The Arab world -- in the market for West's know-how

At every meeting and conference in the Arab world, speaker after speaker refers to ''the Arab nation.'' This represents, of course, a dream and not a reality. By Western standards, Arabs are not a nation. To be sure, they have a common language and common religion, but there are wide divergencies between the erratic behavior of Colonel Qaddafi of Libya on one hand and the stability of King Khalid of Saudi Arabia on the other. Visas are needed to travel from one Arab country to another, and often a national of one country, even an Arab who has resided there a number of years, may not buy land or build a house in another country.

But the national distinctions in scientific matters are disappearing. The Arabs still dream of past glories: the invention of the use of powers of 10; the Arabic numerals; and early mapping of the heavens. They are beginning to work together in the hope of recovering some of their past distinction.

The most obvious examples are the intergovernmental organizations for environmental protection and for energy. The regional organizations for protection of the marine environment met in Kuwait in January. Iraqi and Iranian delegates worked together to avoid pollution of the Gulf, notwithstanding the war between them.

Several Arab countries have started research institutes. The Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research (KISR) was begun 15 years ago. Initially funded under an agreement with the Japanese affiliate of ARAMCO, it now is funded by the Kuwait government. The present director, Adnan Shihab-Eldin, has a PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. The majority of the staff are Western-trained Arabs from other Arab countries, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, with a few from India and Pakistan. The number of scientists from Kuwait itself is small; their culture tends to stress business rather than science. Few families have workshops in which their children can learn the joys of working with their hands. Few houses have basements to put the workshops in. However, it is heartwarming to see a young Kuwaiti working late at night with the same pleasure and enthusiasm as an American graduate student.

This leads to a problem that is called the Arab brain drain. Scientists leave some less-favored Arab countries to go to the oil-rich nations. It is reported that, since 1976, 28 percent of all academics have left Khartoum, along with 50 percent of all engineers and 60 percent of all doctors.

Nuclear-energy centers were built in several countries in the 1960s. At Inchass, near Cairo, a small nuclear reactor supplied by Russia supplies radioactive isotopes for medicine and research in agriculture. More recently solar-energy research centers are particularly popular.

The Arabs long for Western technology. At first they confused the fruits of that technology (TV, automobiles) with the technology itself. Now they have begun to realize that what they need is ''live technology,'' trained people who have the attitude of mind to generate new technology. This can come only by nurturing and respecting the technologists.

A recent public opinion poll in Saudi Arabia illustrates this. Whereas businessmen used to be the most highly regarded group (and are still the highest paid), now it is the professors -- followed by doctors, scientists, and businessmen -- who are most highly regarded.

But the Arabs have not yet realized the importance of basic, as distinct from applied, research; nor in many cases do they realize the importance of combining teaching and research. At the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, faculty members lecture for nine hours a week - much more than is common in the large research universities in the United States and Western Europe. A similar teaching load can be found in the Universities of Kuwait, Qatar, and the King Saud University in Riyadh. This leaves very little time for research.

Many scientists have argued that it will be many years before Arab science catches up with Western science at this rate. This has led to suggestions that dramatic advances can be made by massive expenditures of money in the right places. One way might be to build a scientific facility that is second to none and the envy of scientists in the Western world. Then Western scientists will ask to come to work in this facility -- bringing with them technicians and their know-how - and will teach the methods of science by direct example.

In 1965 there was a plan for a 200-inch optical telescope to be built 100 miles north of Medinah in Saudi Arabia by astronomers from the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England. This observatory was to be open to astronomers worldwide , and since it would have been near the equator, scientists would have come. But the project was abandoned after the ''six-day war'' of 1967. It then was unpalatable to the Saudi government to allow free access to persons of all religions -- as demanded by the British.

In 1973 some Western and Egyptian physicists proposed the construction of a large electron-positron storage ring to study particle physics. This proposal was discussed informally at UNESCO and at a meeting of the Arab League in Rabat. But it was premature. In 1975 the West German government provided funds for the construction of an electron-positron storage ring, PETRA. Soon thereafter, the US government built a comparable ring called PEP. This made the proposal obsolete.

In the last year the idea of a scientific laboratory with facilities second to none, has surfaced again in Jeddah. This time it may succeed. It has strong support from the President of King Abdulaziz University, Dr. Abdullah Naseef, and from Prince Muhammad al-Faisal.

Meanwhile, there has been much recent discussion of reconciliation of Western science with Islamic traditions. In Pakistan, professors at the Islamic University recently protested against the theory of evolution. Yet they do not protest, and hence tacitly support, the efforts of the Pakistani government to build an atomic bomb.

Reconciliation of scientific thought with religious values is an old question. The Arabs are fond of emphasizing that, whereas in the West it has been viewed as a conflict of science and Christianity, Islam is more than a religion, it is a way of life. Be this as it may, many of the issues have been discussed for the last 1,000 years, and the discussions in the Islamic context have a familiar ring. They reject technologies that are out of harmony with the environment.

Just as the World Council of Churches reminds us that humanity is the steward of creation, Muslims remind us that we are trustees of nature. They remind us that technologies that bring wealth to the few are bad -- yet they keep the oil wells to themselves.Just as in the West, science and technology, by themselves, have no morality; the scientists and the society they serve must constantly inject the needs and morals. If this discussion of bringing science into the Islamic world, or Islamic tradition into science, opens up new ideas, the whole world will benefit.

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