In a Stormy Arab Spring, What is the Role for Science Diplomacy?

With the Middle East rocked by intense and sometimes violent protest focused on the United States, the new issue of Science & Diplomacy includes a trio of articles that explore the value of engagement based on shared interests in science and technology.

One of the articles focuses on the “promising opportunities” for cooperation between U.S. and Yemeni researchers. Another looks at the productive use of “water diplomacy” between Jordan and Israel. And a third, by Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, an influential science advocate, offers a sweeping look at the need for science as means for bridging cultures and improving human lives.

“The Middle East is facing existential challenges that may be more apparent in certain places than others, but are universal in our age,” Princess Sumaya writes. “We must acknowledge the real issues that we all face, and we must encourage the historic refusal of scientists to accept the status quo. It is this dogged approach that has spurred progress through the ages.

Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan, president of Jordan's Royal Scientific Society

Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan, president of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society

“Today, diplomats must think in the same way, for only scientific ingenuity, with the support of diplomatic creativity and drive, can respond to the defining challenges of our twenty-first century—in the Middle East and around the world.”

Princess Sumaya is president of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society and El Hassan Science City, chairman of Princess Sumaya University for Technology, and a member of the Jordanian royal family.

Science & Diplomacy, which debuted earlier this year, is an open access quarterly published by AAAS. It was developed by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy as a means for bringing together the communities of science and engineering research and foreign policy; it has broad value for foreign policy-makers and analysts, scientists and research administrators, and educators and students.

“The Morning After”

Vaughan C. Turekian

Vaughan C. Turekian

The September 2012 issue also includes an editorial by Science & Diplomacy Editor-in-Chief Vaughan C. Turekian on the issues at the interface of science and foreign policy that will confront Barack Obama or Mitt Romney on 7 November, the day after the U.S. presidential election. Turekian lists three specific challenges that will confront the next administration: preparing for the risk of a global pandemic; pursuing non-traditional technologies to address climate change; and competing for global scientific and engineering talent that can drive innovation and economic growth. [Read the article.]

“Ultimately, each of the challenges… and many other high-priority issues ranging from space science to food production to water supply, rely on the strategic use of science cooperation,” Turekian writes. “Using that cooperation more strategically makes sense given that U.S. science continues to hold immense value for the international community.”

Using science diplomacy to address critical needs is a recurring theme of the three articles on the Middle East.

“New Partnerships to Sustain the Middle East and the World”

Princess Sumaya describes a world in which politics and ideology dominate national and regional cultures, but lack solutions to provide food, clean water, and energy. [Read the article.]

“These are challenges that only science empowered by policy can solve,” she writes. “Yet there is no agenda for saving our future, as reactionary short-term thinking has dominated many decision-making processes. Until we accept that borders matter little in our region, or in the world at large, we will fail even to begin undoing the mistakes of wasteful generations.

“It is in this starkly simple scenario that science diplomacy must fight for a voice.”

“Building a New Foundation with Yemen”

A similar dynamic is playing out in Yemen, suggest Charles D. Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, and Mark Jansson, the federation’s special projects director. U.S. foreign policy, until recently, has seen the impoverished nation almost exclusively through the lens of terrorism and national security, they say. [Read the article.]

But that misses a more complex set of challenges. Yemen struggles to provide electricity and energy to its people, Ferguson and Jansson write. And, they add, Yemen is “the most water-stressed country in the Middle East with a per capita water share of less than 100 cubic meters per year—far below the water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters per year.” The nation’s agricultural land is gradually turning to desert.

Such challenges, while formidable, create an opportunity for American and Yemeni scientists and engineers to collaborate, the authors say. Those problem-solving relationships could have the effect of “building a foundation for a more robust bilateral relationship, and paving the way to multilateral collaboration on issues affecting the region.”

The Federation of American Scientists in 2010 launched a pilot project to bring scientists and engineers from both nations together, with a focus on early- and mid-career scientists.

“Water Diplomacy”

Jordan and Israel already have bridged the region’s difficult political divides to strike an agreement that helps assure water security for both nations in the arid region. Their success is embodied in the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace, write Lawrence Susskind, who teaches urban planning at MIT and negotiation at Harvard Law School, and Shafiqul Islam, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and water diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. [Read the article.]

When leaders “understand that water is a flexible resource and use processes and mechanisms to focus on building and enhancing trust, even countries in conflict can reach agreements that satisfy their citizens’ water needs and their national interests,” the authors say.

From 1948 until 1994, the two countries tried to manage the available water from the Jordan River and the Yarmouk River, along with groundwater in the Jordan River basin. But their efforts were unilateral and uncoordinated. The result: “Both countries overdrew the water that was available,” Susskind and Islam write, “critically damaging the environment and their own long-term water security.”

But the 1994 peace treaty included cooperative water-sharing and management provisions—an agreement the authors call “remarkable.”

Other stories in the September 2012 issue of Science & Diplomacy:

  • Science Diplomacy and Congress,”, by U.S. Representative Russ Carnahan (D-Missouri), looks at how four new bills, including the International Science and Technology Cooperation Act, could help the United States build more positive relations with other nations through science; and
  • Biodiversity without Borders,”, by Brian M. Boom, urges a bilateral agreement between the Cuba and the United States to encourage cooperation on the broad and urgent environmental problems shared by the two nations. Boom is director of the Caribbean Biodiversity Program and Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany at the New York Botanical Garden.