The World Government Summit: How the UAE’s past informs its future


The World Government Summit: How the UAE’s past informs its future

Attendees of the World Government Summit
Attendees at this year’s World Government Summit. (Image via The National / Pawan Singh)

This article is a crosspost with Knowledge@Wharton.

This year, Dubai played host to the 2016 World Government Summit, which was attended by more than 4,500 participants from 130 countries. The summit showcased “the tremendous growth of the UAE, the geopolitical, economic and social challenges it currently faces,” as well as its plans “to recapture its legacy of innovation in the sciences that goes back to the Islamic Golden Age,” according to the co-authors of this opinion piece. They include Daphne Chen, Crystal Nwokorie, Valentina Ryabova, Dongye Zhang and Ahmed Fikri — all students from the Wharton MBA Class of 2016 who attended this year’s summit.

The Dubai Museum is housed in the oldest building in the Emirate. It was built in 1787 as the Al Fahidi Fort and converted to a museum in 1971. It contains artifacts several millennia old. It is, in a sense, symbolic of the 2016 World Government Summit (WGS) held at various modern locations in the city recently. The theme of the WGS was “Advancing the Future While Preserving the Past.”

US President Barack Obama presented the keynote address by video link on the opening day of the summit. “When a government listens to its people, that is how we move forward,” he said. “Embracing reform will continue to have a partner and friend in the US.”

Reform has been a way of life in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has undergone an incredible identity transformation since the birth of the confederation in 1971. (Dubai is the largest city in the UAE) What was once a network of loosely organized, semi-nomadic communities is now one of the wealthiest, most-educated and perhaps even happiest countries. It is now the most diversified economy in the Gulf and the second-largest economy in the Arab world.

It is, therefore, appropriate that the UAE play host to the WGS, which it has done since the summits started in 2013. The 2017 summit will expand the canvas further. According to Ohood Khalfan Al Roumi, the UAE’s minister of state for happiness who is also vice-chairman of the organizing committee of the WGS, among other things the summit will be opened to participation from companies and organizations.

This year’s summit, attended by more than 4,500 participants from 130 countries, was a testament to the tremendous growth of the UAE, the geopolitical, economic and social challenges it currently faces, and the lessons that other nations might glean from its 40-year history in nation-building. It was a forum that brought together thought leaders and innovators from all around the world, from fields as diverse as international development, energy, biomedicine and space travel.

The summit provided an overview of how the UAE plans to recapture its legacy of innovation in the sciences that goes back to the Islamic Golden Age, a period between 800 AD and 1200 AD marked by momentous intellectual and cultural achievements. This was a time when the Muslim world, not the West, was the center of science and innovation. People from around the world descended on the Middle East to learn under the tutelage of great intellectuals like Ibn Al-Haytham, the father of modern physics, and Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al-Razi, an influential philosopher and ophthalmologist of the time. In their lectures on Islamic Science and the Islamic Golden Age, Jim Al-Khalili, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, reminded the summit participants that the key to this period’s success was a culture of inquiry, dominated by people who were not afraid to challenge and be challenged.

Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum warned governments that the technological and innovation revolution was coming like a tsunami, so they had better be prepared for it.

The obstacle the UAE now faces as it attempts to breathe life into this legacy is not only to remind its constituents that innovation is a birthright, but also to put in place programs and education that further its plan to demonstrate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) leadership in a world where innovation is currently largely a Western export. If the Middle East was once the bedrock of global innovation, what is stopping the region from resurrecting this legacy and what role will the UAE play in leading the charge?

The fourth industrial revolution

One of the voices leading the campaign for nations to become better stewards of innovation was Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), who took the stage to describe his theory of the fourth industrial revolution, based on the premise that technology, digitization and the Internet of Things is transforming the way we interact on social, physical and even biological levels. He warned governments that the technological and innovation revolution is coming like a tsunami, so they had better be prepared for it. For the UAE and many Middle East nations, adapting to the new systems that spring from this revolution requires more than just investment in science and technology. It requires a culture of innovation and discovery, once abundant in the region and which is now experiencing revitalization.

One initiative that was discussed during the summit was the UAE’s first mission to Mars. Concern has been increasing about the mismatch between demand and supply of qualified STEM professionals in the UAE. Increasingly, nations are attempting to close that gap. As Ibrahim Al Qasim, director of education and media outreach for the Emirates Mars Mission, and Tyson both noted, the space race of the 1960s was responsible for a generation of young minds getting interested in the sciences. Making big bets to stimulate and glamorize such endeavors is, at the very least, a bold move to enliven interest in STEM.

A central question of the summit was: What is the role of government? After three days of seminars, speeches and discussions, the answer seemed to converge around the idea that governments should become a platform for the delivery of public services. With people becoming ever more fluent with technology and interfacing with digital objects, if governments are to survive, they must adapt to such trends. Computing power doubles every 18 months. People are moving faster and expecting more than ever before.

One example of experimentation with the government-as-a-platform idea was the launch of healthcare.gov in the US. Despite the desire to meet users online, where they are comfortable ordering other services, the healthcare.gov launch was a disaster and its enrollment rates low — a question mark on whether or not the government is even capable of running such platforms. Beyond the US, even in high-income OECD countries, it still takes more than eight working days and about five different procedures to open a new business.

With people becoming ever more fluent with technology and interfacing with digital objects, if governments are to survive, they must adapt to such trends.

Some promising early signs are now visible, such as the UK’s government-as-a-platform initiative and the UAE’s government portal government.ae, indicating that the effort towards the plug-and-play mode of government services is still being tinkered with and improved. However, some wonder whether or not the private sector is better equipped to deal with such services.

The integration doctrine

Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, shared with the audience the UAE’s integration doctrine. In this approach, the leadership, government and community work hand in hand to continuously learn from the past to better prepare for the future. Governments have to be proactive in foreseeing disruptions and planning for them to eliminate the risk of failure caused by surprised reactive responses. This is only achievable when governments are aligned on the vision and are collaborating rather than competing on the implementation. The integration doctrine sees past failures as valuable opportunities to learn and improve rather than a chance to blame someone else.

With the celebration of the UAE’s advancement comes the realization of how fragile this prosperity might be due to the political and economic turmoil in the region. Given the deep interdependencies among Arab countries, the UAE’s prosperity is highly dependent on the prosperity of its neighbors. In the past, it was this very interconnectedness that allowed the region to flourish. Therefore, significant attention at the summit was given to not only how to advance future development but also how to preserve those precious results that were so hard to achieve. Arab countries have a lot of potential for economic growth that is determined by the availability of natural resources, human capital and young working populations. However, political and social unrest in the region might prevent countries from realizing these resources to their fullest potential.

Five Challenges for the Arab Region

Speaking at the summit, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) secretary general Abdullatif Al Zayani shared five challenges that should be collaboratively addressed by Arab countries in order to preserve and enhance the prosperity of the region and of each individual state.

— Collaboration and a shared vision are key to stabilizing the situation in the region. The scale and magnitude of the current political and economic turmoil in the region are such that no one individual state has the capabilities to resolve the situation on its own. At the same time, no individual state can afford to not take action under the current circumstances, as inaction deters investments, partners and business from the region.

— Restoring safety and security. Arab nations must provide a safe and secure environment to all its citizens. It is crucial to create a secure environment to facilitate economic growth and to attract foreign capital, especially given that some Arab states are in the process of diversifying their economies away from dependence on fossil fuels. For example, the UAE’s ambition is to become a global hub for associations, tourism and commerce. This aspiration will be challenging to achieve unless tourists and investors believe in the UAE's commitment to safety with respect to not only the UAE but also its neighbors. Gaps in security have already more than halved the tourism industries in Egypt and Tunisia.

— The eradication of terrorism. Terrorism in the region remains a wide-ranging threat to political, economic and social stability. Terrorism should be eliminated by averting terrorist funding and preventing atrocities through cooperation between international police and national governments.

Significant attention at the summit was given to not only how to advance future development, but also how to preserve those precious results that were so hard to achieve.

— Mobilizing efforts and resources by Arab countries to provide assistance to millions of displaced refugees from Palestine, Syria and Libya. Arab countries cannot accept watching Syrian children die of hunger or drown in the Mediterranean. Unified efforts should be employed to provide human relief to all such refugees. This plea arrives in the midst of the migrant crisis in Europe. Hosting Arab nations should provide those people who seek asylum from repressive regimes with all necessary support to establish themselves in a new place, such as access to health care, education and employment.

— Initiating of the process of national reconciliation among Arab countries. Many Arab countries will need to be reconstructed both physically and institutionally. Arab people in those countries should be guaranteed human rights and the hope for a better future. Those Arab countries devastated by wars and social unrest lack sufficient resources to reconstruct their cities and societies. Surrounding Arab nations should collaboratively assist in the restoration of peace in their less fortunate neighbors.

All this is easier said than done. But the summit lit up the road ahead. The WGS bills itself as “a knowledge exchange platform at the intersection between government, futurism, technology and innovation. It functions as a thought leadership platform and networking hub for policymakers, experts and pioneers in human development. The summit is a gateway to the future.”

Dubai 2016 showed some glimpses through that gateway.

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