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Want to ease tensions in the Middle East? Science diplomacy can help

Editor's Note:

Science diplomacy can help countries solve on-the-ground challenges and improve standards of living for their citizens, writes David Hajjar. But it can also lay groundwork for improving relations through functional, scientific cooperation that is less politicized. This post originally appeared on Lawfare.

In the Middle East, governments and non-state actors alike have tried all forms of diplomacy to solve the challenges they face, with mixed results: shuttle diplomacy by the United States between the Israelis and Palestinians worked for a time, great-power diplomacy over the Syrian civil war largely hasn’t, and direct negotiations with unsavory groups like the Taliban have moved in fits and starts.

But progress can come from unlikely sources, and science diplomacy—whereby experts collaborate scientifically to address common problems and build constructive international partnerships—has more potential than is often recognized. Science diplomacy can of course help countries solve on-the-ground challenges and improve standards of living for their citizens. But it can also lay groundwork for improving relations in a region often defined by tension (if not outright conflict) through functional, scientific cooperation that is less politicized.

Efforts in science and technology, on the one hand, and diplomacy on the other, can achieve more if they are thoughtfully merged—rather than siloed. Science diplomacy, therefore, can contribute to peace- and security-building in the Middle East (and with the United States) in unique ways.

Science and global governance

Across the world, science diplomacy has helped set the stage for advancing foreign policy and global governance goals.

The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 illuminated how negotiating over and collaborating on science and technology issues can be an important gateway to achieving significant foreign policy goals. Direct (and often very technical) diplomacy between U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, was key to achieving the framework agreement, as was collaboration between Iranian and Western nuclear scientists more broadly. Provided that the agreement is thoroughly enforced, it’s a major victory for global nuclear nonproliferation efforts—and much credit goes to effective science diplomacy.

Global efforts to combat climate change are another area in which science diplomacy has had a real impact on policy. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has become a model for critical science policy research and recommendations. The 2015 conference in Paris brought together hundreds of political leaders and experts to examine the scientific evidence that the globe is warming, discuss remedies, and chart a path forward that can help slow environmental damage. So, science diplomacy was again central—this time in shaping and implementing the global climate governance framework.

Another area where we have observed substantive gains from science diplomacy is the global management of infectious diseases. The Zika outbreak in Latin America, Ebola epidemic in West Africa, dengue in the Caribbean and Asia, MERS in the Gulf region and in South Korea, and the global threat of pandemic influenza all underscore that international cooperation is key to fighting modern plagues, which spread more rapidly in an era of constant global travel. In some cases more than in others, political leaders have devoted considerable resources to promoting international scientific cooperation—whether in clinical monitoring, medical interventions, research into pathogen biology and diagnostics, and treatments (including vaccine development). In fact, the global response to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is an example where international collaboration helped identify affected populations and coordinate treatment through the WHO Global Alert and Response System (which has identified new cases in Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Canada, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). The system’s main goal is to send supplies and medical specialists (including epidemiologists), design clinical trials, provide diagnostic tests, identify modes of transmission, and provide treatment. This coordinated response effort has controlled the pandemic.

Science in a fraught region

In the Middle East, opportunities abound for science diplomacy. Not only can this type of approach help solve practical, quality-of-life challenges—from energy to health and beyond—it can bring together expert communities and bureaucracies. In the process, it can contribute to more normalized people-to-people and government-to-government relations. Even at the height of the Cold War, for example, U.S. and Russian nuclear scientists and other experts worked together to monitor each other’s nuclear facilities; even though Moscow and Washington had nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed directly at each other, bureaucratic cooperation on technical issues became a normal part of the relationship and helped enhance transparency and trust.

In the energy sector, for example, innovation in science and technology will play a crucial role in helping to transition Middle Eastern states in the region away from a dependence on fossil fuels—a broad goal of the Paris accords and a specific strategic goal of states like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Notwithstanding the sectarian disagreements between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both need to address their fast-growing demand for electricity; they need not be in competition with each other. Saudi Arabia currently fuels its own 10 percent annual rise in electricity needs with crude oil, owing to domestic natural dry gas reserves. Iran’s vast gas reserves could be used to meet the kingdom’s growing energy needs, but Iran’s decaying gas fields need $250 billion in major repairs. Many think that if Saudi Arabia used its investment power to revitalize Iran’s gas industry, it would secure the energy it needs to meet demands. The economic benefits of cooperation on energy could promote better relations. Another area of cooperation that can drive the local economies is the Arab Gulf’s first major cross-border enterprise, the Dolphin Gas Project, which was started in 2007. The project involves the transportation of natural gas from Qatar to Oman and to the UAE. Finally, international cooperation between Oman and Iran is developing, where Oman intends to import natural gas from Iran for industrial development. This would require investing in an underwater pipeline from the Iranian coast to Oman. The UAE could do the same to build its economy: import natural gas from Iran, since the pipelines exist. The technical know-how for all these initiatives already exists—to date the main stumbling block has been overcoming regional politics.

Qatari Oil Minister Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah (L) and Dolphin Energy Chief Executive Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh hold a news conference about the inauguration of the Dolphin Energy plant in Doha May 12, 2008. Photo credit: Reuters.
Qatari Oil Minister Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah (L) and Dolphin Energy Chief Executive Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh hold a news conference about the inauguration of the Dolphin Energy plant in Doha May 12, 2008. Photo credit: Reuters.

In health, there is also room for mutually-beneficial cooperation. Back in 1996, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs helped establish the Middle East Cancer Consortium—that effort continues to help train the next generation of scientists and medical professionals in cancer biology in the region. Other programs have focused on vaccine development for childhood diseases; preventing HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis infections; ending childhood malnutrition; and managing unwanted pregnancies. Programs like these have yielded important advances in public health and have enhanced cooperation between countries like the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey, and Israel with the United States.

And in a unique cross-sectoral approach, Jordan is host to a promising initiative called the Synchrotron Light for Experimental Science and Application in the Middle East (SESAME). Modeled after the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), SESAME is a partnership between Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey that aims to create research career opportunities that will limit “brain drain” from the region and serve as a model for scientific collaboration.

STEM education: The root of science diplomacy

Science diplomacy has the potential to deliver real dividends that extend beyond the science and technology spaces themselves. When states cooperate on functional, non-politicized (or at least less politicized) issues—whether at the level of non-state scientific communities or at the level of state bureaucracies focused on energy, health, or other issues—they become more accustomed to working together and trusting each other. This can gradually have spillover effects into politics and security arenas.


Science diplomacy doesn’t just happen, though—it requires real efforts on behalf of policymakers and experts. One crucial step is advancing STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to build more robust and diverse expert communities. This is something that President Obama emphasized in his speech at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University in 2009. He identified possible areas of cooperation, both within the region and with the United States, including researching and piloting new sources of energy, creating “green” jobs, enhancing communication and informatics, sharing medical information, generating clean water, and growing new crops.

In some countries in the region, particularly in the Gulf, there are signs of new investment in STEM education and related efforts. For example, Qatar has pledged to spend 3 percent of its GDP on scientific research, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has decided to create the world’s first sustainable city. Saudi Arabia created the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) with a $20 billion endowment, $200 million of which has been used to attract scientists and educators from the West. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE continue to build and sustain partnerships with European and American universities.

Interest in science among students and the general citizenry in many Middle Eastern countries remains low, which is problematic at a time when the region’s young people need to compete in a world increasingly centered around STEM. More governments in the region—perhaps with U.S. help—need to increase efforts to attract their young people to STEM education and careers.

International cooperation on STEM issues—led by science diplomats—can strengthen relationships between Middle Eastern states and with the United States. Science and technology disciplines transcend politics, borders, and cultures, and are thus an important bridge between nations. During a time of strained geopolitical relationships, we can focus on making progress in health and disease, food and water security, and other areas—and thereby enhance domestic stability and international security in the process.


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