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December 23, 2005 Special Dispatch No. 1055

Saudi Intellectual Criticizes Arab Society: ‘A Nation’s Greatness Will Be Remembered not for the Wealth it Possessed but for its Contribution to Civilization’

December 23, 2005
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 1055

Dr. Faisal Sanai, a physician working at the Saudi Armed Forces Hospital, wrote in the Saudi English-language daily Arab News on December 20, 2005, an article critical of Arab society titled "The Arab Drift Into Scientific Obscurity."

The following is the article:

"There is a Malaise That Seems to Afflict Arab Academic Output and it has Reached Epidemic Proportions"

"In this era of globalization, a nation’s growth within the maturity module is determined by its scientific progress. Scientific progress in turn, is measured by the nation’s overall research publication in key peer-reviewed journals. This, to put it metaphorically, is the 'Holy Grail' of the research community.

"While recently attending a medical conference in France, I noted that there was a sizeable attendance from Saudi Arabia. Buoyed by the scientific interest that my fellow countrymen seemed to be exhibiting, I scanned the huge list of research trials being presented in the conference and, to my utter dismay, realized that not one came from the Kingdom. Sadly, this is not an isolated case. This depressing lack of scientific participation has a repetitive pattern to it. It appears that Arab scholars across the expanse of the Middle East have become mere patrons of development rather than the pioneers they once were.

"Our scientific community is in deep hibernation. Not since the pre-Renaissance era has there been such a dearth of medical research. There is a malaise that seems to afflict Arab academic output and it has reached epidemic proportions. And the situation is only getting worse. There is now a pressing need for this issue to be addressed before we become the victims of our own neglect."

"While Muslims Account for 20% of the World’s Population, we Possess Less Than 1% of the Scientists"

"While the rest of the world’s scientific community has climbed to dizzying heights, Arab contribution to civilization has fallen into oblivion. Such was not always the case. Cast back to the pre-Renaissance era and one can witness the Arab scientific legacy. For 700 years, this region was at the forefront of science. Michael Woods, a commentator of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, writes that 'Islamic medicine in the year 1000 was a marvel of sophistication featuring... practices beyond the dreams of medieval Europeans.' Today, the same medicine languishes in disinterest and cultural neglect. While Muslims account for 20% of the world’s population, we possess less than 1% of the scientists."

"The Arab Contribution to Civilization is Perpetually Held Hostage by Thousand-year old Achievements"

"For far too long we have rested on the laurels of past achievements. The Arab contribution to civilization is perpetually held hostage by thousand-year old achievements like the innovation of algebra by Al-Khwarizmi; the articulation of the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina; the extensive study in astronomy by Al-Farghani, or by the mathematical and astronomical genius of Omar Al-Khayyam. And since then our contribution to science has decayed and produced almost next to nothing."

Trying to Explain the "Backwardness" of "Our Contribution to Science"

"In trying to explain this backwardness, there have been frequent claims that Islam per se has held us back. Nothing can be further from the truth. At the recent OIC summit in Makkah, King Abdullah challenged this notion when he cited the Muslim scientific and philosophical 'contributions that provided the decisive catalyst in bringing enlightenment to the Dark Ages.' These scientists and philosophers were encouraged in part by the traditions of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) that urged Muslims to 'seek knowledge even if it be in China.' The Koran itself created an environment for science and religion to merge harmoniously by beseeching Muslims to educate themselves. Moreover, vast sections of the Koran call upon the followers to make the best use of reason in their search for the ultimate truth."

"The Contemporary Arab Scientist is More Inclined to the Pursuit of Personal Gain"

"What afflicts our scientists today is purely man-made and bereft of the vision that our forefathers possessed. The basic culture that had engendered appreciation for scientific research is now lacking in our society. The contemporary Arab scientist is more inclined to the pursuit of personal gain rather than working towards a common good. According to figures from UNESCO, the number of personnel enrolled in research in Saudi Arabia is far lower than even the much poorer Morocco. Additionally, statistics reveal that, in terms of scientific productivity, the Arab Region (which includes both Saudi Arabia and Morocco) is vastly lower than the world average. It seems therefore, that although wealthy, the Saudi scientist is poorer by performance.

"The problem is not all individualistic - the state is equally to blame. Collectively, Arab nations spend only 0.15 percent of their GDP on research and development, which is well below the world average of 1.4 percent. This bestows us with the lowest ranking amongst all the 10 regions of UNESCO, embarrassingly lower than the considerably poorer Sub-Saharan Africa."

"While Saudi Arabia can Claim to be one of the Most Charitable Nations of the World, it is Sadly Lacking in This Equally Important National Responsibility"

"What is particularly surprising is that within Arab nations there exists no tradition of scientific philanthropy. Compare this with the developed world where large portions of the research funding come from individuals and non-governmental organizations. For instance, in the year 2002, the US spent $33 billion on research and development. Of this amount, 37 percent came from academic institutions, industry, and individual funding. While Saudi Arabia can claim to be one of the most charitable nations of the world, it is sadly lacking in this equally important national responsibility. Philanthropy begins at home, and towards this an awareness campaign needs to be fostered in order to reclaim this responsibility. The scientific journal Nature cites a provocative example: The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel receives 17 percent of its annual $180 million budget from donations. Can wealthy Arabs rival their Jewish counterparts in their support of research?"

"A Nation’s Greatness Will Be Remembered not for the Wealth it Possessed but for its Contribution to Civilization"

"While money and awareness of responsibilities would certainly help, more needs to be undertaken to foster a climate of interest in this field. Incentives must be offered to those diligent in this field and their efforts duly rewarded. Science’s role in society needs to be continually elucidated, not just in the media but, also in educational establishments and civic institutions. Resources should be mobilized in order to erect the appropriate scientific infrastructure. In addition, definite measures are required to reverse the Arab emigration problem. According to the United Nations Development Program report of 2003, the brain drain in the Arab region is among the world’s worst, with roughly 25 percent of graduates in science, medicine and engineering emigrating each year.

"Recognition of a problem is the first step towards resolving it. Unless these issues are recognized and addressed in earnest, there will be no practical solutions. A nation’s greatness will be remembered not for the wealth it possessed but for its contribution to civilization. Far too much time has been lost by our preoccupation with gathering wealth rather than putting it to good use. The model of industrialized nations is a shining example of past investment in science paying rich dividends today. The question that begs answering is, are we willing to adopt it yet?"

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