The Emirates is ranked 26th in a world survey on innovation, down from 14th place in the same survey last year. The US finished on top for the second successive year on the Global Innovation Index (GII), compiled by the business school, INSEAD, and the Confederation of Indian Industry. It was followed by Germany, Sweden, the UK and Singapore.
While the UAE lost ground, it still ranks highly in the region. Of the GCC countries, only Qatar ranked higher, at 24th. Kuwait ranked 30th, Saudi Arabia was 32nd, Bahrain was 34th and Oman was 52nd. "These governments and national leaderships are using their wealth to beef up their competitive abilities through high innovation and ICT [information and communication technology] usages," the report said of the resource-rich Gulf countries.
"Qatar, with a per-capita income of US$62,000 (Dh227,730), is incorporating national initiatives to instil changes and innovations at the societal and business levels. All of these efforts will ensure to a certain extent that despite the performance of the crude barometer in the coming years, the innovation momentum will be supported." The rankings were based on a broad compilation of 92 economic indicators, including how long it takes to start a business, control of corruption, literacy rates, internet use, ease of access to stock markets, wealth and spending on innovation.
The Emirates topped the ranking in "age structure", or the percentage of the population that is between 15 and 64 years old, and in mobile phone subscribers per capita. The country also scored well in the "entrepreneurs as role models" category, where it ranked third, "overall infrastructure quality", where it was 11th, and GDP per capita, where it finished fifth. Soumitra Dutta, an INSEAD professor and the report's main author, defended the broad take on innovation implied in the GII's methodology.
"Innovation today has become a more broad-based, horizontal concept that takes into account societal innovations, innovation in governance and innovation in citizen engagement," he said. "It's not just creating your next Macintosh or your next phone." Numerous projects and investments have been initiated or proposed across the nation to foster innovation and help diversify the economy away from oil and towards renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.
Masdar, an initiative in Abu Dhabi that promotes the development and use of renewable-energy technologies, is a cornerstone of the emirate's ambition to achieve this aim. According to the GII report, this kind of investment in innovation holds out promise for countries such as the UAE, despite its slip down the rankings since the first GII appeared last year. "While the three countries in the Middle East and West Asia region - Israel, UAE and Qatar - continue to show promise, they have moved down in the ranking compared with last year," the report said.
"All these three countries benefit from a few common denominators. One - oil wealth, the relatively low population base, high per capita income and the smallness of the countries make it easier to implement policies. Two - all of them have benefited from government and political leadership that sets them apart from their neighbours through policies designed to attract skilled workers and technology-intensive companies."
Still, the UAE and the rest of the Gulf countries may have a long way to go until they fully realise their potential for innovation. While the UAE has invested heavily in initiatives that have attracted world-class talent to work on the development and use of new technologies, it may take some time before the country can call itself a force in "fundamental" innovation, or the creation of new technologies and systems from scratch.
"I can see major contributions in the UAE in the fields of engineering innovation and infrastructure development," said Dr Thomas Gering, of the CSEM-UAE Innovation Centre, a joint partnership based in Ras al Khaimah. "Fundamental innovation, however, is something different. Fundamental innovation results in completely new products and processes that are disrupting existing markets while creating formerly non-existing ones.
"In this area, I have not seen many efforts by UAE institutions so far." firstname.lastname@example.org