The Golden Age of Islam informs the modern knowledge economy

An education model for the post-oil economy already exists, writes Peter Hatherley-Greene

Late last year, the UAE launched its science, technology and innovation policy, which includes 100 initiatives in education, health, energy, transportation, space and water. It is designed to prepare the country for a time when it is no longer dependent on oil exports.

This follows a similar call back in August 2009, when the Department of Economic Development released a paper titled “The Importance of Transferring into a Knowledge Economy and Anticipated Social Effect”. The summary covered many of the possible negative and positive outcomes arising from such an endeavour including widespread unemployment due to skills deficit or mismatch, the threat to national identity through increased globalisation, the development of the country’s human capital and the significant role of women.

One of the key challenges identified in the paper is the “ability to develop the national human capital of citizens able to lead the process of transition towards a knowledge economy”. It went on to recommend further investment in construction of schools, adoption of educational technology and increased research. Interestingly, the paper did not mention the significant role that teachers might play in creating exciting and challenging learning environments that motivate the young, spurring them on to a lifelong exploration of knowledge and acquisition of skills.

The development of human capital is undermined by a number of factors that include social disengagement, affluence negatively affecting family units and lifestyles, a poorly performing education system, and an absence of grit and resilience in young adults.

Building a knowledge economy on the current social base will simply not work.

And so I am drawn back to another time when Arab societies produced new knowledge in science, mathematics, philosophy, culture, architecture, medicine, astronomy, engineering and geography at a time when western Europe was steeped in the superstition and ignorance of the Dark Ages. The cities of Baghdad and Damascus were furious intellectual cauldrons from which earth-shattering advances were forged and then shared with the rest of the world through both written treatises and conquest.

A number of factors – such as instructions from the Quran and Prophet Mohammed; a unified empire facilitating easier communication through a common Arabic language; its new script and the use of paper; translations of ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese texts into Arabic; establishment of libraries and universities; and the encouragement of independent reasoning – all appear to have coalesced to create what is often referred to as the Golden Age of Islam.

What can the UAE learn from those times to assist in developing its own knowledge economy?

It starts at both the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy. Political patronage, financial support and encouragement through initiatives such as the science, technology and innovation policy set the goals that the leadership encourages the country to pursue. The human capital should be in a position to assist in achieving those goals through the possession of knowledge, skills, emotional awareness, soft-skills in communication and self-management, curiosity, intrinsic motivation, grit and resilience.

Almost all of these traits of human capital are obtained within an individual’s first 20 years of life, beginning in the home and local community, transiting to junior and senior schools, and ending in postsecondary education and training.

Right now, Arabic translation of books published outside the region is at an all-time low. Knowledge today is built upon the knowledge of yesterday, so it is imperative that wide dissemination and discussion of all knowledge takes place in an atmosphere of reasoned debate and openness.

Such a model exists in the region today – King Abdulla University of Science and Technology (KAUST) north of Jeddah is the first mixed-gender university campus in Saudi Arabia. Its enrolment has continued to climb since 2009 as it attracts bright students from around the world, notably from China, India and Saudi Arabia. High academic entry standards and rigorous examination criteria, backed by some of the most gifted and smartest teachers from all corners of the Earth, has enabled KAUST to climb over 100 points in just three years in global university rankings (in 2015, it was 350th out of 500).

The UAE needs to create its own knowledge hub to which students from around the world will come. It is hosting foreign universities on its soil, but it has the capacity right now to offer an extraordinary learning experience to the world.

Dr Peter J Hatherley-Greene is ­director of learning at Emarise