Engage Now: Science Diplomacy in the Middle East

Revolution in Egypt (c) Al Jazeera
  • In the wake of revolution the U.S. must immediately engage with Egypt and Tunisia through S&T initiatives.
  • The U.S. should: expedite student visas, fund additional scholarships, support dialogues between U.S and regional universities, and recommit existing S&T and education aid packages.
  • S&T activities should be a key component of building better, more resilient relationships with MENA countries.

The Middle East and North Africa are currently in a period of intense instability and transition and we do not know what the other side looks like.  Within the last month revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have ousted Presidents Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, respectively, while Yemenis continue to protest against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Salah, who has agreed to step down in the next election.  All three of these leaders are secular strongmen who have ruled their respective countries for at least twenty years and are widely viewed in the region as pro-American.

While vastly different, each of these three countries has the potential to be an important economic, political, and security partner for the United States.  Currently America’s relationship with all three heavily emphasizes military and anti-terrorism cooperation, often at the expense of our economic and political relationship.

In fact the U.S. government is the leading military supplier for all three countries, with military assistance counting for over 70% of their total country aid package.  Egypt alone received over USD 1.5 billion in military and economic aid in 2010, second only to Israel in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, while Tunisia received USD 20 million and Yemen received USD 160 million.  Of this almost USD 1.7 billion in aid, less than 800 million went to all non-security aid programs, which include economic development, civil society and governance building, and education.

To provide perspective on the size of U.S. military support, the President’s FY 2012 requested budget for the entire Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE) at the National Science Foundation requests just over USD 58 million, up over 21% from FY 2010.  Under this budget funding for OISE, which serves as the interagency focal point for all international science and engineering activities, equals just over 22% of the military aid for Egypt alone in FY2010.   And given the current Congress, even this relatively small budget is likely to face stiff opposition.  But should the United States be focusing so intently on military and security aid to the MENA region or could other forms of aid and engagement play an equally important role?

Despite decades of high military funding for Egypt and other MENA countries, Egypt and Tunisia’s revolutions reveal that the countries are neither stable nor economically and politically successful.  A different approach to U.S. economic assistance and engagement is needed.  The U.S. S&T sector will play a critical role in this new approach because of the sector’s ability to develop new economic opportunities, the popularity of U.S. science, and the focus on positive engagement.

Over the past two years the U.S. government has begun a new initiative in the region that aims to further and deepen science and technology (S&T) ties between America and the Muslim world.  Popularly termed the “Cairo Initiative,” through the Mulsim-Majority Countries Initiative the government has appointed three science envoys, scaled up existing S&T projects, increased dialogue on S&T and education, and developed (on paper) five centers of excellence, though none have received appropriations and remain unrealized.

In the face of the recent political upheaval and revolution, S&T partnership, assistance, and support play an even more critical role, both because of the disruptions to S&T that have occurred and because of the unique opportunities provided by these circumstances.

The S&T challenges created or exacerbated by political upheaval and revolution can broadly be grouped into: education, economic, foreign relations, and damages to or destruction of resources and physical infrastructure.

In each category some challenges and opportunities will be immediate, while others will be long term and may not be most effectively addressed until a new government and power structure is in place.

In the immediate future the greatest needs and challenges for the S&T communities will be:  the disruption of academic institutions, the temporary halting or holdup of student visas, international aid holds, and lost economic opportunities.  The U.S. government and S&T community can play a critical role in responding to and overcoming these challenges.

Immediately, embassies in each country should work to get their visa processing—especially of student visas—back up to speed.  The U.S. embassies should expedite the processing of visas for all students who have a place at a U.S. academic institution.  Simultaneously, academic institutions in the U.S. should work with students to make up any time they have missed as a result of their visa holdup and inability to leave the country.  For the upcoming Fall 2011 semester, the U.S. should look for opportunities to increase study opportunities and scholarships in the U.S. for students from Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries where academic institutions may not be on stable footing.

In many Middle Eastern countries, top university positions are politically appointed.  Where the revolution or political transition has created voids in S&T leadership and where there are opportunities to restructure how leadership positions are decided, U.S. universities can immediately begin dialogues with partner institutions in the Middle East on how to restructure leadership based on criteria such as merit and fit with institutional needs.  The government can support U.S. universities in these efforts by creating a pool of funding for delegations of university administrators and leaders to visit and engage with existing partner institutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries undergoing similar upheaval.

A third critical role the U.S. government can play in the immediate future will be the recommitment of all promised S&T aid and funding, especially for funding that benefits S&T stakeholders at many levels.

In Egypt, for example, USAID has promised USD 50 million for S&T higher education in Egypt, to be channeled to the Ministry of Higher Education.  Over the past few months, USAID has worked with Ministry officials, scientists, and other stakeholders to develop a model to leverage this funding to engage and benefit stakeholders and provide economic opportunities for the S&T community.  Efforts such as these must not be lost.  Rather, the U.S. government must recommit to this and similar assistance packages, get staff back on the ground to determine how the funding model has changed, and actively engage with S&T stakeholders to provide aid that is appropriate, need driven, and stakeholder supported.

At this critical juncture in the Middle East, the U.S. must seize our opportunities to engage with, to support, and to build our positive relationship with the S&T community.

0 thoughts on “Engage Now: Science Diplomacy in the Middle East

  1. Why do the Western countries comtinue to give aid to people who steal and squander the money? But not on the poor, Yemen looks the same as it did 5 years ago as it does today. The flood relief funds were not given to aid the people. There is no visible improvement in the situation of the poor. So why are they not accountable for their actions when they cried for $$. The citizens in the US and UK would be greatful to have less taxes to pay. And frankly as a Canadian, we are tired of shelling out hundreds of millions in foreign aid to corrupt countries.

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