||Dr. Saif Al-Ghais is a biologist and professor at UAE University, Al Ain. He is also the Executive Director of the Environmental Protection & Development Authority of Ras Al Khaima. In this interview Dr. Al-Ghais shares his views on a wide range of topics, from the importance of heavy investment and funding in science and technology to student exchanges to political reform and the importance of the Middle East in the world political arena.
In May 2007 I met with academicians, local experts and researchers in the UAE. I hoped to gain an informed insight into the efforts being made in the region that would facilitate an Arab renaissance…Gitanjali Bakshi (Strategic Foresight Group)
Gitanjali: In your experience as a biologist what problems do Arab nationals face within the field of science and technology? Is there skilled manpower available for S&T field and is there sufficient funding?
Dr. Al-Ghais: In my opinion there is an available workforce but I think the funding for scientific research and experimentation does not measure up to ones expectations. This in my opinion is the root of the problem. Inadequate funding can definitely discourage further entrants into the field of S&T and can also encourage scientists to migrate to other countries in search of better funding. As a scientist you need money to arrive at a result or you cannot predict the outcome of your research with surety. In addition, results might be positive or in other cases they might be negative – in science both outcomes are equally pertinent to the researcher. However the benefactors want to know the results before we even conduct our examinations. This kind of anxiety on the part of the sponsors stems from a lack of understanding concerning both the method and the importance of science and technology.
We in the Arab world specifically, need to understand the significance of scientific experimentation. Let me give you an example. Just recently I was working with a scientist from the Bombay Natural History museum. I was a bit surprised to learn that a country such as the UAE, which enjoys a large amount of financial prowess, supplies their scientists with fewer resources than India. My intention is not to highlight the financial standing of these two countries but rather to emphasize the importance given to the development of science and technology. However I do see promise in His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s plan to donate $10 billion dollars of his own money to education and development. He is truly a visionary.
Gitanjali: Speaking of education, what are your views on collaborations between Western and Middle Eastern academic institutions? How do you feel about Arab students receiving scholarships to go abroad for studies?
Dr. Al-Ghais: Locals do get scholarships to go overseas but the number of students going abroad for studies has been gradually decreasing because of the availability of institutions here in the UAE. Some universities here are better equipped than the options in other countries. In addition education in public colleges such as Zayed University, the Higher Colleges of Technology and the UAE University are also free until graduate studies.
In response to the first part of your question, I feel that it is extremely important to familiarize university students in America and the Arab world with one another. In my experience, I have both Arab and American friends and I have noticed several misgivings between people from these two regions. I agree with your project to improve relations between the West and the Islamic world. We require a deeper understanding of each other’s culture and way of thinking. It is important to organize conferences and workshops whereby students from America and the Middle East can interact. I see university students as a new wave of messengers. Their insights will provide a new medium of information, something besides the incessant drone of news/media.
Gitanjali: Do you think it is important to encourage the translation of books and information into Arabic? Do you think this will stimulate intellectual growth in the region or would education in the English language be a better way to make information more accessible to the local population?
Dr. Al-Ghais: I think translation is extremely important to enhance intellectual growth amongst the Arab world. If you look back in history, the work of Arab scientists have been translated and published in several languages. As a result the knowledge they preserved and invented is now available to many generations and across many countries. Translation of books and information will also make people in the Middle East more aware of what is happening in the world around them. As far as the English language is concerned I think it is important to learn other languages to increase your general knowledge. As you might have noticed English is a second language here in the UAE. Personally, I do not support education in English. We are Arab and have a rich knowledge in science and literature. Focusing on another language, whether it is French, German or English, will be a threat to our asset. Therefore students should learn English but not as a core language.
Gitanjali: We have already covered several areas for possible development, what about social and political reform? What are your views on subjects like democratization, religious plurality and participation in global politics?
Dr. Al-Ghais: I believe that democratization should be a bit more flexible in its approach. It is difficult to plant a foreign concept of democracy without expecting repercussions. Look at Iraq. Is this what you call democracy? Is this the kind of system of government that one intends to bring to the UAE? If that is the case then I don’t want it. You cannot ignore years of culture and method; our way of life is different. The local population in the Middle East has been in this region for generations. They have developed a certain style of living, certain norms and customs. In other words we are based in a rooted society. American society is made up of an eclectic mix of people – here we have tribesmen who have lived together for hundreds of years. They have to deal in established and respected ways. Hence I am a little uncomfortable with the concept of democratization unless it takes the needs and traditions of Arab society into consideration.
Coming to your question about religion: I do not think that any religion should condone or be a supportive tool for killing other human beings. Religion teaches us to be civil to one another. In fact I feel that between Islam and Christianity, we should be competing as to who can be the most graceful and hospitable to their guests and not the other way around. Lastly, addressing your question about participation in global politics – I definitely do feel that the Middle East should have a strong political say in the international arena. They should be messengers for the region by building awareness about our people and our culture. I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding about the Islamic religion among outsiders, especially when it comes to seeing Islam as a threat. It is therefore our task to clarify these issues.
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