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Saudi Arabia’s Progress in Science is Real, Measurable, and Speaks for Itself

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Since 2012, Saudi Arabia has become the second most productive contributor of research in West Asia. 

The presentation of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 has sparked endless speculation about the practicability of the outlined economic and social reforms as well as the motivations of the Saudi government. With the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s two week long visit to the United States, the array of articles analyzing what will or will not happen, what is real and what is an illusion, has been endless. Predicting the future, particularly about a previously closed society that is opening up for the first time through a series of fast-paced changes is a risky proposition. Those who want to know the Kingdom’s future are better off being involved in helping to shape it. Politics is always a murky subject, whether in a monarchy or in a democratic republic, because the full set of facts can never be fully known, and whatever is known is subject to interpretation. However, for those who are curious to see past the PR campaigns and political presentation, surveying the scope of changes in the past two years, rather than focusing exclusively on the current trip or individual recent events, may prove useful. Leaving aside speculation, fantasies, and concerns, history brings to bear a transparent and noticeable set of changes which have transformed Saudi Arabia’s scientific and technological landscape over this time period in a measurable, observable, and practical ways. While Vision 2030 is driving economic changes and business opportunities inside the Kingdom, the openness of the leadership to scientific inquiry and progress for its own sake, rather than for the sake of predetermined goals or PR strategies is responsible for the metamorphosis on a more profound level./First, this attempt to upgrade a society previously dominated and limited by the clergy into a modern day powerhouse has been successful Over the past year, the country has more than doubled its output of research, becoming the eighth fastest riser. Two-thirds of those publications are dedicated to chemistry. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which is at the forefront of the Kingdom’s top five research entities, is the only Arab institute to be named as one of the 500 top universities in the world.

KAUST’s focus is on supporting entrepreneurship and promoting cutting edge science, technology, and innovation. Most recently, it hosted its third talent symposium, which seeks to identify and promote the most promising minds. Many of the participants go on to partner with some of the world’s best known universities. The event brought together both the academic leaders and professors. The aim is for students to advance through their studies, eventually becoming deans of the universities and advancing education inside the country.

Within the past month alone, the country has issued a license to build a Museum of History of Science and Technology in Islam. The significance of this development should not be underestimated, for it symbolizes the movement away from the denial early scientific advances and fully embracing modernity and dedication to enlightened reason and inquiry. Just as importantly, this is a statement to reexamine Islam as a religion naturally coexisting with these values, a practical, apolitical step that clearly demonstrates the Kingdom’s priorities and truthfulness. This step is internal; it is not a PR campaign to appeal to the Westerners, but a significant investment into advancing the Kingdom’s society. It is also an unequivocal rejection of false narratives by ignorant or deliberately manipulative clergy and the hijacking of Islam by the revolutionaries. Moreover, the local experts are now focusing on promoting astronomy, of particular significance because under the predecessor to Mohammed bin Salman, a Saudi cleric has publicly subscribed to the debunked geocentric theory. TV preachers had called for astronomers to be punished.

As part of its investment into the knowledge economy, Saudi Arabia is building a Riyadh Techno Valley, a global research hub similar to Silicon Valley with a focus on promoting public private partnerships. Saudi ARAMCO, meanwhile, is also committed to research investment and in early November, broke ground for its new global research center in partnership with the Lomonosov Moscow State University Science Park in Russia, focusing on upstream technologies such as modeling and simulation, artificial intelligence, and data analytics.  In another important development, Saudi Arabia is focusing on localizing space sciences with the goal to facilitate international cooperation in space through peaceful cooperation in space exploration. These promising steps include efforts to promote education, health, water and natural resources management, urban planning, navigation, environmental monitoring, and communications and satellite management. There is an ongoing technical training program for Saudi scientists in support of a sustainable program on satellite technology, as well as an advanced infrastructure in place for a creation of a viable space program. Between 2000 and 2017, Saudi Arabia had launched 13 satellites in low earth orbits. The Saudis are also actively trying to diversify their energy, not only proposing the potential for developing civilian nuclear reactors, but also dedicating an effort to building the largest solar power plant in the world, which, at the cost of $200 billion would be 100 times bigger than Australia’s proposed runner up.

Whether its size or for that matter, the cost, will matter remains to be seen; however, the dedication towards moving away from dependency on fossil fuels is not in doubt. Additionally, the Kingdom is developing its own first tablet, looking to internal innovation and not just partnership with big US tech companies, despite the investment and partnership focus of Mohammed bin Salman’s visit with the tech giants from New York to Silicon Valley. It is also looking to invest into a knowledge based economy, a factor that has received little coverage, but may be the most important social and economic decision made by the monarchy to date. Already, fifty percent of degrees in scientific fields is going to women in KSA. Meanwhile, the country continues to award the King Faisal Award  to top researchers from around the globe.

The five categories include Islam, Islamic Studies, Arabic Language and Literature, Science, and Medicine. This award has been given out for the past 40 years, but the focus on innovation in recent years has been particularly noteworthy. The Islamic Development Bank, now, too is looking to support innovation and entrepreneurship, establishing a fund to that effect.  The spirit of such dedication to growth is admirable, particularly since it is clear that there is an effort being made to improve life and benefit of humanity, not just create edgy and expensive toys. In fact, during Mohammed bin Salman’s recent visit to UK, there was a memorandum of understanding signed between British and Saudi pharmaceuticals to improve access to medicines in KSA. That mirrors the dedication to joint focus on vaccination against MERS with American Universities, which is one of the many outcomes of the visit with MIT, Harvard, and other top schools. The diversity of these agreements and their potential benefit to both countries shows a genuine interest in developing strategic long-term partnerships, and not merely one-sided transactional relationships that would improve Saudi Arabia’s image.

Actions speak louder than words. Rather than speculating endlessly over the direction Saudi Arabia is going and whether its leadership is sincere about carrying through with the modernization, the skeptics would do well to survey the recent history and to see how much Saudi Arabia already has changed in just a few years.

by Irina Tsukerman

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