Published online: 1
November 2006; | doi:10.1038/444028a
Islam and Science: Oil rich,
The wealthy Arab states offer scant
support for science and technology. Jim Giles finds out whether this
indifference to research is likely to change.
surveyed the prospects for science in the Arab world in 2002, our reporter
picked out three subjects in which the region excelled1.
One was, and still is, important: desalination technologies to combat water
shortages. But the other two highlight the region's threadbare research record.
Camel reproduction and falconry research might excite Arab sports enthusiasts,
but they are unlikely to set the scientific world on fire.
monarchies of the Gulf are the richest of all Muslim nations, but little of that
wealth is spent on research. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait spend about 0.2% of
their gross domestic product (GDP) on science — less than one-tenth of the
developed-country average of 2.3% and about a third of that spent by less
wealthy Iran. The oil monarchs have the financial clout to launch major research
efforts, but have yet to do so.
rich countries are less concerned because they are sitting pretty on oil
reserves," says Nader Fergany, director of the Almishkat Centre for Research in
Cairo, an independent social-sciences research organization. "The nature of
wealth from natural resources is that it does not require a great level of
ingenuity." Fergany notes that even in directly relevant science such as
petroleum technology, most innovation happens outside the Gulf.
Easy option: the
Gulf oil states imported most of the know-how they needed to keep the oil
Gulf leaders do see investment in science and technology as a way of creating an
economic future when their oil reserves dry up. Among scientists trying to
invigorate science in the Gulf, there is a sense that change is possible. "We
are now at an inflexion point," says Samir Hamrouni, director of research and
development at the Arab Science and Technology Foundation in Sarjah in the
United Arab Emirates. "Science is being seen as an alternative to natural
origins of the current under spend are easy to see. The European colonial powers
that ruled much of the Gulf until the middle of the twentieth century invested
almost nothing in indigenous higher education or research. Oil revenues
transformed the region, but the money kept flowing without the need for major
investment in education and science.
statistics collected by COMSTECH, the science and technology committee of the
Organization of the Islamic Conference, show little change2.
The annual output of scientific papers from Saudi Arabia, which generates almost
as many papers as the other monarchies combined, was static between 2000 and
2005. Even in desalination technology, investment has been limited. The Middle
East Desalination Research Center in Muscat, Oman, set up in 1996 to encourage
research cooperation in the region, is currently limping along with a budget of
just US$2 million a year.
five years might see more change. In Qatar, the country's head of state, Emir
Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, has created an endowment that generates millions of
dollars in research funding every year. He has also imported Western science
policies, such as competitive grant systems based on external peer review, and
is forming partnerships with universities in the United States and Europe3.
Environmental science, computing and biomedicine are priorities.
new research centres attract scientists and students, they might prompt its
neighbours into action. "Once it develops, other countries will start to think
about it," predicts Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Academy of
Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), based in Trieste, Italy.
neighbours, Saudi Arabia is making a slow start, having approved a new national
science and technology development plan in 2002. Its priorities are defence, and
oil and gas technology, but there is also a commitment to devote 1.6% of the
nation's GDP to R&D by 2020. Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are each investing
around $2 billion in higher-education institutes that include research centres.
initiatives generate excitement — and some scepticism. Fergany questions whether
the oil monarchies are willing to make the economic and structural changes
needed to translate research into innovation. It is also unclear whether the
oil-state rulers want to foster the atmosphere of critical enquiry that science
needs. Only in the long run, say advocates of reform, will it become clear
whether the current commitment is genuine. "Is it just for the moment, or is it
really important?" asks Hamrouni. "It depends on our politicians."
Jim Giles is a
reporter for Nature based in London.
Islam and Science special is available
- Masood, E.
- Status of
Scientific Research in OIC Member States (eds Naim, S. T. K. &
Atta-ur-Rahman) (COMSTECH, 2005);
3. Giles, J.
Nature 441, 132 (2006).