Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: 07 December ,2022:

The UK’s Prince William recently announced that the Omani climate change company 44.01 was one of the five winners of the prestigious Earthshot prize for environmental innovation. Arabs must celebrate this success, and scientifically study the factors that allowed them to win so that other Arab projects can follow their path.

When it comes to gaining global recognition for innovation, Arabs are severe laggards. Anti-Arab discrimination and bigotry among those who choose winners of international prizes such as the Nobel likely plays a role.

However, the most important factor is that Arabs have anemic levels of innovation due to a wide variety of local structural impediments.

In the era of climate change and economic nationalism, innovation is not a luxury. Peoples need it to solve their complex local problems, and to grow their economies in a sustainable manner. Arabs are no exception to this maxim, and so they should look at their poor representation in global innovation awards with concern, as it reflects a deeper lack of capacity to produce novel ideas, products, and services.

Some countries in the region – most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE – have started to address the barriers to innovation by reforming education, improving access to foreign direct investment, encouraging entrepreneurship, allocating greater funding to research and development, and so on. However, the return on these efforts remains very low compared to the spending, and so policymakers should be keen on learning from any relevant success stories.

The Omani company 44.01 falls into this category. Its basic idea is turning malignant CO2 into a benign rock known as peridotite, offering an innovative solution to the problem of climate change. The business’ team seems to be a diverse range of local and foreign talent based in Oman, and in addition to their Muscat office, they have a branch in the UAE and the UK.

Arabs should be proud that an Arab business full of Arabs is producing world class innovation. They should be even prouder given the gravity of the problem that they are trying to solve.

Unfortunately, professional jealousy is rife in the Arab world, and so a typical reaction to learning about 44.01’s recognition by the Earthshot judging panel would be negative rather than positive. Some Arabs will question if there is some conspiratorial interest that explains their success, while others will instinctively look to find flaws in their ideas as they seek an excuse to dismiss them.

Even more tragically, this kind of negative attitude can be especially acute among the region’s policymakers. Some Arab elites regard themselves as the unique gatekeepers for recognition in their countries, and they are irritated when one of their compatriots receives international acclaim that exceeds the recognition that the local establishment has bestowed upon that individual.

Hopefully, Arabs will be aware that this mentality is destructive and runs counter to the prescriptions derived from both religious and secular best practices. Upon hearing of 44.01’s success, Arab policymakers should immediately look to transform 44.01 from a one-off that fizzles out into the progenitor for many more Arab success stories.

To do this, the first step is to assemble a taskforce that will study the company’s systems and understand what contributed to its victory in the Earthshot prize. That requires a sound, scientific understanding of the general factors that have contributed to low levels of innovation in the Arab world in the past.

The taskforce should also pay particular attention to the factors that continue to impede successful Arab innovators like 44.01 as they seek to nurture it and other businesses. Forging an effective innovation ecosystem is incredibly difficult, and the perspectives of critical stakeholders like 44.01 are essential to making the right policy decisions.

In 2022, it has become fashionable for many Arabs to blame their economic underperformance on global conspiracies, such as supposedly being pawns in a struggle between Great Powers, or on Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry. This kind of outlook will always be popular as it is a way of externalizing responsibility and of therefore not needing to make any reforms.

However, any serious attempt at understanding the causes of our region’s low levels of innovation will recognize that we create some of our problems, and that the right reforms can help. The Earthshot prize helps us in identifying a group of people with unique insights about what it takes to deliver world class innovations in our region. It is incumbent upon us to absorb those lessons as efficiently as possible so that seeing Arabs among future Nobel and Earthshot prizes winners no longer looks anomalous.