The World Government Summit: How The UAE’s Past Informs Its Future by [email protected]

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.”

U.S. 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 U.S.”

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 A.D. and 1200 A.D. 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 U.S. 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 U.S., 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 U.K.’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

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