While higher education institutions have been effective in developing short-term solutions to some of the challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, they can also play a key role in realising long-term governmental development strategies that can boost the prospects of a sustainable recovery. This is a particularly pressing issue for countries in the Gulf, many of which are deploying long-term strategies to reduce their dependence on hydrocarbons revenues.
One prominent example of this tendency is Saudi Arabia, the largest oil exporter in the world, which before the pandemic derived 50% of its GDP and 70% of its export earnings from the oil and gas sector. In 2016 the country released its Vision 2030 economic development plan, a strategy designed to bolster its non-oil economy and increase the participation of the private sector.
However, following the collapse of oil demand in 2020, these efforts to diversify the economy by developing sectors such as ICT, tourism and infrastructure have taken on greater importance. “The key to revamping university education and aligning it with the country’s forward-looking strategy is to move beyond the traditional academic model and adopt a community-driven approach that identifies and matches needs and resources across government, private and non-profit players, thus attaining commercial and social sustainability,” Ahmad Hawalah, vice-rector for business development at the University of Prince Muqrin, told OBG.
In addition to meeting strictly national goals, institutions can also play a key role in filling skills and knowledge shortages on a more local scale. “With Medina being one of the main poles of transformation in the country and receiving a considerable amount of funds, universities here have a special responsibility, particularly because of the city’s importance with regard to Hajj- and Umrah-related tourism,” Abdulaziz Al Sarrani, president of Medina’s Taibah University, told OBG.
IT & Computing
The fallout of Covid-19, which included lockdowns and the closure of many brickand-mortar businesses, ultimately led to a massive surge in demand for digital services. In light of this shift to online platforms, the need for graduates in the IT and computing fields has been accentuated. “Skills in the IT domain – from artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, to cybersecurity – were in high demand even before the pandemic. The market will certainly require more experts in these areas,” Ahmad Hasnah, president of Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), told OBG. However, Hasnah points out that the continued growth of digital services will lead to the development and expansion of subsidiary areas of study. One such area is the ethics of AI, cybersecurity and data privacy, with universities now needing to incorporate a foundation in legal studies into these particular frameworks. “Another field that merits consideration is digital humanities, which focuses on the effects of cyberspace on areas such as labour, media and art,” Hasnah told OBG. “Therefore, although HBKU will invest heavily in IT-related programmes, it will also address surrounding ethical, legal and social issues.”
While many of these programmes are designed to bring about long-term results, some are already bearing fruit. An example of the success of such strategies is the UAE’s space programme. After establishing the region’s first space research centre in 2015, in July 2020 the country launched its first space probe – named Hope – on a mission to orbit Mars, in the process becoming only the fifth spacefaring entity in the world. In mid-February 2021 it was announced that the probe had successfully entered the planet’s orbit, where it will collect data on Mars’ weather and climate systems. This came on the back of the government’s announcement in September 2020 of plans to send an unmanned mission to the moon in 2024, a sign of the country’s ongoing commitment to space research.
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