Higher Education, Global Health and the Middle East: An Opportunity for Global Leadership

The last decade has seen an unprecedented interest and massive growth in higher education in the oil rich Middle East. In particular, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have invested substantially in creating or attracting higher education institutions from the U.S., Canada and Europe to set up local campuses. In the cases of foreign campuses, the assumption is that these institutions will have highest standards of quality and rigor that have enabled them, in their native lands, to become foremost places of learning and inquiry. In the case of new institutions, the goal is to create the crucibles of research that will attract top quality academics and students to the region. The global economic downturn, combined with increasing difficulty in attracting research funding in the U.S. and Europe has also benefitted these institutions in recruiting quality faculty.

While the jury is still out on the success, largely because success in higher education can never be measured overnight, the experiment is nonetheless bold and the desire to improve higher education worthy of praise and encouragement. The curriculum and research focus, of most institutions has centered around innovation and technological impact. This desire and focus, while lofty, has meant that there is not enough focus to date on addressing some of the grandest challenges of our time, including pervasive and high value challenges in global health. I believe that there is a unique opportunity for well-resourced universities in the Middle East to change the status quo and make an unprecedented and lasting impact on the world through innovation in global health. I will make my case using the following four arguments.

First of all, technological innovation does not mean following only the research areas that are popular in the U.S. and other developed countries. Realizing the opportunity to leapfrog in areas that are just coming on the horizon is a sign of visionary leadership. A new frontier at the interface of engineering and medicine in the U.S. and elsewhere is understanding the complexity of global health problems and coming up with unique solutions to address them. This area of research is often hampered by lack of resources and the institutions in the gulf states have the financial wherewithal to close that funding gap and attract top quality researchers and students. Interest in this area is at an all time high among highly motivated and driven engineering students in the U.S. It is important to note that one of the key challenges of institutions in the Middle East is attracting top quality students from all over the world. This emphasis on impact, social good, engineering and global health might just do the trick in attracting some of the most gifted students to these institutions.

Second, because of the geographic location of these institutions in the Middle East, they are close to populations in Asia and Africa where high impact global health research is being carried out and needs to be strengthened further. The proximity and the cultural, religious, linguistic and social ties to countries in the neighborhood where global health challenges are pervasive puts these institutions at a huge natural advantage that needs to be capitalized.

Third, working in areas of innovations in global health and development will provide these institutions to carve out an image that is based not just on quality research but also on care for all the citizens of the world. This platform of care and rigor will go a long way in improving the global standing and image of the region and its educational institutions among those who may carry certain notions or not know very much about the region itself.

Finally, recent data from multiple studies have shown a high burden of chronic diseases including obesity, cancer and cardiovascular problems in the greater Middle East. The challenges with infectious diseases are also there. The opportunity to focus on innovations global public health will motivate the young men and women of the region to see how innovation can make a true impact on their lives and those of their loved ones. The long-term success of these new institutions rests squarely on the native population being proud of the institutions on their homeland. By exciting the local youth about research and innovation that changes their lives for the better, these institutions can guarantee the lasting impact that they desire.