Our region’s greatest asset? It’s not oil but human capital

The biggest one is to make people assume personal responsibility to measure up to the parameters of excellence needed to drive the region's growth

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The greatest achievement of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, which concluded last weekend, was not its promotion of alternative sources of energy but how it demonstrated the potential of the region's best resource – our people.

We have been lulled into a false sense of security by the richness of our resources in the ground, and maybe more importantly, by our perception that these resources are indispensable to the rest of the world. Last week’s events focused on creativity of ideas, thought and innovation – all products of the human mind. Our region must wake up to the fact that the human mind is our greatest asset, rather than oil.

It is 10 years since the Arab Human Development Report identified a “knowledge deficit” as one of the most important challenges facing the Arab world.

It noted that we lagged behind other economies in our capacity to acquire and produce knowledge. On key indicators, such as the publication of scientific research papers and issuing new patents, the report found that Arabs were falling further behind and risk being condemned to “a marginal position in the next phase of human history”. How far we have come from those times when the world looked to our scientists, philosophers, doctors and teachers for learning and wisdom.

This challenge is about much more than the metrics of academic performance and economics. It is about creating a vision that people can believe in and instilling the motivation to hope for more among young people – and then providing them with the tools to achieve it.

More than a third of the Arab population is below the age of 15. This could be a huge source of social dynamism if we are able to harness their energies to meet the aspirations of the coming generation. But with youth unemployment currently standing at around 25 per cent, there is a very real risk that a lack of opportunity will fuel discontent and alienation instead.

The future of our society is at stake. By drawing on the cultural memory of a time when Arabs were at the forefront of learning and scientific discovery, we could and should build the foundations for an “Arab renaissance”. Much has been spoken about this, but there is much more to achieve. It is time for concerted action. Given that the GCC’s population is young, we only have a few decades to build these foundations. And every sector of society must play its role.

First, each GCC government needs to step up its investment in the human capital development of its citizenry to effectively harness its human energy. Tapping into the indefatigable energy pool of our people would yield infinitely more fortune than we ever could from all our hydrocarbon reservoirs combined. Human capital does not display the same characteristics of other physical resources – once activated, it does not become depleted. Paradoxically, it grows in value the more it is nurtured and shared.

Second, the private sector in each country must become willing partners with government in terms of training, knowledge transfer and recruiting, thus helping optimise the employability prospects of the local population. State capitalism has worked very well for the GCC economies so far, but it is unrealistic to expect the government to be the only source for sustaining prosperity indefinitely.

Third, and perhaps the most important, each GCC citizen must not see nationalisation programmes as a no-strings-attached privilege whereby they may gain employment without earning the required educational and professional merit.

Such a short-sighted view is not in keeping with the goal of sustainable progress upon which the well-being of our future generations depends. If we want to have a sustainable future as an integral part of the global economy, we have to be able to compete on an equal footing. That means that our people must assume personal responsibility to measure up to, even push, the parameters of excellence required to drive our economies to greater heights.

In the final tally, each nationalisation programme is a partnership between each citizen and their government, and only when each party fulfils its part can we hope to achieve the intended outcome. For the GCC, this should be part of a broader initiative to strike a balance between creating meaningful opportunities for our own population, optimising the contribution of the existing foreign workforce, and keeping our doors open to global collaboration. Striking this balance is far from easy, but we must keep building the momentum.

Nothing in Arab history or culture condemns countries of the Middle East and North Africa to the margins of the global knowledge society. Quite the contrary, learning and knowledge were intrinsic to our rise as a civilisation. Achieving these goals will not be possible without considerable effort over time. But with political will, proper investment and wise leadership, that past can also be a source of inspiration and hope for the future of our societies and our children.

Mohammed Mahfoodh Al Ardhi is the vice chairman of the National Bank of Oman and the former chief of the Omani Air Force