Over a thousand years ago, our region was at the forefront of an explosion in intellectual and scientific discovery, made possible by a dramatic surge in cultural and intellectual inclusion. Often referred to as the Golden Age, the intellectual spirit of the era embraced scholars and works from Greek, Persian, Chinese, Indian and Phoenician backgrounds. This in turn facilitated groundbreaking innovation in fields as diverse as the arts and culture, law, philosophy, mathematics, natural sciences, medicine and astronomy, much of which the world still relies on today.
Even long after the decline of the Golden Age, which unsurprisingly corresponded with a forceful rejection of the open-mindedness that had enabled and sustained it, this period of enlightenment would play a pivotal role in igniting the European Renaissance, where many of the same principles of inclusion were adopted.
Why is this evermore relevant? We are currently embarking on another important chapter in our region’s history with the UAE’s declaration of “Towards the next 50” as the national theme for 2020. Announced at the end of last year, the initiative will culminate in the launch of a national strategy for the next 50 years that, among other things, will aim to facilitate “giant leaps” in the economy, education, infrastructure, health and media.
Importantly, the announcement promises that “the year 2020 will involve all segments of the UAE society in shaping life in the UAE for the next 50 years”. This aspect of the plan hasn’t perhaps received much attention thus far, but it is arguably its most powerful principle. After all, our country is home to people of more than 200 nationalities. Women already make up two thirds of government employees and university graduates in the UAE, and almost a third of our Federal cabinet. We are rapidly shifting from seeing the arts as ornamental to an acceptance of its fundamental role in an innovation economy. Our institutions, both government and private, are boosting youth representation at all levels, as further demonstrated by the recent Cabinet resolution requiring all government entities to include at least one Emirati under the age of 30 on their board.
We are not alone in recognising the strategic and economic importance of diversity. A recent Boston Consulting Group global study of 1,700 companies found that those with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues on average due to enhanced innovation. At a broader economic level, it has been estimated that closing the gender gap would add $28 trillion to the value of the global economy by 2025 – a 26% increase.
However, realising these benefits in practice requires more than diversity on paper. Without a parallel commitment to real inclusion, that actively engages people of different personal and professional backgrounds, and rewards them equally for their contributions, then the potential benefits of diversity will be squandered. That’s why harnessing the power of diversity in the workplace requires a corporate culture that genuinely values different perspectives – not because they correspond with an arbitrary set of quotas, but because they lead to better business decisions.
It’s also important not to characterise diversity narrowly. For example, one could assemble a diverse group in terms of race and gender, but if every member of the team is a scientist from the same age group, they are unlikely to bring particularly diverse insights and perspectives to the table. Diversity and inclusion as it relates to youth in particular is often overlooked around the world, despite the fact that Millennials are expected to make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025. This is a huge wasted opportunity, especially in the Arab Region, where more than 60% of the population today is under the age of 30.
If the rise and fall of the Golden Age teaches us anything, it’s that embracing our region’s diversity – not just in terms of gender and race, but also in terms of age, backgrounds, and the many other ways in which people relate to the world – is not just the right thing to do. Fortified with a genuine commitment to inclusion, that really does engage every segment of our society, it could also be one of the smartest decisions that we could make on the road to 2071.