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Science and Research for Development in the Arab World

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Ibrahim Karsany

Former Director, Public Policy Division

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It looks paradoxical that the Arab world is passing through a dark age, from a scientific stand point, at present, after their recognized original contribution to the evolution of science in the earlier centuries. God's first order to Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) was to "read". Imam Ali bin abi Taleb wrote back in the sixth century that, "If God were to humiliate a human being, he would deny him knowledge".

Based upon these enlightened thoughts and pro-learning traditions, Arabs once led the world in science, but now they are dropping even further behind in scientific research and in information technology.

The Arabs led the way in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and medicine. Scholars who laid the foundations of modern science include Jaber bin Hayan (chemistry), Al Kawarzmi (mathematics), Al Razi (chemistry and medicine), Ibn Sina (Medicine), and Ibn Ahaisam (optics). The critical and analytical approach developed during that time is inherent in today's sciences.

The reasons behind decline of science and technology in the Arab world are as follows:    


Investment in Science & Technology (S&T)

In terms of the ratio between gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) and GDP, the Arab world's share represents only 0.2% of world total investment in S&T in 2009. According to UNESCO's 2012 fact sheet entitled ' Global Investments in R&D', some countries spend more than 3% of GDP on R&D as in the case of Israel (4.3%) and Japan (3.4%). In 2002, the Arab countries spent $6 per capita on R&D compared with $953 per capita in USA, $779 in Japan and $465 in the EU.


One indicator of the region's poor performance is its low level of translation and publication of scientific works. According to the Arab Human Development Report (2009), the number of books written originally in Arabic and published across the Arab world are: 7,230, 7,080, and 5,910 in 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively, compared to the 172,000 books published in the United States in 2005.


Technology output can be expressed in terms of the number of registered patents. Total patents registered at the US Patent and Trademark Office between 1995 1999  for 8 Arab states (Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman Saudi Arabia, Syria and UAE) did not exceed 134, while that of Israel alone amounted to 3,076 and that of South Korea to 9,984 during the same period. 


Arab scientists
There is a relatively small number of identified full-time Arab equivalent research scientists and engineers per million population compared to other nations. In 2000, the Arab World only surpassed Africa with 124 scientists to 78 scientists and engineers per million population respectively . 

What went wrong in the Arab World?

The current failure of S&T policy in the Arab World can be attributed to several  factors, most notably is pertaining to education in terms of devoting small funds to scientific research, the second is the quality of education and a system that insists on traditional teaching mechanisms that leaves little room for scientific enquiry, much less innovative thinking.

These factors, along with the straightjacket of inadequate infrastructure and R&D support systems, create an environment that is not conducive to R&D.

After painting this gloomy picture for the state of S&T and R&D in the Arab world, what is the way forward?

The way out of this scientific Dark Age which is engulfing the Arab world, shall be through bold steps, the first must be to strengthen the research triangle, i.e, the scientific link between the government, the academia and the industry. Historical experience shows that cementing the scientific relation between these three units is the key towards scientific discoveries, upgrading the level of R&D capabilities and hence advancing the development process.


The  co-operation between the Arab States in this regard is a curial factor for advancing R&D and utilizing the fruits of science for development in the Arab World. 



Dr. Ibrahim Kursany is  an Economic expert at b'huth.

Dr. Kursany  previously worked as an expert at Dubai Government's  Department of Economic Development

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