Doha: With temperatures that reach 50C in the summer and the constant, abrasive swirl of sand grains in the air, Qatar feels like little more than a desert. But the mirages are different here.
Instead of shimmering pools of water that vanish on closer inspection, huge structures rise from the bone-dry landscape. Some are squat and boxy; others curve elegantly into the sky. The skyline is dotted with skeletons of others yet to be finished. Education City, on the outskirts of the capital, Doha, is at an embryonic stage.
But it represents Qatar’s grand attempt to turn itself from fossil-fuel nation into scientific superpower. Famous universities such as Carnegie Mellon and University College London have opened satellite campuses amid the fake grass. Shell, Total and GE have set up research centres. Virgin Health Bank has opened an umbilical-cord blood bank.
There is a technology park for start-ups seeking escapees from Silicon Valley. The Qatar Foundation, the non-profit organisation set up by one of the ruling emir’s three wives, hopes that it will become an intellectual jewel in the Gulf and in the wider world.
At a time when Western countries are shutting down or scaling back science projects, it is a striking example of a scientific renaissance in the Muslim world.
Last year, the US mothballed both the Space Shuttle and the Tevatron, its equivalent of Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. Spain shut down its ministry of science. Even Brazil, India and China are feeling the financial pinch. But the Middle East has found the will and the cash to think big — motivated by the need for a plan after the oil runs out, and perhaps by the desire to recapture scientific glories that once surpassed those of Europe.
The lexicon is stuffed with terms coined by Islamic scientists: algebra, alchemy, alkali, amalgam, elixir.
In the 8th century, Arabic scholars started translating the work of the Greeks; over the next 400 years, their concepts were developed by such pioneers as the chemist Al Jabir, the mathematician Al Uqlidisi (whose name is thought to honour Euclid), the philosopher-medic Ibn Sina — known in Europe as Avicenna — and the polymath Al Biruni, whose 11th century calculation of the Earth’s circumference was correct to within 1 per cent.
By the time that London built its first hospital in the 12th century, Baghdad already had 60.
Today, however, the Muslim world produces only 1 per cent of global scientific output. The decline may have begun with the 13th-century Mongol invasion of Baghdad, or subsequent fighting between caliphates, or a fear that science would lead to a rejection of faith.
Professor Jim Al Khalili, a British-Iranian physicist and broadcaster, has speculated that the printing press allowed ideas to circulate in Europe during the Enlightenment, but excluded Arabic script. And so the history of science has largely written out the Islamic world.
There are spectacular efforts to gain lost ground. Qatar, ranked by Forbes as the world’s richest country per head, thanks to its natural gas reserves, has been spending 2.8 per cent of GDP — currently Ł2.2 billion (Dh12 billion) — on education, science and research. Britain, like most of Europe, spends under 2 per cent; the US 2.6 per cent.
A single facility at Education City, the Sidra Medical and Research Centre, has a Ł5 billion endowment from the ruling family.
The country’s research focus is on biomedical sciences, especially new treatments for common conditions in the region — diabetes, heart disease, neurological conditions and infectious diseases — and how to cope with the energy, food and water needs of a growing population in a dry country. Over the past two years, it has invited a succession of Nobel laureates to give lectures, and to consider opening labs.
Qatar is not alone in its ambitions. Across the border, Saudi Arabia has created the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology with a Ł6 billion endowment; it has the region’s one supercomputer and the country’s only unsegregated campus entrance, admitting both men and women.
Jordan is building a particle collider called Sesame; the multi-country project is headed by Prof Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, a former Cern director-general.
Yet, as Education City hosted its first international scientific conference earlier this spring, in the Japanese-designed convention centre — a glass building the size of an airport containing one of sculptor Louise Bourgeois’s giant bronze spiders — the question was: will this spending really usher in another golden age of Islamic science?
Significantly, Qatar has its own own demographic problems: of its 1.7 million people, 80 per cent are foreigners.
If any renaissance comes, it will be largely an imported commodity. Qatar University has also taken the decision to shut its physics department, hardly conducive to a renewed scientific spirit.
Prof Llewellyn Smith says that the rise of interest in science across the region is “impressive, but it will take time to judge the success of newly established centres in the Gulf, mainly staffed by returned expatriates and foreigners, and of efforts to foster an indigenous science base in those countries without a recent scientific tradition”. Prof Kirk Smith, who travelled from the University of California, Berkeley, to address the conference on environmental toxins, describes the country’s plan to become a knowledge economy by 2030 as a “really interesting experiment. Here, two variables that contribute to scientific success are completely taken out of the equation: there is limitless money and top-level commitment. But will it be enough to get where Qatar wants to be by 2030? I’d love to come back and find out.”
From chatting to many at the conference, I gained the impression that they regarded Qatar, a relatively liberal Muslim country, as a gilded cage. They cited as obstacles the lack of things to do, the prohibition on homosexuality and alcohol (foreigners can get an alcohol licence or drink at the few international hotels that serve it), and gender politics.
While Qatari law doesn’t restrict what women can wear or do, nearly all wear the abaya (full-length dress) and headscarf.
One female European scientist in a panel discussion chose to sit in the audience rather than on the stage because she did not feel comfortable in a knee-length skirt. And the foundation was unable to name the most senior woman scientist on campus, although the president of Qatar University is a woman.
On the positive side, one American relished the idea of exposing his children to a different culture — and all scientists dream of having a blank cheque to pursue their ideas.
Professor Abdul Ali Haoudi, who oversees biomedical research for the Qatar Foundation, believes the country offers something else so unique that frustrated scientists in cash-strapped institutions might just bite.
“It’s not enough to publish great papers — for science to be a success, you have to translate it and apply it,” insists the Moroccan-born geneticist, who has worked at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland and the Pasteur Institute in France.
“We may be a small country, but on one campus we have access to basic, translational and applied research, all the way to commercialisation. Here, no scientist has to struggle to take his new development further.”
Translational research, often called technology transfer, is that tricky midpoint in the evolution of a great idea into a best-selling product — it might, for example, be research into a specific drug formulation before it goes into clinical trials.
Dr Rabi Mohtar, a Lebanon-born, US-trained civil engineer who heads the Qatari Energy and Environment Institute, and who sees solar power as the future, accepts that the money has to be good, “but it’s not the first thing on the list. I recently interviewed someone from Silicon Valley, and we could offer him a 10-15 per cent higher salary, a free home, no utility bills, a car, the best schools in the world for his children, and no income tax. The bottom line is that anyone who comes only has to worry about work, not whether they can pay the bills.
“This is really about writing a new chapter in building sustainable, dry economies. We’ve recruited 31 people from all over the world, including Spain, Germany, France and the US, and the list is growing. What drives me personally is the belief that, with these resources and the positioning of Qatar, we could be a global leader in this technology.”
Perversely, the religious chasm between East and West might just tip the balance in the Islamic world’s favour. The Quran “does not interfere with the business of science, nor does it infringe on the realm of science”, Al Biruni wrote in the 11th century.
A millennium later, Prof Haoudi says: “Qatar allows research on embryonic stem cells that is not permitted in some European countries.”
To brilliant scientists, regulatory regimes matter, as shown by the exodus of top biologists from the US when the Bush administration stopped funding such research.
Perhaps if you’re spending all day and all night in one of the world’s most lavishly funded labs, it doesn’t matter that you can’t crack open a beer when your experiment works.