The Blog

Technical Innovation Will Redefine Middle East and Africa Within Decades

The face of the Middle East is changing fast. Our grandchildren will not recognise the image we currently have of a region with an overwhelming dependence on oil for its vast wealth.

The face of the Middle East is changing fast. Our grandchildren will not recognise the image we currently have of a region with an overwhelming dependence on oil for its vast wealth.

Instead, future generations will see the fruits of a wholly admirable investment in innovation which is promising to reshape the stereotypical view of the economies of countries from Egypt to Oman.

Unlikely as it may sound at first glance, there are many similarities with Africa, where long-standing "traditional" sectors such as farming and mining are already being forced to share the limelight with newer developments.

In Kenya, for example, its long-standing association with coffee and tea, the latter of which is still its main export, is facing serious competition from the cut-flower industry.

Kenya's flower growers have taken advantage of a relaxation in protectionist trade regulations and now produce an annual revenue of nearly US$600 million.

The industry's leap is an example of innovative regional economic development that is pushing forward the entire national economy.

Thanks to its cheap and relatively educated labour force, good climate and proximity to Europe's big markets, Kenya is now the fifth largest flower exporter in the world and, according to the Economist, provides 25% of Europe's cut flowers.

In Rwanda, where the coffee industry has been a mainstay, a fledgling stock market is paving the way for a financial industry.

In the Middle East, government-led initiatives designed to foster innovation are creating a surge in development.

Institutions such as The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Qatar Foundation and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia are all proof of the increasing relevance of innovation and its capacity to reshape economies.

Technology is a vital component of this shifting industrial landscape.

In defence, as shown by the cutting-edge products on display at the IDEX trade show in Abu Dhabi this week, manufacturers constantly hothouse innovation in a bid to stay ahead.

In energy, Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer, plans to become 100% powered by renewable and low-carbon forms of fuel, according to a spokesman of the royal family.

The United Arab Emirates is also focusing very heavily on innovation with an eye on a less oil-rich future.

Many people might not immediately identify the Middle East as a pioneer in technological innovation, but its countries are starting to make a name for themselves among tech experts.

Although the Middle East is not yet a leading player, its investment in innovation means it will quickly establish itself amongst the leaders in the hot topics of cloud computing, social media, mobile technology and big data analytics.

The region already hosts global summits with some of the world's influential tech leaders, including Michael Dell, the founder of the firm of his own name, who recently bought it back.

However, investment in innovation takes time to bear fruit and the number of patents filed in the UAE and Saudi does not compare well to other, more established innovators.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), in 2010, the UAE filed 113 patents and Saudi filed 804.

The figure for the UK was over 42,000 while the US filed more than 415,000 patents in the same year.

As in the Middle East, technology is giving a boost to Africa's innovators.

Africa has twice as many mobile phones as the United States and the booming middle classes mean Africa has the fastest growing mobile market in the world, as recognised by experts at the Centre for Policy & Education, in Accra, Ghana.

The economically liberated attitudes of the telecoms companies has fuelled this growth, by unpacking their infrastructure, selling radio masts to third parties and leasing them back, and using neat solutions for delivering to customers.

However, too many African economies are over-dependent on government spending.

Africa's governments should look to the Middle East for inspiration on where to invest, there are more parallels than might be assumed.

While the Arab nations are among the wealthiest in the world and Africa's among the poorest, innovation unites us and it is innovation which will reshape our nations for the decades ahead.