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Calling all nerds, Part II.

Byline: Ian Munroe

Summary: With few signs of homegrown Silicon Valleys on the horizon, Gulf states are spending billions more to attract high-tech knowhow, Part II.

Click here to read Part I.

Gulf companies and governments seem more than happy to buy and apply new technologies these days. Four of the GCC's six members ranked in the top 40 countries worldwide on a recent information technology report by the World Economic Forum and INSEAD business school. But those rankings were based largely on the region's ample technology investments, and its purchasing power as a wealthy technology consumer.

"You show them something new and they want to do it," says Pooya Darugar, platform and technology evangelist at Microsoft Gulf. "There are no legacy systems [old computers and software] that they worry about. That's one of the great things about working in this market."

The US software behemoth moved to the region way back in 1992, eons ago in terms of the region's recent breakneck development. Like Huawei though, Microsoft's operations here haven't expanded much beyond sales, marketing and customer support. So the $8.2 billion it spent on R&D last year flowed mostly to the company's corporate headquarters in California, or to development centers in China and India.

But Darugar sees no reason the Gulf states can't produce the next great wired invention. "The internet is a very equalizing technology," he says. "These small startups like Twitter - they could be run out of Bahrain, or out of Oman."

"If you look at the university students in this area, they have the skills, they have the hunger," he adds. "We have to make sure they have the capability to go to the market, so they don't necessarily have to become public-sector workers."

New addition. One project that the UAE hopes will attract young technology firms is Dubiotech, a handful of buildings under construction near one of Dubai's arterial roads, on a two-square-kilometer patch of desert that was bequeathed to the project by the emirate's ruler. The first buildingAa - a four-storey laboratory facility - is expected to open this summer. And the science park's director, Marwan Abdul Aziz, says a dozen firms, from pharmaceuticals to medical-device manufacturers, have signed on as tenants since January alone.

"Most of their activities are market-driven," Abdul Aziz admits about Dubiotech's growing list of host companies. "They want to make sure they have a strong base. Once that happens, they will be more comfortable, know the market better, invest more money and do more R&D work as well."

"This is something that will take some time, and we knew that," he adds. "For R&D to happen you need a good academic base, and that's something the UAE is starting to have."

Indeed, creating new Silicon Valleys takes legions of highly specialized workers, which emerging technology producers like China and India are churning out by the hundreds of thousands each year. But the entire Middle East lacks its own world-class technical institutes. So a growing number of the Gulf's rich petro states are courting tech-savvy Indian and North American universities to set up local branch campuses nearby.

One is the University of Waterloo (UW), a Canadian institution famous for spurring high-tech startups like Research In Motion, creator of the ubiquitous Blackberry. UW plans to set up two engineering programs in Dubai this fall, al-though a permanent home for its campus is being built in Abu Dhabi.

"There are a lot of entrepreneurial activities on campus," says Leo Rothenburg, UW's acting dean of engineering. "It's not uncommon that our students graduate and already have businesses started. ... We intend to bring that same spirit to the United Arab Emirates."

Further up the coast, Qatar's new 14-square-kilometer Education City development already hosts a handful of engineering programs from Texas A&M university, and a computer science program from Carnegie Mellon. The billion-dollar complex dispatched its first round of graduates last year, but many of the students that have enrolled so far have been foreigners. Even though university education is free for citizens of the tiny, petroleum-bathed country, tertiary enrollment for Qataris hovers around 20 percent - a third the rate of most high-income countries.

"They're starting slowly, but with confidence and quality," says Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center, the Qatar branch of a prominent, Washington-based think tank that was established last year, a few kilometers from Education City.

When asked how close the Gulf has come to cultivating its own technology-export industries, he says: "They're preparing the ground, so that one day those seeds can be planted."

"If you want to see the results of these things, call me in 10 years."

First seen in Trends magazine.

2009 Dubai Business | Kippreport. All Rights Reserved.

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Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:Jun 10, 2009
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