Can the Middle East be the centre of the post-pandemic world?

The Arab world can once again be the place for new ideas and talent, as we seek solutions for an uncertain future

Message/Messenger by artist Abdulnasser Gharem is an installation of wood and copper at the Arabic Language Summit at Expo 2020 Dubai. Leslie Pableo for The National
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In the 13th century, the Mongols underlined the end of the Arab and Islamic world’s pre-eminence when the forces of Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid empire.

Many myths surround that fateful event, notably how the Tigris ran black with ink as the countless volumes from the Dar Al Hikma, House of Wisdom library were thrown into the river. Regardless of historical accuracy, the story offers a truthful appraisal that this event signalled the end of an era sometimes called a Golden Age for science, philosophy, culture and the arts in the Middle East.

Almost a millennium later, in this region it is once again a time for ideas – and the men and women who can bring them to life.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice-President and Ruler of Dubai, is putting Dh100 million towards gathering 1,000 great Arab minds. The initiative aims to support these Arab pioneers connect "with global scholars, researchers and companies to help develop their ideas and further sharpen their talents". The 1,000 great minds include experts in the fields of physics, mathematics, coding, research and economics. These would be in addition to the brilliant people already in the UAE.

“Great minds built Arab civilisation – today I believe we have the talent to build a better world,” Sheikh Mohammed said.

Dubai plans to double the contribution of the creative sector to its gross domestic product to 5 per cent by 2025 and Dubai Airport Free Zone's "talent pass" aims to draw media, education, technology, art, marketing and consultancy professionals to the emirate.

Expo 2020 Dubai, where pavilions are showcasing innovative technologies together with examples of culture and history from nearly 200 countries, is a living embodiment of how striking the right balance between preserving the past and preparing for the future can offer an exciting vision for prosperity for generations to come.

A coalescing of such talent in a single place in the Middle East for the first time in a thousand years would provide a period of momentum for ideas to be turned into action that could benefit those living within the region and beyond.

This is not to suggest that life was better during Abbasid times. When the vaults of second Calipha, Abu Jafaar Al Mansour – who founded the Round City of Baghdad – were opened after his death, the remains of many of his rivals were discovered there.

They were brutal times indeed, like it was in much of the world then. Harking back a thousand years offers an illustration that is meant to inspire and provide confidence in what we can achieve when we work towards a shared goal. Such examples have been rare over the past century. The outlook for the Middle East is more positive despite the impact of the pandemic.

In his new book, the World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman, Klaus Schwab, argues that “co-operation, innovation, morality, public policies and business” are all key components for a future of immense potential. “Going into 2022, we all look forward to a better future. Yet, the challenges we are facing coming out of the pandemic are multi-fold and interconnected,” Professor Schwab said.

Written with Thierry Malleret, The Great Narrative offers “ideas for a constructive, common narrative" gleaned from 50 leading thinkers such as economist Niall Ferguson, futurists Amy Webb and Marina Gorbis, philosophers Amie Thomasson and Annita Allen-Castellito, and scientists David Sinclair and Johan Rockstrom.

Looking to fresh perspectives and thinking is not about being radical or tearing up existing systems

Some of the ideas we need to shape this future are already finding their way into policy and decision-making such as action on climate change that includes spurring investment in alternative fuels. It may not have lived up to everyone’s expectations but the Cop26 meeting in Glasgow last year was largely constructive in harnessing global efforts to meet goals that are at risk of being missed without further efforts.

Other persistent challenges also need good ideas. For example, the refugee crisis that has increased in visibility in recent years needs an approach that goes beyond the physical beefing up of border controls.

Scaling up job creation amid economy-wide disruption will require more than just money. Re-gearing education to support such shifts also requires co-operation across different fields. The private and public sectors have to be equal partners, a balance that is difficult to achieve.

Overall, however, looking to fresh perspectives and thinking is not about being radical or tearing up existing systems – between Covid-19 and digitalisation there are enough revolutionary forces at work.

The ideas we need today seek to preserve everything that is good while helping to achieve equity in the areas that urgently need developing. Although there are no short cuts to solving our problems, we should take a moment to celebrate that it is once again a time for ideas in the Middle East and for the men and women that can turn them into action to come to the fore.

Published: January 13, 2022, 4:00 AM