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‘A renaissance in Arabic science’…really? 1, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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The New Scientist has an article discussing what they describe as ‘the renaissance of Arabic science’. It points to various recent ventures in the GCC as evidence.

  • KAUST – Saudi’s $20 billion gamble
  • Masdar – Abu Dhabi’s sustainable city and “innovation hub”
  • Various Qatari efforts: Qatar Foundation, Qatar Science and Technology Park, Sidra Medical Centre

While these ventures are all well and good, surely a truck-load of money does not a renaissance make.

These countries can build the world’s greatest Universities and Hospitals but unless totemic changes are made to education systems in the region, these will be either staffed by foreigners or will become the most expensive white elephants ever built. In Kuwait, for example, on the Corniche, opposite the British Embassy they built a beautiful new, presumably state-of-the-art research center for the study of (something like) diabetes [it’s been a while since I was there]. It stood finished but unused for years because there was no-one to staff it. Please correct me someone, but I think that it may still be empty to this day.

Masdar is the easiest example to ridicule here. While noble in thought, in practice, it is simply a rather grand green gimmick. The UAE, with the world’s highest CO2 emissions per capita, really don’t especially care about the environment. Masdar ‘the car-less city’ (with what will have to be a whopping great car-park on its outskirts) is beset by problems and management struggles. It is no more in reality a leader of indigenous innovation and research than Kim Jong Il is the democratic leader of North Korea.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear to me to be the only places with a real chance of fostering indigenous scientists. Saudi are spurred on by their increasing population and the real need to finds jobs for their younger generation. Without the golden safety net of past generations but with the ability to provide world-class facilities such as KAUST, this mix may prompt young Saudis to meaningfully engage in education. The hamartia for Saudi is, of course, the vagaries of succession and the fear that Naif, the presumed arch-conservative leader, takes the reins of power and interferes with KAUST on (spurious) religious grounds.

While Qatar has the most generous welfare state in the world which mitigates against students seriously studying and applying themselves, there appears to be a genuine intent in the Qatari leadership to induce their younger generations into pursuing meaningful academic pursuits. Their school system is changing root and branch, hopefully instilling the necessary scholarly attitudes in coming generations. In Education City today there are some of the best Universities in the world awaiting suitably qualified Qatari students: potentially quite a lure, particularly for female students whose parents may not be pleased to see them studying in the decadent, morally corrupt West. Perennially, however, the problem for Qatar is that  – crucially – no Qatari really needs to work. The state will take care of them for generations to come.

There are, therefore, enormous challenges before the Arab world even remotely begins to instill a culture of scientific learning never mind excellence and leadership.

 

 

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Comments»

1. zaydoun - 1, November 2010

The Diabetes Center in Kuwait is fully functioning after a bit of delay and is doing quite well

As for KAUST and the like, the Saudis, Qataris and everyone else will find that the best intentions in the world are no match for the religious indoctrination of children from a very young age. Most of the high school graduates who are the target demographic of these institutes are ill-equipped to handle a rigorous science-based education

2. Mohammed Ejaz - 1, November 2010

Arab rennaisance happened long before the European one did. The contributions by the arabs in the field of Chemistry, Astronomy, Mathematics, Medicine etc., was unparalleled during those days. Whats happening now is just rich people buying expensive stuff.
So making it sound as if the arabs have a long way to go before attaining any form scientific advancements would be completely ridiculous and historically unfair. Of course saying that they haven taken a few steps backwards since then, wouldnt be too debatable 🙂

3. xoussef - 1, November 2010

It always bothered me that people would speak of “Muslim” science or “Arab” science as if science has or ever had an ethnicity or a religion. No one is talking about American or Japanese science the same way right?

But, that’s beside you point. Actually, if these GCC countries actually get over the narrow nationalistic approach and opened the way for more competitive (if not necessarily from better education systems)students from the rest of MENA, Iran, Pakistan and India, there might still be a way to succeed. Peer pressure can do what welfare society can’t.

As of Masdar, I hope Moroccan officials will succeed in getting some funds from there for our serious and urgently needed Solar and Wind program before the whole thing goes belly up!

thegulfblog.com - 1, November 2010

Thanks for the update. How long was it from being ready to being occupied? Years, surely?

4. Mohammed Yahia - 8, November 2010

Thank you for this excellent post.

I have followed closely the “scientific renaissance” in the region and I find it a very interesting development.

From what I see through my work, there definitely IS a change in the science landscape in the Middle East, to varying degrees.

Well ahead of the pack is Saudi Arabia. They are doing some excellent work and not just in KAUST (which has so far published FOUR Nature papers http://blogs.nature.com/houseofwisdom/2010/08/kaust_on_a_roll.html), but places like the King Saud University (which probably has one of the largest yearly budgets of universities worldwide!)

In my opinion though, the shift to science is a gamble, and each state has chosen its own pattern to take it. The path Saudi Arabia took is very different from that of Qatar, which is in turn different than the UAE’s.

If you would like a more detailed review of the different approaches you might want to follow this link: http://blogs.nature.com/houseofwisdom/2010/10/a_new_turn_for_saudi_arabias_e.html

But meanwhile, to dismiss the issue of a science renaissance in the Middle East as fantasy is a bit premature. Lets wait a few more years and see where we would be – it’s worth it, at least for me! 🙂


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