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Open SESAME: The Success of Scientific Collaboration in the Age of Conflict

Figure: The Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications centre (known as Sesame) in Jordan. Photograph:
Sesame, Conflict, Middle East, Scientific Collaboration

Middle East, for the greater part of this century been in turmoil. From violence to autocratic, from an Arab Spring to an Arab Winter, it is a cesspool of political experiments gone wrong. However, every now and then, something clicks, giving us much needed hope for a way out from endless news of violence and tragedy. Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists working together, sounds like a far-fetched dream, but it is happening. And the saviour is none other than science. This too, happening at a time, when the existing Trump regime in America is mulling cuts over scientific research.

Back in 2009, Barack Obama made a speech at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo on expanding scientific collaborations between the US and the Middle East. This was a fresh approach, and can be deemed as a counter narrative to the prevalence of Islamophobia globally. Using the potential of science to re-engage the Islamic world is a crucial theme in this time and age of anger, mistrust and perpetual violence. In 2009, Saudi Arabia opened King Abdullah University of Science and Technology with the aim and vision to increase scientific investment in the region. Then came the major collaboration, titled Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, popularly known as SESAME. This was a partnership between unlikely partners including Jordan, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Cyprus, Turkey and Palestine. Why was this project important? In recent years, we have heard the successes of the CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. SESAME, thus became a vital project since synchrotrons are expensive and situated in wealthy countries. A synchrotron allows scientists to study the atomic structure of matter, allowing to gather intricate details related to the sub-atomic structure of the world, and thus benefiting a large body of disciplines ranging from biology to archaeology.

Without exaggeration, this project provides a beacon to the Middle East and the World at the time of bombs and gun-fire. Launched earlier in May, this project is a potential game changer, and virtually an ‘open sesame’ for the usage of science diplomacy in addressing global issues. The gravitational pull of science has brought scientists from adversarial countries together. At the time, when hyper-nationalism and populism is steadily rising, this is no mean feat. SESAME also speaks about the much-touted Nye’s concept of soft-power. CERN, a successful feat of global scientific collaboration is run by 28 states in member/associate category. Similarly, SESAME promises to be a harbinger of shared science on a regional scale. It is also planned to run SESAME through a solar farm, which will make it the first renewable energy powered synchrotron.

The road to SESAME was not free from politicization and impasse. There was a murder case of 2 Iranian scientists, followed by a blame game. Then there was the Gaza flotilla raid. Then followed the bouts of political instability in the region. It must be acknowledged that the collaboration has weathered quite many storms, which goes on to show the role of science to ameliorate relations.

The project, at the time of its unveiling has eight full members: Cyprus, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, and Jordan. Bahrain, initially a full member, dropped out. US, EU and few other countries have an observer status. As SESAME, will gear up for full functionality in a few months, its story will travel far and wide. It is vital for the global community to note the vitality of scientific collaboration as a tool to deter the perpetuation of conflict and violence. Pakistan needs to project this as a success story, in which not only has it played a vital role, but can also strengthen its indigenous scientific capital.

The Atlas of Islamic-World Science and Innovation should be mentioned here as well, which is yet another landscape changing opportunity in the Middle East and for the Islamic community at large. Created with the assistance of Royal Society, this project includes the OIC, Nature, British Council, Qatar Foundation and the International Development Research Centre. This is also envisaged to track science and innovation in the OIC member countries. Pakistan should also invest more here to expand its soft power approach. A separate piece shall be written on ventures like ATLAS and science diplomacy, but the point here is that scientific collaboration should be prioritized in inter-regional negotiations and agendas for development.

The conclusion is that in the age of turmoil, be Science.

Muhammad Adeel

Muhammad Adeel

is a Career Diplomat (44th Common) at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamabad.

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