The Gulf Arabs' Quixotic Pursuit of Knowledge

Sometimes, I end up asking young Arab workers to gain more training and experience, and apply their mind to an issue and develop critical judgment, instead of simply following instructions.

To most young Arabs, knowledge is the piece of paper they get from a college or the instructions they get from a superior or the repeated execution of those instructions — AND NOT the individual effort, reading, practice, and experimentation that enables one to be an expert, or even a critic of a certain area of knowledge.

Superficially, it seems only a question of higher education standards. On reflection, however, it appears to be a very deep problem, and which I am compelled to lay out, and request humbly that the reflexive reaction be reflection !

The Awakening – Self-Realization of a Knowledge Problem

The Gulf Arab states have realized, eventually, that having a knowledge-based economy is the way of the future. The reliance of the GCC states on foreign knowledge workers is eventually perceived as a strategic security threat. As nations with good survival instincts, they are right in this assessment. However, they fail to understand the basic structure of knowledge, and how the mind is opened and creativity is unleashed. So far, the responses to this self-realization appears to be the recommendations of a high-priced study by some Western consulting company.

But also underneath all this lies a deep fear — a fear of knowledge itself, and any holder of that knowledge, and the result of that knowledge. I will get to that in the end.

With the exception of Sheikha Mozah of Qatar, who has taken a rather effective approach in opening up the Qatari mind, the rest of the GCC states are floundering: at times confusing knowledge with Western brand-name universities, while some are thinking of churning out PhD’s to foster research. The basic thinking of the brand-name ‘thinkers’ : if BMW is a good brand to drive, then Harvard must be a good brand with which to start a campus – or some similar but equally goofy logic! The other group — the ‘researchers’ — think that a greater number of papers and a higher UN ranking means that the national mind is being opened up.

Science or Arts: Tribalism, Corruption and Challenging the Human Mind

The tribal nature of GCC societies has kept the countries stable, and without much corruption, although Oman may be able to hold its own in the corruption arena. That much is good, and different from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, the most recent custodians of the mantle Arab knowledge.

On the other hand, this very tribalism breeds complacency, compliance and cunning (three C’s !): one survives in a tribe by not ruffling feathers or challenging much, and the evolutionary need for cunning to survive and grow in this environment is self-evident.

Thank you please, we do not want philosophy, NO political science, NO sociology, NO economics — only Science and Technology — a mindset born out of the fear of unfettered knowledge. The reality is that a mind that is not trained to spot a logical flaw, to question the perceived flaw, and to come up with alternates — is a mind that can do no good in either arts or sciences. The scientific method only comes in handy when it is time to test the alternate hypotheses that have taken hold in a fertile and inquisitive mind.

The Fear of Knowledge and how to get to Knowledge-Based Truth and Fairness

At the dawn of Islamic civilization, the mind-opening knowledge-based and cultural revival initiated by the Prophet Mohammad quickly shifted to Baghdad and Andalusia. Why? The Arabian desert was devoutly Muslim, but the minds were still not open.

So, while this concept of knowledge sinks in — and it will sink in — as the Gulf Arabs’ survival instinct is stronger than their tribal instinct, some suggestions on how to recognize knowledge, and then how to deal with it:

  • A knowledgeable person will be the first to admit that he or she does not know much. Such is the vastness of knowledge that the more one knows, the more they realize how less it is. Isaac Newton was the first to say this in as many words.
  • A holder of knowledge will never take credit for another’s work or thought.

So, how to handle knowledge, once you recognize it:

  • Knowledge is a whole, like truth: you cannot use one type of knowledge to deny other truths: Great knowledge-based regimes like Andalusia, Baghdad, the Nazis and the Soviets eventually collapsed because they used some scientific knowledge to oppress and deny other social and economic truths. The Protestant knowledge ethic of Western Europe has survived the test of time so far because ultimately reason and knowledge prevails. We have recently seen one regime’s mistakes corrected by another in the face of logic and reason.
  • Do not be afraid of real knowledge or the one who holds it: true knowledge and wisdom usually do not come from liars or thieves.
  • Fairness and judgment come from wisdom, and wisdom is the knowledge and the application of that knowledge, and the experience and feedback that comes from the application of that knowledge. Tribal elders possess that wisdom when it comes to tribal and family matters, and the local imam has that wisdom in religion, but the auto mechanic possesses that wisdom when it comes to cars.
  • Always question and argue a lot, but argue with truth and conviction. The real holder of knowledge is not making things up. If you argue, argue logically and based on the principles of deductive and inductive reasoning. And if you question, do it from a sincere lack of understanding of the issue.