Qatar is boosting efforts to position itself at the heart of the Middle East's technology, research and information industries, both as a means of attracting foreign investment and to expand the base of its economy.
Last November, the government said it would dedicate 2.8% of GDP annually to fostering research and development projects. The state has also offered incentives for firms involved in research work, including tax breaks and increased funding for schools and universities to improve education in sciences.
However, Qatar's commitment to developing what has become known as a knowledge-based economy (KBE) goes much further than this. One of the centrepieces of the state's campaign is the Qatar Science and Technology Park, set to open early this year. Backed by the Qatar Foundation, the project is being developed to foster industry-based creativity and innovation.
The park, which will have free trade zone status, will include a $1bn teaching and research hospital, offer linkups with a number of US universities and act as a conduit between research and industry. Among the firms that have signed on for the Qatar Science and Technology Park are ExxonMobil, GE, Microsoft, Rolls Royce, Shell and Total, who between them have committed over $225m to the project.
According to Ben Figgis, the project's marketing manager, the Qatar Science and Technology Park aims to take a twin pronged approach, both creating an attractive environment and offering incentives for companies to develop their technology and acting as a business incubator to help technology start-ups get off the ground.
"Qatar's investment in its education and research infrastructure, coupled with technology inflows by top companies, is creating ideal conditions for private-sector innovation in Qatar. We are already starting to see the outcomes of this benefiting Qatar's economy and society" Figgis told delegates at the "Turning Qatar into a competitive KBE" conference in Doha on January 15.
The conference, jointly staged by the Qatar Planning Council, the Qatar Foundation and the World Bank, discussed both the advantages and challenges the country faced in becoming a KBE.
Fahad al-Naimi, a senior official with the Qatar Foundation said that a number of factors were holding back the economy, some of which could be addressed by developing into a KBE.
"The main reasons why Qatar should become a KBE are mainly the need for diversified and sustainable growth in economy, intensified global competition and offsetting the small size of the population by going for value-added sectors," he said.
However, according to Saad M Khalil of the Qatar Planning Council, though great advances have been made in the country developing a KBE, more needs to be done.
"The missing link is a national KBE strategy that has an ambitious vision, integrates all the initiatives together, and is owned by the people of Qatar," he said.
Other issues that needed to be addressed within Qatar itself were boosting the role of the private sector, broadening the skilled labour pool, operating in a relatively small domestic market while also having to meet the challenges of regional and international competition, Khalil said.
While there is strong competition to attract research, information and communications technology and development projects, Qatar's massive investments in the energy and petrochemicals, tourism, education and health sectors provided excellent opportunities for the growth of a KBE,' he said.
A major step forward for Qatar's development of a KBE was the passing of legislation last year opening up the country's telecommunications sector, said Bruno Lanvin, an electronic strategies expert. The new law effectively ended Qtel's monopoly in Qatar's telecoms industry and paved the way for competition and expanded services.
Lanvin also warned that there could be both positive and negative effects in the way a government could use ICT in developing a knowledge based society.
"Priorities have to be clearly embedded," he said. "We have seen too many countries where ICT is seen as a sector rather than as a tool that contributes to all other sectors. This is not about computerising government services or putting more computers, but about delivering better services."
While it appears that Qatar is having a good deal of success in attracting research, development and scientific investments, there is no precise indication of how much the money poured in to projects such as the Qatar Science and Technology Park and the Qatar Education City, will pay off. One small signal indicating faith in a knowledge-based future was the passing of legislation last June putting in place Qatar's first patent law, laying the legal groundwork to benefit from the results of a new, knowledgeable and innovative economy.