relevant to the twenty-first century, as opposed to rote memorization geared toward passing national tests.
Opportunity in education technology:
In the short term, the sheer math of the birth rates versus physical resources available for education is daunting. Nevertheless, technology offers an unprecedented opportunity as societies with increased access to technology to now supplement education, and learn in new ways reaching a scale of students unimaginable a few years ago.
Opportunity in making education immediately applicable
Any education system is as useful as its curriculum’s applicability to current and future employment requirements. Effective curricula should consist of creative and timely content and use cutting-edge methodologies that emphasize critical thinking and have a strong focus on preparing students for the global job market.
Opportunity in engaging and partnering with the private sector
The involvement of the private sector in these educational issues is essential–few have a bigger stake in having a skilled and innovative work force. Businesses in the region are beginning to take this responsibility more seriously.
C. The importance of the right legal and regulatory climate
Four factors maximize a tech-enabled, entrepreneurial business climate: 1) Consistent, understandable, and predictable rule of law; 2) the free movement of ideas, goods, and people across markets; 3) world-class technological infrastructure and; 4) easy access to growth capital. The four, in fact, are interrelated.
The very act of introducing seriously the potential and ramifications of universal access to technology in policy deliberations is a significant first step. Too often both in the region and in the United States, tech is treated as a side show to conventional policy making as opposed to an engine for economic growth or societal problem-solving.
A. Building a world-class education system targeted to the needs of the new century:
Any efforts on what to teach is secondary to how to teach, with the goal of emphasizing critical thinking over rote learning and standardized test. In addition we could add:
1. Unified and clear communication of the challenges in education and potential of new technology to address them
2. Increased prioritization and financial support for recruiting and retaining world-class teachers
3. Clear prioritization on encouraging local language teaching
4. Greater experimentation with best practices in private schools
5. Greater emphasis on regulatory reform in education, allowing increased private sector innovation and engagement
6. Focus efforts for early identification of entrepreneurship talent
B. On building an economic environment conducive to twenty-first century global needs:
Any policy and regulatory regime that has as its goal helping the increased movement of people, ideas goods/services, and capital—with consistent application of those laws and rules—are at the essence of the most successful economic environments. These include
1. Loosen trade restrictions
2. Encourage the free circulation of knowledge and technology
3. Reform investment laws to encourage tech-based innovation
4. Modernize regulatory regimes
5. Facilitate risk protection for early stage investors
6. Recognize that what is good for start-ups is good for the economy as a whole
7. The US government can play a lesser role to encourage engagement and bridge building between among the region (but the private sector must lead)
8. Further bridge building and the diaspora
It is easy to dismiss innovation as fringe or elite, thereby failing to adequately account for their transformative potential and multiplying effects. For those who choose to engage and harness these trends for pressing challenges like job creation, education, health, and the environment, opportunities exist now that were unavailable only a few short years ago. People in the Middle East literally have the tools in their hands to solve their own problems without waiting for government institutions, and they are deploying them.