The Middle East’s science revolution?
June 27th, 2013
09:28 AM ET

The Middle East’s science revolution?

By Shelly Culbertson, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Shelly Culbertson is a senior research manager at the RAND-Qatar Policy Institute in Doha, Qatar. The views expressed are her own.

It’s perhaps inevitable that violence in Iraq, Syria’s civil war, and ongoing unrest in Libya grabs international headlines. But in a part of the world so often associated with strife, significant progress is being made in areas that might come as a surprise to some. Indeed, even as conflict rages, a wave of research and innovation in Arabian Gulf countries is bringing with it significant investment in science and research infrastructure – and even U.S.-style universities.

When I moved to Qatar in 2006 to work at the RAND-Qatar Policy Institute, a partnership between the RAND Corporation and Qatar Foundation, my first project placed me as part of a team to set up the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), a sort-of national science foundation for Qatar. We were a diverse team of Americans, Qataris, Egyptians, and Iraqi scientists who had moved to Qatar for QNRF.

I admit I felt uncomfortable at first. After all, my country was at war in Iraq. How was this going to work? But amidst the regional upheavals, we focused on the opportunity to create something new and constructive together. We did, and we built trusting relationships with each other – but it was far from easy.

During the period the start-up QNRF team worked together, two of the Iraqi scientists had siblings in Baghdad assassinated as extremist groups targeted scientists and intellectuals. Sadly, that wasn’t all. Around this time, a car bomb exploded outside the Baghdad house of another member of the team, shattering the glass of the windows at the front of his home and hurling his wife and little boy across the room. Iraqis with Western university degrees and marketable skill sets were fleeing the violence, in a kind of massive scientific brain-drain.

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This was all the more tragic because for centuries Baghdad had been an Arab center of learning. During the so-called Islamic Golden Age, from the 8th through the 13th centuries, a pan-Islamic culture stretched from Spain to China, one that saw the Arab world at the forefront of intellectual progress in science, philosophy, medicine and education. Indeed, the region’s Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars preserved the texts of the ancient Greeks at a time when they were being lost to the Dark Ages in Europe, furthered algebra (a word derived, incidentally, from the Arabic al-jabr), and made advances in medicine, optics, astronomy, and architecture.

Fast forward to today, and the QNRF project aims to once again leverage the region’s intellectual resources by allowing research grants to be split between research institutions in Qatar and research institutions in other countries. The idea behind this approach is to integrate Qatar into the global scientific community, through collaboration with renowned research institutions elsewhere. It also awards grants based on originality and merit, with independent peer reviewers not associated with research in Qatar. Based on this model, the QNRF has now awarded about $620 million in research grants.

But as proud as I am of the contribution that QNRF is making, it is merely one element of an emerging trend in the region as countries demonstrate their commitment to investing in scientific, innovative and educational programs.

For example, Qatar has helped establish branches of six U.S. universities and two European universities as part of what they call “Education City” – Carnegie Mellon University, Weill Cornell Medical College, Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Texas A&M, HEC Paris, and others have gotten onboard.

The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, attracted New York University, which set up a campus in Abu Dhabi, and has also partnered with MIT to establish the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which conducts research and offers graduate study in sustainable energy. And Saudi Arabia has established the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a sprawling architectural gem outside of Jeddah with an endowment of $10 billion.

None of this is to ignore the very real challenges that the region faces. The turmoil aside, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also face human capital shortages – they have big ambitions but tiny populations, and their educational pipeline is struggling to produce qualified scientists. They therefore rely on large numbers of expatriates, a reality that is itself accelerating the pace of change in the region and forcing sometimes overwhelmed citizens to adapt.

Yet despite these challenges – ones that I have seen for myself, firsthand – this is an exciting time to be part of a renewed commitment to research and education in the Middle East. The Arab Spring has brought with it awakened aspirations. Investment in research, innovation and education will mean that these aspirations have a much greater chance of being realized.

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Topics: Education • Middle East

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soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Ramin Sadr

    Dear Ms. Culbertson,

    I noticed in your article "The Middle East’s science revolution?" (http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/27/the-middle-easts-science-revolution/) you mistakenly refer to the Persian Gulf by a ficticious name. The correct, legal, terminology recognized by the United Nations is the 'Persian Gulf'.

    The group of experts on Geographical Names was set up by the secretary-general of the United Nations in pursuance of economic and Social council resolution 715A(XXVII) on April 23, 1959 and has endorsed 'Persian Gulf' as the official name for this body of water. The use of the name 'Arabian Gulf' was described to be 'faulty' by the eighth United Nations conference on the standardization of Geographical names, Berlin, 27 August September 2002.

    Please note that the term 'Arabian Gulf' was first coined by Pan-Arab nationalists in the 1960s as an offensive and racist term used primarily to irritate their Iranian neighbors. This is an inflammatory term towards Iranians.

    Please make this correction and refrain from repeating this mistake in your otherwise fine articles in the future. Thank you.

    Ramin Sadr

    June 27, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Reply
    • Ted Getzel

      Ms. Culbertson is merely doing her Arab paymasters' bidding.

      June 27, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
    • Hossein

      I also wanted to make the same point about using the official name of Persian Gulf. Also I remind the writer that he could have talked about Iran's scientific achievements under the sanctions, for example by sending satellites into space from launch pads inside Iran and then compare those to Arab countries fully supported by the west.

      June 29, 2013 at 12:09 am | Reply
    • British Arabian

      The resolution you have quoted was never recognised by the arabian countries. Inspite of Iranian bullying it will always remain the Arabian Gulf. The US and the UK will always stand by our Arabian friends. The Iranians cannot change history. They should also return the Abu Musa and the other Islands take illegally from the UAE.

      June 29, 2013 at 11:39 am | Reply
      • WildGorgh

        Here is nice Bone for you

        June 29, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
      • WildGorgh

        I am sure there are some good science coming out all these structures, none of it will benefit ordinary Arabs

        June 29, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
      • Human

        It is interesting you use a fake name and accuse Iranians of changing the history. Look at the old maps and get educated. 3000 yearold Persian empire vs 40 year old UAE

        July 1, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
    • Iran=Russia-china=Hezbollah= Syria- shia= Iraqi shiia= evil....,,,,,

      THE ARABIAN GULF IS THE CORRECT TERM AS MORE COUNTRIES ARABIC COUNTRIES LIVE IN THAT REGION AND IRAN WAS CONCORD BY MUSLIM ARAB NATIONS IN ALQADESYA WAR AGAINST THE EVIL PERSIANS SHAH IRAN BROUGHT THE NAME BACK AS USA WAS SUPPORTING THAT EVIL...NOW WE HAVE WORSE EVIL OF TOWEL HEADS......STEALING 3 ISLANDS SINCE THE SHAH TIME FROM UAE IRAN ARE BUNCH OF THIEF'S THUGS KILLERS MURDEROUS , THEY MARRY THERE SISTERS AND COUSINS AND PRACTICE MOTA3A THE ADULTERY THAT ALLOWED BY IRAN SHARIA LAW....FK PERSIA SEE THE MOVIE 600 IT IS TRUE WE ARE AS GREEK PAID HARD PRICE AGAINST THOSE EVIL TOWEL HEADS..

      June 29, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Reply
  2. Rick McDaniel

    The time has come, for the region to use some of that obscene amount of oil money, on something productive in the region, and that they move into the modern world.

    Too long, have they allowed religion to lead them astray.

    June 27, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  3. Hahahahahaha

    Their scientist's findings: "Women are NOT real people and should have No rights!" Hahahahahahaahahaha

    June 27, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  4. jjroper

    But, what about the biological sciences, especially evolution and conservation?

    June 27, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  5. John Smith

    Dear Ms. Culbertson,

    I noticed in your article "The Middle East’s science revolution?" (http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/27/the-middle-easts-science-revolution/) you mistakenly refer to the Persian Gulf by a ficticious name. The correct, legal, terminology recognized by the United Nations is the 'Persian Gulf'.

    The group of experts on Geographical Names was set up by the secretary-general of the United Nations in pursuance of economic and Social council resolution 715A(XXVII) on April 23, 1959 and has endorsed 'Persian Gulf' as the official name for this body of water. The use of the name 'Arabian Gulf' was described to be 'faulty' by the eighth United Nations conference on the standardization of Geographical names, Berlin, 27 August September 2002.

    Please note that the term 'Arabian Gulf' was first coined by Pan-Arab nationalists in the 1960s as an offensive and racist term used primarily to irritate their Iranian neighbors. This is an inflammatory term towards Iranians.

    Please make this correction and refrain from repeating this mistake in your otherwise fine articles in the future. Thank you.

    June 27, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Qatar is one of the wealthiest countries in the region because of oil and the government has encouraged diversification of its economy and investment in R&D.

    June 28, 2013 at 6:57 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Oil money funds an all-embracing welfare state, with many services being free or heavily subsidised. Qatar's foreign policies do sometimes rouse its neighbours' displeasure.

      June 28, 2013 at 6:59 am | Reply
  7. Hossein

    U.S. think tanks had a good reputation until they turned into a propaganda tool for Arab oil producing countries. The fact that a Rand writer ignores the official name of Persian Gulf just to please the country which hosting her (Qatar), shows how much American think tank's creditably has been damaged.

    June 29, 2013 at 12:15 am | Reply
  8. tms5510

    Iran , Turkey and Israel produce 76% of all science in ME. The funny thing is that Iran just by itself produce 33% of the science while Arabs altogether produce less than 25% and yet we don't see any mention of these facts.
    By the way, the writer needs to take a Geography class to learn the correct name of the Persian gulf.

    June 29, 2013 at 12:28 am | Reply
    • WildGorgh

      She forgot to mention, the number of students and faculties in these universities.. Where is the pudding

      June 29, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  9. Babak Irani

    yeah ! they'd better do some historical and geoghraphical research about their immediate neiberhood to refer to places by their correct name and learn that there always had been and will be only Persian Gulf in the region. its also better for CNN not kissing arabs' ass for petro greenbacks...

    June 29, 2013 at 12:41 am | Reply
  10. bor2144@verizon.net

    Shed did not mention Israel.

    June 29, 2013 at 8:50 am | Reply
  11. WildGorgh

    Where is the pudding?

    June 29, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Reply
  12. WildGorgh

    RAND? Just say Spy den

    June 29, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  13. WildGorgh

    I hope , I genuinely Hope one day Persian Gulf states , Iran will become center for education for all people in world. until that day all these blah blah are just window dressing.

    June 29, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  14. WildGorgh

    When I Become The king of these Persian Gulf State, I will eliminate all my adversaries, And make lots of clones of myself, and I make my clones to make drones of themselves, these drones will be made just to praise me, I would make these drones line up on Fridays near mr palace so I can hand out some scraps in front of mass media just to make me look good. I executed few innocent people to prove I am firm and fair . At night I will return to my harem of 100 young women, I will pick one of my favorite and make love to her with my blood smear hands. I will repeat the process next day until I am unable to function as man. Then I hand over my kingdom to my offspring whom has been groomed to do the same things

    June 29, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  15. WildGorgh

    When I Become The king of these Persian Gulf State, I will eliminate all my adversaries, And make lots of clones of myself, and I make my clones to make drones of themselves, these drones will be made just to praise me, I would make these drones line up on Fridays near my palace so I can hand out some scraps in front of mass media just to make me look good. I executed few innocent people to prove I am firm and fair . At night I will return to my harem of 100 young women, I will pick one of my favorite and make love to her with my blood smear hands. I will repeat the process next day until I am unable to function as man. Then I hand over my kingdom to my offspring whom has been groomed to do the same things. long live my kingdom , long live my kingdom.

    June 29, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  16. Dr Sultan

    There is nothing call the Persian Gulf. The Arab Gulf States should help secure the Arab Gulf by helping alAhwazi liberate their country from the Iranian occupation. Iran will end up not just being no longer part of the Arab Gulf states, but also will end up with no oil whatsoever since 99% of the Iranian Oil comes from the occupied Arab State of alAhwaz!

    June 29, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Reply
    • Human

      You mean exporting terrorism by the Saudis?

      July 1, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  17. EbonyDelite

    Well, I see that the ignorant can find this page too! If you studied true Islam without being brainwashed by the NWO, you would find that early Muslims were breaking ground in every field of civilization while Europe was scooping poop out of caves. The renaissance was a result of trade with Muslim countries and the education European traders gained from such trade. Both Christians and Muslims are severely out of touch with their teachings these days thanks to the efforts of the Iluminati and other such groups.

    June 29, 2013 at 9:44 pm | Reply
    • tms5510

      Actually all those early Islam scientific achievements were due to Iranians. Arabs had nothing to do with that

      June 29, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Reply
      • Dr Sultan

        Iran history was similar to Europe dark ages until ISLAM was offered to them by the great Caliph Omar Bin alKhattab and Allah Sword Khalid Bin alWaleed. Arrogantly, they made later changes to Islam and called themselves Shi'At which means Majous, i.e. their name before Islam! However, remember 65% of Iranians are Persians but oppressed ethnics such as Arabs, Kurds, Blush, etc.

        June 29, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
      • tms5510

        Islam is a vermin. Iran's civilization was at its height before Islam. The so called "Golden" age of Isalm is only a product of Iranian intellectuals. All big names of "Islamic" civilization are Iranian. Even Arabic Grammar is invented by Iranian. Even now, despite sanctions etc, Iran is much more advanced than all Arabs together. Iran sends satellite into space while Arabs chase snakes in the desert :)) Iran's scientific production is 50% more than all Arab countries together while Iran population is 1/3 of Arabs

        June 29, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
  18. IRAN IS EVIL ,,,

    THE ARABIAN GULF IS THE CORRECT TERM AS MORE COUNTRIES ARABIC COUNTRIES LIVE IN THAT REGION AND IRAN WAS CONCORD BY MUSLIM ARAB NATIONS IN ALQADESYA WAR AGAINST THE EVIL PERSIANS SHAH IRAN BROUGHT THE NAME BACK AS USA WAS SUPPORTING THAT EVIL...NOW WE HAVE WORSE EVIL OF TOWEL HEADS......STEALING 3 ISLANDS SINCE THE SHAH TIME FROM UAE IRAN ARE BUNCH OF THIEF'S THUGS KILLERS MURDEROUS , THEY MARRY THERE SISTERS AND COUSINS AND PRACTICE MOTA3A THE ADULTERY THAT ALLOWED BY IRAN SHARIA LAW....FK PERSIA SEE THE MOVIE 600 IT IS TRUE WE ARE AS GREEK PAID HARD PRICE AGAINST THOSE EVIL TOWEL HEADS..

    June 29, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Reply
  19. nate

    A name is a name according to the speaker: The Rio Grande in the original Spanish is El Rio Bravo. What's important is that the "science" coming out of the Middle East is mostly from Westerners working there, not from the Middle Easterners themselves (except in Israel). The Iranian "government" is only interested in creating a nuclear weapon at the expense of their people, who live mostly in poverty. If it weren't for successful brainwashing, both Iran and North Korea would have imploded long ago. I'm still waiting for the Nobel Prize in a scientific category to be awarded to an Arab or Iranian (of course, they claim that there's bias against them).

    June 30, 2013 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  20. Dr Sultan

    Safawiyya should be equated with Zionism and be barred from the Arab World. The oppressed ethnics should be helped to revolt for freedom and overthrow the evil mullahs. Most important, the Arab occupied State of alAhwaz must end up independent at any price and its people must be supported to liberate their country from alMajouss.

    June 30, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Reply
    • Human

      You should get hired by Rand in Qatar! Lol. They need "Dr"s like you

      July 1, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Reply
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