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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.