The blockade of Qatar will damage science across the region

Collaboration within the Gulf region was rare but now the few oases in the desert risk running dry, says Hilal Lashuel 

January 25, 2018
Michael Parkin illustration (25 January 2018)
Source: Michael Parkin

There are no winners in the current conflict between Qatar and some of its closest Arab neighbours – but science, scientists and the region’s youth are certainly big losers.

Since the decision last June by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to sever all ties with Qatar, scientists from those countries have been discouraged from collaborating with those from Qatar, or from publishing papers with them – even if the collaborative work is complete. It is true that the scale of such collaborative work is very low, but it was growing.

During the years prior to the blockade, proactive steps were taken by the scientific communities in Gulf countries to promote exchange and collaboration in both higher education and research. For instance, the Qatar Foundation invested in a series of initiatives to promote entrepreneurship and technical innovation, and to make Qatar a destination for scientists, entrepreneurs and investors from around the region. For the past nine years, it has funded the popular “edutainment reality” Stars of Science television show, aired across the Arab world. This is a competition among young science and technology entrepreneurs for significant seed funding to help them commercialise their innovations. The winners have mostly come from outside Qatar – including all those countries leading the blockade.

More recently, the foundation launched the Arab Innovation Academy, in partnership with the European Innovation Academy. Supported by international experts and investors, this describes itself as “a two-week boot camp for aspiring college students in pan-Arab countries, presenting them with real-life experience in how to develop and launch new tech-based ventures”.

We, as scientists from the region, were thrilled to see such initiatives, and were hopeful that they would pave the way for more strategic regional coordination and collaboration in science and research and development. The current crisis, if not resolved quickly, could undermine these efforts.

Furthermore, Qatar is one of three nations in the region, alongside the UAE and Saudi Arabia, that host the great majority of international scientific conferences and exhibitions held in the Middle East. These events provide students, scientists and institutions from the region with unique opportunities to explore new scientific frontiers, pick up on trends in higher education and network with each other. The current travel ban is not only denying such opportunities to scientists from the Gulf region but also making conferences in these countries less attractive beyond the region, as most renowned international speakers and institutions use such events to learn about the state of higher education and research in the entire region, and to explore the possibilities for new collaborations and strategic partnerships.

Indeed, the blockade and the bad blood between the nations could reinforce the unhelpful international image of a region where the key ingredients for achieving scientific excellence and innovation, such as freedom of expression, stability and openness, do not exist. All of the Gulf countries have struggled to attract and retain international scientists because of the lack of mechanisms to give them and their families a sense of belonging. If borders can be closed and collaborations ended overnight without careful consideration of their impact on the work, careers and well-being of scientists, why would talented students, academics and professionals take the risk of committing their futures to the region?

The issue is particularly acute given the lack of interest among young people in Gulf countries in pursuing research careers. Without foreigners, these countries therefore lack the capacity to be self-sufficient in research, and to develop competitive research agendas with an impact beyond their populations and borders.

The significant drop in the oil price also makes it unlikely that individual Gulf countries will be able to sustain the increasing financial costs of building and maintaining complex R&D infrastructure. Indeed, most countries are scaling back on ambitious projects, or delaying the launch of new ones.

Yet these nations share common challenges in health, economics, the environment, energy and security – and have some unique opportunities. In health, for instance, the high consanguinity and shared lifestyles among their populations, combined with their large collective financial resources, could lead to transformative scientific discoveries if only they were properly capitalised on by geneticists and epidemiologists, especially in areas such as diabetes, obesity and rare genetic diseases.

Of course, the fact that people in this region are connected by culture and blood, as well as by geography, means that they will eventually settle their differences. But, until they do, the scientists among them must be proactive and do what they can to preserve their relationships with other scientists and institutions in the region. When the dispute ends, they will be called on to play important roles in bridging the political divide and catalysing the reconciliation process.

The international scientific community should also continue to engage scientists in the region, supporting their work and collaborating with them. A vibrant scientific enterprise in this part of the world will not only offer new possibilities for the next generation in the Middle East: it has a great deal to offer to science globally.

Hilal A. Lashuel is associate professor of neuroscience at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Between 2014 and 2016, he was executive director of the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute, a national research institute in Hamad Bin Khalifa University.

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