The United World team met with the Research Council’s Dr. AbdulBaki to discuss their role in Oman.
Please tell us more about your history and your experience with The Research Council.
Well, I am a petroleum engineer, have worked in the industry, and got my degree from the United States. I then worked in the government department for water resources for about 10 years, so my masters and PHD are in water management. I focused on innovation and research in the water industry. My last position there was the DG for water resource assessment in Oman; then, I went back to PDO as a policy adviser, spent 5 years advising on policies, locally and internationally. Three years ago, I moved to the Research Council to develop the first multi-sectorial science park. Additionally, I have also been an entrepreneur.
What is the vision behind the establishment of the TRC?
I think the TRC is meant to be a support mechanism for research and innovation in Oman. The first thing they have done is to develop the national research strategy, which highlighted the critical areas the country needed with regards to research and innovation. The Research Council is trying to develop not only a support mechanism but also the infrastructure to facilitate research and innovation. That is why science parks are considered as one of the most important infrastructure projects in any country in order to advance. There are many programs through different levels from school children through to university and academic and community levels. The science park, or Innovation Park Muscat (IPM), which is what we have called it, will create the ecosystem for researchers to assist the private sector for business and academic institutions in one place for them to develop innovation activities in Oman.
Can you give us more details about the park? I know the groundbreaking was in April.
The Innovation Park Muscat is meant to be the first facilitator and infrastructure in Oman - we link the research or the knowledge produced and research produced in academic institutions to be taken from books, reports all the way to commercialization. We, as a government, act to facilitate that link so that is the concept. Now, how to do it? We want to develop the park in three phases; we have been given a plot of about 280,000 sq meters, close to Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) where most of the research is going on. And we are also close to Knowledge Oasis Muscat, which is like a science park, very specialized focusing on ICT. We have limited resources in Oman so we should work with each other rather than competing with each other, complementing different institutions, so we won't do ICT. Also close to the industrial park is the airport. Phase one will be the first 3 buildings, an innovations building, a fabrication workshop and a social center. The top 3 floors will be taken by TRC offices, then the lower floors dedicated to incubation purposes. The workshop is for people to develop their prototyping and the social center for networking and relaxation. Phase two will see four research institutes and the specialization will be taken from the national research strategy from 2008, indicating 6 different specializations: energy, oil and gas and renewable energy, food technology, food security, water and environment, and health. So the four institutes will take one theme, for example, oil and gas but also focusing on renewable energy technologies. We will be focusing in some niche areas where we think we can make an impact for Oman, enhanced oil recovery is one area. Lots of experience and expertise available in the country to develop and localize the industry, to help Oman and maybe for the region as well. We also think there are niche areas in renewable energy, for example.
Then, phase three, some additional recreational facilities, a hotel, international school etc. There are about 10 plots around the area which are available for international companies to set up their Research and Development facilities here. So we will have an incubation space for start-ups and SME's so graduates from SQU or others in these specializations can come here. We can help to network them to other stakeholders, there will be a funding mechanism to support them as well. We will not be doing mass production but prototyping. As soon as these startups become operational we can link them to the industrial estate. So you can see the ecosystem that we are creating to support and produce ideas and products for commercialization within a future knowledge based economy which is an important part of Oman's future.
Is there collaboration with Sultan Qaboos University to develop specific degrees that are relevant to the IPM?
We signed an understanding with SQU for them to promote these specializations and to introduce entrepreneurship programs within their curriculum. Also, the new Oman University is meant to be a science and research university. We are already in discussion with the academic committee, which I am a member of, for Oman University to set up their programs within these specializations, in order to have research and entrepreneurship programs from day one and not waiting for the 3rd year in the program.
Any other Research and Development initiatives for the TRC?
From experience, and by benchmarking with other science parks in the world and region, the IPM is considered to be a small and medium sized park. It is not really that large, however, we think that the maturation period is about 10 years and we can create about 3,000 jobs within the park, we're expecting about 500 million euro turnover within the park in these 10 years. So it is impressive and an opportunity for Oman.
There are challenges of course. To promote this collaboration between the academics and the private sector is important and will take time. We are open to others as well who want to come and support these initiatives.
What would you say to the international audience about the IPM and why they should come to Oman?
I think Oman is very well known for the attractive environment and friendly people, which is the best in the region. We depend on the heritage and the people. From a business point of view, it will be treated by the government as a free zone area; with a number of incentives for the international community to come. A tax-free zone, incentives for certain Omanization commitments and so on.
There are the hard issues like the construction and facilities but also the soft issues like marketing, communication, incentive schemes and rules and regulations. The park will be managed by the private sector and not by the government. More performance oriented. The TRC will support it but the management will be left to a private company.
The construction time is about mid 2015 for phase 1 ready and by Q4 2015 the park is open.
Where do people have support now for research and development? Is the IPM replacing something else in Oman?
There is nothing like there is now in Oman. There is the KOM for the ICT sector. There is the national incubation center in KOM for people in non-science based fields. But developing a science-based park is risky for the private sector as new technologies are risky. The park will help people to realize and prove their concept before trying to get to full commercialization, so we are filling a gap.
We will be publishing in the United States. Do you have plans to bring more international firms, especially from the US here?
We will be focusing on these 4 aforementioned specializations so if you are a company in this field, then this will be a place for you. For example, we use about 8 barrels of water for each barrel of oil so in the future, with one million barrels of oil produced per day, there will be 8 million barrels of contaminated water. At the same time, we have a deficit of 48 million cubic meters per annum of potable water, so we desalinate water, which is very expensive. So if we had the technology to de-contaminate this water, we could solve Oman's problem as well as the region's. This is an example of the niche area we need. This is the message we put to our international stakeholders, it’s an opportunity for business and to make a difference in the world.