A regional strategy and a focus on capacity building would strengthen Gulf investments in S&T, say Wael K. Al-Delaimy and Hilal A. Lashuel.
We and many fellow Arab scientists have been following the development of ambitious research and education projects in Gulf countries with great interest.
Eye-catching announcements in the past year have included the Emir of Qatar's decree allocating 2.8 per cent of gross domestic product to fund research in Qatar. This follows the establishment of Education City, a 2,500-acre site north of Doha, housing branch campuses of five US universities and several science, research and policy centres. Set up by the Qatar Foundation, led by Her Highness Sheikha Mozha bint Nasser Al Missned, Education City will include a state-of-the art medical research centre, which is being built with a US$10 billion endowment.
The ruler of Dubai, Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, meanwhile, also pledged US$10 billion, to establish research centres of excellence and scholarship programmes to promote capacity building in the region. And Saudi Arabia announced its own US$10 billion endowment, to establish the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, the first research-oriented graduate institution in the region.
In centuries gone by, when Arab and Muslim populations were the global beacon of civilisation, knowledge, art and civil liberties, the Arab fathers of modern science and research — such as Avecenna (Ibn Sina), Khawrzmi, Rhazes (Ar-Razi), Abulcasis (Az-Zahrawi), Avenzoar (Ibn-Zuhr) and Ibn al-Nafis — did not develop and prosper in a vacuum. There was support and investment for science from the rulers, as we are now witnessing in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
But investing in infrastructure may prove the easiest part. The most sought-after commodity is high-calibre faculty leaders and scientists — and the major challenge is recruiting and retaining them. We fear the recent initiatives will not be sustainable if they mostly depend on imported staff and expertise.
Regional recruitment and retention
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, which are leading the Arab world with such initiatives, should work together rather than compete for research scientists. In particular, they should seek out Arab expatriates, since unlike Western transnationals — who tend to work in the high-income, tax-free region just for a few years before returning home — Arab researchers are likely to stay if given the incentives, recognition and independence they enjoy in Western research institutions. After all, they share the same language, culture and religion as the three Gulf countries.
The region urgently needs to develop local talent and a technical workforce to sustain planned science and technology programmes. Graduate research programmes should be established. They could improve the quality of higher education and research capacity in neighbouring Arab states that have limited capital resources, but are rich in human capital and talent.
Joint efforts and investment in communications infrastructure in the Gulf countries could enable the establishment of virtual networks, linking Arab scientists and professionals as well as easing the transfer of knowledge, technology and scientists between states.
Healthy scientific research competitiveness would still ensure different countries have a leading edge in particular scientific areas. Something similar happens in the United States, for instance, between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Located in the same city, they compete with each other and have their own unique research profile and reputation. Yet their scientists and institutions collaborate, building on their respective strengths and synergies. Examples of their joint initiatives include The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and The Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.
Developing a regional strategy
Gulf states should establish joint committees to coordinate and develop initiatives that enhance national capabilities and regional competitiveness in science and technology. They could help put the region on the global research map by identifying economically important and regionally relevant research areas to focus on.
Such committees should be home grown, to better appreciate local issues, but should include external advisors for guidance and direction.
The Gulf countries also need regional funding schemes similar to the framework programmes developed by the European Union. These would support research and address common challenges and opportunities. They could finance science that meets local and regional needs but also makes an impact internationally. For example, they might invest in a regional diabetes research centre to tackle the high prevalence of diabetes in Gulf States, or in a state-of-the-art energy research and development centre because of the region's vast energy resources.
The international research community should support the Gulf's efforts to advance progress through science and technology. Scepticism about assisting countries with limited freedom of speech and civil liberties is healthy, but should not block these efforts.
The existing initiatives may help the region to compete globally in scientific research and education, as do China, India, Malaysia and Singapore. But, to succeed, they will need experienced leaders with a record in building scientific capacity, and knowledgeable scientific personnel. Above all, regional co-operation and capacity building are the cornerstones for building knowledge-based societies in the Arab region. We need a regional strategy.
Wael K. Al-Delaimy is associate professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Diego USA, and Hilal A. Lashuel is assistant professor of neuroscience at The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, Switzerland.