At Thuwal, on the shores of the Red Sea, a radical experiment is now entering its second year. This is the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a flagship investment by the Saudi Arabian Royal Family, which is intended to usher in a fresh era of scientific discovery in the Middle East. With an endowment of around US$ 20 billion, KAUST by 2020 aims to attract 250 faculty and 2,000 postgraduate students from across the world. And ambition is not KAUST’s only distinctive feature. In a country where women’s rights are tightly restricted, the campus is co-educational, women are allowed to drive and many choose not to wear the veil. The university’s founding principles include a commitment to ‘nurture and protect freedom of research’ and to ‘provide researchers the freedom to be creative and experiment’.

In Qatar, at Education City, a 2,500 acre campus on the edge of Doha, seven US universities have opened campuses, including Carnegie Mellon, Weill Cornell Medical College and Texas A&M. Alongside these sits the Qatar Science and Technology Park, which numbers Shell, Rolls Royce and Imperial College among its tenants. Just down the road, the US$8 billion Sidra Medical and Research Centre will open in 2012. In a country flush with gas revenues, with a population of just under 1 million people, the task of reorienting society towards education and scientific inquiry is substantial. To engage the Qatari public, downtown Doha is dotted with brightly colored billboards urging people to ‘Think’, ‘Create’ and ‘Dream’. 

Abu Dhabi is pursuing a different path: attempting to capitalize on its energy expertise to secure a more sustainable economy. At the core of this strategy is the Masdar Initiative, which will eventually house 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses focused on renewable energy and sustainable technologies. Abu Dhabi’s leaders argue that such investments are critical if they are to maintain their status in the energy sector, while reducing their long-term dependency on hydrocarbons. And Masdar is attracting powerful partners. Companies like Credit Suisse and Siemens are backing the US$250 million Masdar Clean Tech Fund. Six leading research institutions, including Imperial College and Columbia University, are part of the Masdar Research Network. 

These are just three examples of the rapidly changing context for science and innovation in the Middle East. As this timely report from Thomson Reuters sets out, there are striking developments across the region, in terms of research policy, investment and outputs. The progress of Turkey and Iran is particularly impressive.

Despite the encouraging progress shown in this report, the path to a more innovative Middle East is not without obstacles. By better understanding what is going on within the region, and nurturing collaboration with scientists in Europe, the United States and elsewhere, science can become a force for progress and a platform for building trust. This report is a welcome contribution to that task.