Analysis |

As UAE Spacecraft Heads for Mars, the Arab World Eyes a Rebound in Scientific Prowess

But even countries prepared to invest in the knowledge economy face a shortage of people skilled enough or willing to invest years of study to join a burgeoning field

Zvi Bar'el
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The UAE's Hope Probe, which will explore Mars, blasts off from Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan, July 20, 2020.
The UAE's Hope Probe, which will explore Mars, blasts off from Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan, July 20, 2020.Credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries / AFP
Zvi Bar'el

The launch this week of the first Arab spacecraft to Mars was an achievement by any measure.

Although the United Arab Emirates had already launched nine satellites, among them four communication satellites, the Mars program marks the first time so many different scientists have taken part – some 200 of them from the emirates and the University of Colorado Boulder, Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

This project is so advanced that it’s likely to serve as a pan-Arab breakthrough advancing space research internationally.

The spacecraft, named the Hope Probe after a competition drew thousands of suggestions, will examine daily and seasonal weather changes on Mars and, over a year, send the information back to research labs for analysis. These scientists will collaborate with other projects trying to find life on the red planet.

The UAE's space program is a creation that began in 1998. Only in 2014 was the state’s space agency set up to develop the Mars craft while also hoping to set up a training program that will someday send an Arab astronaut into space.

When the space agency was opened, Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, declared that along with the measuring instruments, cameras and sensors, the spacecraft would convey three messages.

The first message is to the world. “Arab civilization once played a great role in contributing to human knowledge, and will play that role again,” he said, adding that the second message is to the Arabs: “Nothing is impossible. The Arab world can compete with the greatest of nations in the race for knowledge.”

The third message is to those who dream big: “Set no limits to your ambitions, and you can reach space.”

Egyptian students are keen

Sheikh Mohammed can be pleased with his country’s joining the world’s space club, and particularly with the fact that it was the small UAE that achieved this, not much larger Arab countries with a history of research like Egypt, Morocco and Iraq.

But this is no one-off success. The establishment of the space program has also led to academic programs that include a bachelor’s degree in physics and space science.

When Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi offered young people from Arab and African countries a chance to study space science, the response was phenomenal; more than 37,000 requests flooded in. The largest number, more than 19,000, came from Egypt, while 422 came from Palestinians, while only 692 UAE citizens applied to the program, which covered lodging, tuition and other financial benefits for the three years of study.

These figures reflect the enormous gap between the number of programs available to advance the knowledge economy and the number of Arabs interested in the field. There’s also a huge gap between countries with tremendous potential for advancing scientific research and the difficult reality on the ground.

According to the World Bank, Arab countries invest between 0.5 percent and 1 percent of their gross domestic product in research. Israel invests 4.9 percent, and Germany and Austria 3 percent. The UAE, considered the heaviest investor among Arab states, invests only 1.3 percent.

Suspicions of other countries

The website Al-Fanar, which specializes in education in Arab countries, recently posted an investigative report on the failures and limitations of Arab countries’ research infrastructure. It concluded that a lack of money isn’t the only barrier.

The state isn’t convinced that scientific research is part of its job, Prof. Hani al-Husseini, a math professor at Cairo University, told the website.

No less important is the reluctance of Arab countries to share information with each other, let alone with other foreigners. As a result, it’s very difficult for foreign lecturers and researchers to obtain visas to enter Egypt and many other Arab countries, and when such experts do come to work at universities and research institutes, they’re supervised closely.

Moreover, if during normal times the universities suffer from a lack of research funding, the coronavirus crisis has worsened this to the point that research projects and study programs in the natural sciences have been canceled.

Thus, for example, the University of Texas branch in Qatar has cut nearly a quarter of it research budget in favor of fighting the coronavirus. Also, many research universities have suffered a brain drain as foreign lecturers and researchers return home to wait out the pandemic.

There has also been a sharp drop in the number of new students registering at all faculties, especially the technology departments. Distance learning is difficult in courses that require lab work, little guidance counseling has been available, and scholarships have been cut.

Also, most students in Arab countries prefer to study social sciences rather than challenging technology degree programs, even though graduates of the latter are almost always guaranteed a job, whether with the government or in the private sector.

The result is that even countries prepared to invest in the knowledge economy face a shortage of people skilled enough or willing to invest years of study to join a burgeoning field. Hopefully the UAE’s space program will help break down these barriers and create competition with other Arab states to realize the vision of the governor of Dubai.

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