To realize innovation economies, the Middle East must support IP rights

Several Middle Eastern countries have publicly expressed aspirations to evolve from oil-based economies to economies of innovation. And increasingly we’re seeing countries across the region looking to develop their innovation-intensive sectors. Saudi Arabia, for example, has a vision to become an international leader in science and technology. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) innovation is a pillar of the country’s efforts to build a knowledge-based economy. And Jordan recently launched a National Center for Innovation to facilitate private and public innovation in an effort to spur economic growth. Others in the region are also promoting similar goals.

Yet, as global reports and data show, this region falls short in creating an environment that attracts and fosters innovators. In fact, the Global Innovation Policy Center’s 2018 International IP Index ranked Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan 34th, 32nd and 28th, respectively, out of 50 countries evaluated across dozens of indicators covering policy, law, regulation and enforcement.

While the desire is there, the Middle East has a long way to go in realizing its vision of building and sustaining innovative economies.

While these countries are recognized for having certain basic frameworks in place for major intellectual property (IP) rights, uncertainty and lack of enforcement create an unstable environment. Here are a few examples:

  • In 2013, the Saudi Food and Drug Administration (SDFA) set policies to incentivize and support foreign and domestic innovators through intellectual property and regulatory data protections – as required by international trade agreements. However, these policies are not being upheld. In 2017 the SDFA suspended pharmaceutical patent protection, and for example, allowed a domestic drug manufacturer to market a generic version of an innovative medicine that was created and remains under patent by an American company. Despite multiple patent infringement appeals, the Saudi government did nothing – and, in fact, still allows the generic copycat to distribute its product within the kingdom today, without properly compensating the innovator company.
  • Jordan has the basic legal framework in place for major IP rights, as well as sector-specific IP rights introduced as a result of a U.S. free-trade agreement signed in 2001. However, there is much uncertainty. For example, the availability of patent protections for computer-implemented inventions (CIIs) is unclear – there is no published manual or guidelines for CIIs, nor are CIIs explicitly excluded from patent laws. This uncertainty, combined with high levels of copyright infringement and a software piracy, demonstrate instability for innovators.
  • The UAE employs basic IP protections with a “relatively strong framework” for IP rights enforcement. They also aim to raise awareness about the importance and value of IP rights, but – in reality – lack the policies to properly protect innovators. For example, there are “crucial gaps in protection for life sciences patents,” spanning patent enforcement, regulatory data protection and patent term restoration. Updates are needed to address growing piracy levels and create more robust protections under trademark and design frameworks.

While the desire is there, Middle Eastern countries have a long way to go in realizing the vision of building and sustaining innovative economies. By ignoring or failing to create policies designed to help ensure innovators are rewarded for the resource-intensive process of bringing an innovative new product to market, it sends a message to other countries that their IP rights are not secure in the region. Only by strengthening and enforcing a comprehensive innovation ecosystem, can the Middle East build the innovative future it needs for continued economic growth and prosperity.