Science and Technology in the Islamic World

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A. B. Zahlan


Science and technology over the past two centuries have made enormous strides that have resulted in widespread social and economic changes. As a consequence of recent scientific and technological developments, there has been a massive dematerialisation of the economy. More than 90% of the economic output of industrial nations is knowledge-based and more than 50% of this output is based on quantum physics, which unknown in 1900. These developments explain the important role of research in industrial countries. Above all else, advances in science have enthroned creativity. Knowledge, however, has only a limited domain of application in pre-industrial societies. The utility and significance of scientific research increase as societies establish an enabling environment for the conversion of knowledge into useful products and services. The advancement of nations depends on mastering the skills needs to benefit from science and technology. During the 19th century, developing countries were exposed to the power of science at the hands of imperialists. They paid a high price for their technological backwardness. Science then these countries have been seeking to develop their universities and scientific establishments in order to obtain the benefits they see so much in evidence. However, economic progress is not an automatic outcome of the establishmentof universities and the undertaking of research. Centuries ago, the Islamic world was at the centre of one of the great waves of scientific progress. The Muslims lost their way, however, from the zenith of their accomplishments.Science and Technology Issues for Development in the Muslim World, produced in 1991, is a good introduction to their current standing.[1]

This paper will discuss the scale of scientific activity in Arab and Islamic countries; the extent of cooperation between their scientists; and the degree to which they have been able to acquire technological capabilities and apply them to the developmental process. The first part of the paper provides a summary account of the current status of science and technologyin the major countries of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). This will be followed by an account of the extent of collaboration between scientistsin the Arab countries with fellow scientists in OIC countries and the rest of the world. The paper dwells briefly on those features that are responsible for an enduring capacity of technological competence and self-reliance.

The Status of Technology

A large number of indicators may be utilised to assess the status of science and technology in a particular country. The more advanced the state of science and technology, the more elaborate the indicators. In countries where science and technology are still in their infancy, however, data is poor and incomplete and countries do not undertake regular surveys to assess their international standing.

The indicators for assessing the level of technological development include: the rate of production of new patents, drugs and technologies; the proportion of industrial products which are based on advanced technologies; the proportion of investments designed and carried out by national consulting engineering design organisations (CEDOs). Net royalty payment to foreign parties is a measure of the shortfall in innovation. Countries concerned with their level of technological progress constantly compare their scientific and technological capabilities with those of their competitors in order to identify areas of weakness for prompt correction.

When we examine the performance of the Arab countries, we find a uniform picture of technological dependence, a low level of innovation and only limited concern for their present status. Local patent registration is virtually non-existent; most patents registered in the Arab countries are by foreign companies in order to protect their own intellectual property. Practically all substantial infrastructural and industrial projects involve foreign consulting and contracting firms.

Among the OIL, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey appear to have made serious efforts to acquire some selective technological capabilities. However, the absence of systematic studies of these efforts leaves us short factual information. Indonesia sought to industrialise in a broad range of industries: automotive, iron and steel; chemical; aerospace and ship building. These pursuits have yet to be consolidate to a satisfactory level. Indonesia's export of manufactured products is still limited and below 13%. The economy is still heavily based on agriculture, which employs 43% of the labour force. GDP per capita collapsedfrom its level of $1,250 in 1996 to its present $686. Whether the countrie's hoped of the past 30 years will be realised partly or fully remains to be seen.

Iran has also sought to diversify its economy and to industrialise. These efforts have yielded a non-oil manufacturing sector that generated 13.6% of GDP in 1992. Though there are signs that Iran is embarking on serious industrialisation, we are still in the domain of aspirations.

Malaysia has been able to achieve some development in the electronics and electrical machinery sector combined with some success in chemical industries. This may be measured in terms of Malaysia's exports in 2000, which were $84.5 bn, of which electronics and electrical machinery accounted for $51.3 bn and chemicals for $2.9 bn.

Pakistan has a GDP of $63.2 bn for a population of 138 million. It has made considerable advances in the development of its agricultural sector. Agriculture accounts for 25% of GNP and employs 50% of economically active manpower, and it generates 70% of its exports. But Pakistan's exports are a meagre $8.7 bn. One quarter of its R&D budget is devoted to agricultural research. The Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) has 50,000 affiliated scientists. This effort led to an increase in wheat production from 4 to 15 million tons; rice from 1 to 4 million tons; cotton from 0.3 to 1 million tons; cane sugar from 10 to 40 million tons. But agricultural yields were still below international standards in 1995.[2] Pakistan has succeeded in producing a nuclear bomb. China India and Pakistan are the only Third world countries that have been able to produce a nuclear device. In all three cases, there was a national programme to produce the fissile material, the only major industrial problem in the manufacturing of a nuclear bomb.

Finally, Turkey has made great strides in partial industrialisation. It has also developed considerable capabilities in consulting engineering design and contracting. However, the recent collapse of its financial system shows how vulnerable the country still is to the weakness of a rent political economy. All the Islamic countries are trying to develop industrial economies. The degree of success varies considerably amongst the 53 member states of OIC. The formation of an effective science and technology infrastructure has, so far, eluded all Islamic countries.

Research output

The research output of nations is measured in terms of the numbers of papers cited in the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI) database. This database examines systematically those periodicals that meet minimal standards. Thus, the ISI enumerates the contents of only 3,600 of the more than 40,000 periodicals published every year. Even amongst these, three is a pecking order with only a small proportion of these periodicals providing the most cited papers.

In Table 1, I have entered the figures for the output of selected Islamic countries. Turkey with 6,074 publications was the leading Islamic country. Among the non-Arab Islamic countries. Turkey is followed by Iran and then Malaysia and Nigeria. The scientific size of Pakistan is roughly equal to that of Kuwait; that of Iranis equal to that of Saudi Arabia; the scientific size of Malaysia and Nigeria is smaller than Morocco. Bangladesh has roughly the scientific size of the UAE.

The total output of the Arab world was more than 8,695 publication. The largest Arab producer in Egypt with 2,481, followed by Saudi Arabia (1,614); and with Morocco (1,111) coming in third place. Interestingly, the scientific

Table 1: Contributions of Selected

Islamic Countries to Science in 2000

CountryNumber of PublicationsPopulation m (1097)Output per millionPer capital GDP, $ 1997Per capital PPP GDP, $ 1997
Arab Countries     
Jordan493 (est.)4.4112 (est.)1,5203,350
Lebanon387 (est.)4.194 (est.)3,3506,090
Bahrain750.7107 16,527
Kuwait5505110 25,314
Oman2502.3109 9,960
Qatar540.5108 20,987
Saudi Arabia1,61419.583 10,120
UAE1491.978 19,115
Average Arab World  29(2,000) 
Total Arab World8,373300   
Islamic Countries     
Sub-Saharan Africa     

Sources: Publications data from Institute of Scientific Information; economic and population data from World Development Indicators, 1999, world Bank and from United Nations, World Population Prospects, 1987.

Output of Egypt in 1973 was four times that of Turkey. In 1990, the GCC and Egypt were equal; in 2000, the GCC out-produced Egypt by a margin of 10% the trend is towards widening this gap, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the lead. Countries such as Syria and Libya have consistently been poor producers; others such as Sudansaw better days in the 1960s and early 1970s. Lebanon in the early 1970s, was the second largest producer of research after Egypt, declined during the civil war, but has been recovering steady since the 1990s. the growth of Arab research output has significantlyslowed down since 1988. It had maintained a steady growth rate over the period 1967-1987. The annual growth rate of some 7 to 10% collapsed to zero between 19898 and 1993, but resumed at a slower rate since then.

We have no studies into the reasons for these changes, but there are many candidate causes. A few will be cited: The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait led to a decline in Iraq's and Kuwait's outputs. The impact of the economic decline of several Arab countries has effectively reduced the income of university staff forcing them to take on extra work and thereby reducing their capacity for research. The rise of for-profit private universities throughout the region may have contributed to this decline; these universities do not appear to be interested in research or scholarship.

The Institutional Base of Scientific Research in the Arab World

80% of all R&D in the Arab world is generated in universities. Hospitals and agricultural research stations account for much of the remaining research output. In 1995, 26 organisations published more than 50 papers or 64% of the output of the Arab world. Of these, 23 were universities; the other three were: the National Research Center, Cairo (150 papers); The International Center for Agricultural in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Aleppo (57 papers); the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research (KISR), Kuwait (50 papers).[3] Research output from the leading Egyptian universities- the Universities of Cairo, Alexandria and Ain Shams- appears to have reached a plateau in the mid-1980s. unpublished R&D is also conducted in a large number of centers throughout the Arabs world. However, no analytical studies of their output are available. Thus the system of publicly funded higher education provides the foundation of current research activity. With minor exception, industrial firms have not reached the point where they find it necessary to undertake, or even to sponsor, R&D. This is why the condition of university staff is, and will continue to be, the determinant of scientific research. Two factors affect the productivity of university staff: workload and facilities (libraries and laboratories). 95% of all R&D is in applied subjects. Clinical medicine is the leading field (40%). R&D in chemical, medical, agricultural and life sciences accounts for more than 80% of R&D output. These figures highlight the limited opportunities for research in the basic sciences. The development and rapid growth of for-profit private universities has been an alternative to publicly funded higher education. These new universities provide even less facilities and support for academic research than the publicly funded ones.

Linkages Between Research and Economy

In the absence of any effort to establish functioning and effective Scienceand Technology Systems, local R&D cannot translate into benefits for the national economy. The agricultural sector is probably the main beneficiary of national R&D and this is due to the moderate integration of its R&D activity with extension services. The medical sciences are the oldest and largest field of research in most Arab countries, accounting for about 40% of output. I have not been able to fully verify this feature in other Islamic countries, although it appears that this may also be the case. We do not have any analytical studies of the impact of medical research on the quality of health services, the pharmaceutical industry, public health policies or medical education.

The pharmaceutical industries in many Arab countries have flourished in recent years; this is largely due to the expiry of Western patents of otherwise protected drugs, thus providing Uncreative market opportunities. Arab pharmaceutical industries sponsor limited R&D input in what is essentially an imitative process. There does not appear to be any national or original effort to integrate the research expertise of the medical sciences with the activities of the pharmaceutical industry in order to support the development of drugs of importance of the region. As is well known Western pharmaceutical firms are concerned with producing drugs for their lucrative national markets. The diseases of the third World are neglected for lack of an economic incentive; yet Third world and Islamic countries do not appear to be concerned with the challenge of mobilising their considerable capabilities to search for curse for their own diseases. This is an area of potentially vital importancefor collaboration within OIC and within the third world.

R&D in the industrial fields in generally on a limited scale and one finds little correlation between R&D and industrial development. Industrial firms in the Arab countries normally purchase R&D services from foreign firms rather than develop local capabilities.

Comparison with other Countries

The outputs of Singapore, Israel and India are shown in Table 1 as a basis for comparison. The per capita output of Singapore is 40 times greater than that of the Arab world; or more than 12 times that of leading Arab countries. Only 30 years ago, Singapore was no different from the average OIC country. The output of Israel is some 150% greater than that of the entire Arab world; in fact, it is comparable to the output of the entire Islamic world. On a per capita basis, Israel output is 80 times greater than that of the Arab world. The output of third world countries, on a per capita, except for the Asian Tigers, is roughly 2% of that of the industrial countries. The AsianTigers have attained an intermediatelevel which is about ten times, on a per capita basis, that of leading Third world countries such as China, India and Brazil. The GCC countries are closer to Korea than they are to their fellow Arab countries. However, GCC countries have yet to integrate their scientific capabilities, presently in their universities, with their respective economies.

If we compare the total output of the Islamic world, we find it comparable to those of India or China, and larger than that of Brazil. There are considerable scientific and technological capabilities in the Arab and Islamic world, waiting to be recognised and mobilised. The main difference between the Arab world on the one hand, and countries such as India, China an Brazil on the other is that the Arab countries have not developed their national Science &Technology systems. So China, India, Brazil and Korea have been able to benefit far more from their scientific infrastructure. South Korea was a very poor country until recently. In 1985, its scientific output was equal to that of the Arab world: 15 publications per million inhabitants. Its government, however, has been adopting deliberate national polices to establish a scientific-based economy since the 1960s. thus through the systematic pursuit of the acquisition of technology, a readiness to adopt promising policies, and a commitment to institution building, Korea successfully evolved a science-based economy. It has moved steadily ahead and is now a major producer of science-based products. Table 2 shows the convergence of the Korea infrastructure in science and technology to the levels of other OECD countries.

Table 2

Research & Development Personnel & Expenditures, 1993

No. of researchersThousands88760951898
Researchers in active populationPer 10,00076447846
Expenditure per researcher$1,000142na19577

Source: Review of National Science Technology Policy: Republic of Korea, OECD, Paris, 1996.

The situation in the non-Arab Islamic countries varies. There are wide differences in the efforts made to harness the national science and technplogy infrastructure. Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia have all made efforts in this respect. To date there has not been sufficient analysis and discussion of these efforts. Uzan provides a rare comparative study of research in physics from Middle Eastern countries. He finds that the total publication in physics for the period 1990-1994 from Egypt was nearly double that of Turkey. However, Turkish scientists published their papers in better rated periodicals (as measured by ISI in terms of their impact factor). He also found that during this period the total output in physics from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey was less than 1% of world output. He furthermore reports that although the world average of physics research output is 1.6% of total scientific output the middle Eastern countries' share of physics of their national output was: 0,5% for Saudi Arabia, 0.2% for Syria; 1.1% for Iraq; 1.1% for Turkey; and 1.6% for Iran.[4] This confirms my findings that the proportion of research output in all the basic sciences is generally less than 10%.

Expenditure on Research & Development

UNISCO's world Science Report, 1998, confirms that the expenditure of Arab states, as a percentage of their GDP, on the lowest in the world. It is 0.2% of GDP. Only Bangladesh of the OIC countries a similar proportion. Iran and Pakistan devote 0.45% and 0.5% of GDP respectively. Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia each devotes 0.3 of GDP; and China invests 0.5%. The R&D budget is only part of the research community in a Third World country receives. In fact since the vast majority of research is undertaken at universities, as we have said earlier, the employment conditions of academics are crucial. In most Arab countries- except for GCC public universities and possibly the Maghreb- the salary levels of university professors are inadequate for their survival. They often have to take on additional employment, which of course drastically limits their ability to undertake research.

Cooperation in Science and Technology

I will discuss here three relevant areas of cooperation in science and technology:

(a) Cooperation between research scientists and technologists: regional (i.e. inter-Arab); within OIC; and international;

(b) Participation in international conferences;

(c) Cooperation in the acquisition and application of technology.

The Arab and other Islamic countries share a wide range of common scientific and technical problems. Thus one would expect to find considerable incentives for co-operation between them. Most one would expect to find considerable incentives for co-operation between them. Most of the Arab world is in a dry zone where water is scarce; this dictates certain issues in water use, agriculture and water management. Likewise, several Arab and Islamic countries are oil and gas producers; this provides common technological challenges and opportunities for sharing experiences. Moreover, they all share a number of problems; these include health, the applications of codes and standards, international trade, and many others.

I recently undertook a detailed analysis of Arab scientific output. Table 3 shows the extent of purely local and joint publications. Joint publications are those involving scientists from that country and any other country. It is clear that there are considerable variations amongst the Arab states; the ratio of local to joint publications varies from 3.2 in Saudi Arabia down to 0.1 for Yemen. This is a 32-fold difference.

Table 3

Research output, 1995

CountryTotal OutputNet PapersLocal PapersJoint Papers[Local]/ [Joint]
Saudi Arabia1,5751,2409462943.2
totals 5,9053,5152,3931.5

Table 4 breaks down the joint publications by the type of the second party. When two Arab countries are involved in the same joint publication, the entry is counted twice: once under each Arab country. Thus the figure of 14.8% has to be divided by two. The major contributions to joint Arab publications are made by professors who leave their posts in their home country and spend a few years in one of the GCC countries, Libya or Yemen. These publications do not generally reflect collaboration between scientists in two or more countries, but rather the author's previous and present location. The countries that provide teaching staff are mainly: Egypt, Sudan and Jordan. The Kuwait level of joint publications was high in 1995 because during the Iraq occupation some Kuwait academics were visiting professors in other Arab countries.

The column ʻOIC minus Arab countriesʼ shows that a similar phenomenon is taking place between them and certain GCC countries. Saudi Arabia hosts a number of professors from other non-Arab OIC countries; hence, it records 14 joint publications. Few of these publications may have arisen from research cooperation. We can see that the total cooperation between the Arab countries and all OIC (including Arab) countries is less than 10% of the total amount of joint publications. The extent of cooperation between scientists in the

Table 4

Collaboration Between Scientists in the

Arab Countries and the rest of the world, 1995

CountryJoint PapersJoint PublicationsJoint PublicationsJoint PublicationsJoint PublicationsJoint PublicationsJoint PublicationsJoint Publications
  Multinational Org.Inter-ArabOIC minus ArabThird World minus OICEast EuropeOECD minus USAUSA
Saudi Arabia2940791414011572

Every number in this table should be divided by two since every joint article between two Arab countries is counted separately under each country. The grand total 2,393 should be reduced by half of 356. These corrections have not been made in the table.

* Of the 81 joint publications from Syria 30were the result of ICARDA's activity. These are included in the first column under multi-national organisations.

** Every joint paper within the Arab world is counted twice: once under each of the participating countries. Thus the figure 15.2% should be ed by a factor of 2 and 15.2% replaced with 7.6%.

*** Not corrected for double counting within the Arab countries.

Arab world and the rest of the OIC is 2.2% including apparent joint publications arising from the mere movement of professors and not from any deliberate collaborative work. Scientists in GCC universities published 1,722 papers in 1990 and 2,716 in 1995. Of these, one quarter were co-authored with scientists in non-Arab institutions. In 1990, collaboration within the GCC was only 2.7% of all co-authored papers; this increased to 6% in 1995.[5]

Table 4 also shows cooperation of Arab scientists with scientists in other Third World countries or in Eastern Europe (including Russia) is limited. Scientists in the Maghreb exhibit a high level of international collaboration, but only a very low level of collaboration within the Maghreb. The level of international collaboration in four Maghreb countries underwent some changes between 1990 and 1995: Algeria collaboration fell from 80% of all publications to 69%; Libya increased from 31% to 60%, Morocco from 64% to 74%, and Tunisia from 29% to 64%. The average rate of international collaboration for the Maghreb increased from 54% to 64% during this period.

By contrast, there is a significant level of collaboration of Arab scientists with their colleagues in non-Arab and non-Islamic countries. The last two columns provide data on the level of collaboration with OECD countries: 72% of Arab joint publications are with OECD scientists. The French connection with the Maghreb countries is clear from the large proportion of joint publications undertaken with French institutions: Algeria (141 out of 187 OECD joint papers); Morocco (241 out of 375); Tunisia (87 out of 132). The level of collaboration of the Maghreb with France totals 469 papers compared with 386 total with the US. Scientists in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia published a total of 1,264 papers in 1995; of these, some 804 were co-authored with scientists outside their own countries. Surprisingly, only 11 of the 804 publications involved scientists from two Maghreb countries. Of these 11. Only one paper was undertaken by Maghrebi scientists on their own. Regional or pan-Arab collaboration is thus exceedingly meagre.

The rate of international co-authorship in the Mashreq countries is close to the worldwide average of 25%. Collaboration with advanced centres of R&D is desirable and beneficial. But in order for the home country to drive advantage from such collaboration, an enabling environment is required to facilitate the application of the acquired known-how. Naturally, if applied scientists are well integrated into their society, they would be better placed to select international partners who would enhance relevant scientific expertise.

Then there is scientific collaboration reflected in exchanges that take place at scientific meetings. In 1995, for example, an estimated 18,000 scientific meetings took place worldwide whose proceedings where published. Arab scientists contributed a total of 200 papers to the 18,000 meetings that were held in 1995. In other words, connectivity of Arab scientists with the international scientific community is at a low level. Support for scientific workers to participate in international scientific meetings is minimal.

There have been some efforts to develop cooperation among OIC members in consulting and contracting. Turkey is one of the few OIC members that has developed the financial services to enable its consulting and contracting firms to export their services. However, the extent of technological cooperation is still far below even the most realistic expectations. Trade in none-oil products and services among members of OIC is very small. Even between the Arab countries the extent of non-oil trade is barely 6% of their trade.

Concluding Remarks

Islamic countries have sponsored ambitious programmes in education. Most of them have experienced considerable expansion in their systems of higher education. Yet they have not fully benefited from these efforts to the extentexpected. The articulation of the system of education with the national economy is normally effected through linkages established by the national system of science and technology. The under-development of these systems is the root cause of difficulties. The prevailing economic and technology polices in the Arab world have resulted in limited demands for national capabilities in science and technology. Arab governments seek predominantly the services of international firms for the planning and execution of their investments. Forign direct investment and globalisation may be expected to aggravate present practices.

Though the number of scientific researchers, even in industrial countries, is very small (less than 1% of the economically active population) they play critical and multiple roles in their respective countries: as authoritative specialists in theirfields of expertise they provide advice and guidance; as members of international invisible colleges they provide access to a broad field of science and technology; and as recognised members of their scientificcommunity they provide leadership. Thus this small but economically active population has a strategic impact on the quality of education and thinking; an impact is amplified further through the normal functioning of an enabled national science an technology system.

I have already noted that Consulting Engineering Design Organisations (CEDOs) are essential instruments for the acquisition and transfer of technology. CEDOs do not emerge spontaneously. They need an enabling environment to grow and prosper; their formation is dependent on public policies.[6]When non-national CEDOs import forign produced supplies and equipment and utilise non-national labour, the entire associated value added and multiplier factor are not generated locally. Their installations cannot repaired and maintained locally; nor can they be upgraded and replaced without recourse to companies abroad.

A large number of countries have succeeded in adopting a different approach to the introduction of new technologies. They have sought to develop and mobilise their own national CEDOs in order to acquire know-how and internalise some of the multiplier factor and value added associated with the investment made. The technological progress of a region may be measured by its capacity to acquire technology along with each transaction that it undertakes. In the Arab world, more than $3,000billion were invested in their respective Gross Fixed Capital Formation during the past 20 years; these investments resulted in little improvement in per capita income, despite an additional expenditure of one trillion dollars on education. These figures highlight the negative developmental implications of current Arab technology policies.

I have already noted the limited degree of cooperation and trade exchanges between Islamic countries. The state of development of a Science & Technology System determines the extent to which a country can benefit from its own professional manpower and to which it can collaborate with other countries. The benefits of Research & Development accrue to sponsors in different ways. The existence of an enabling environment and institutional capabilities is essential to translate scientific and technological expertise into economic gains. In the absence of such capabilities no society can afford to fund R&D on a significant scale. The level of R&D therefore remains at the subsistence level found in OIC countries.

Arab and other Islamic countries are blessed with considerable human resources. Many of these countries register a high level of brain drain. Since the education of highly qualified manpower is a slow and time-consuming process, Islamic countries may be said to have a considerable, scarce and prized resource that is waiting to be tapped. The bottleneck is not in a shortage of scientists, but rather in the inauspicious environment for the utilisation of national talent. What is lacking is an acute awareness of the place of science and technology in political culture.

[1]Fakhruddin A. Daghestani and Arafat R. Altamimi, Science and Technology Issues for development in the Muslim World, The Islamic Foundation for Science, Technology and Development, (Jeddah, 1991).

[2] Ehsan Masood, ʻImprisoning the beams of the sunʼNature 376, pp. 631-638, 24 August 1995.

[3] I have reviewed this topic at length in: A. B. Zahlan, Acquiring Technological Capacity: A Study of Arab Consulting and Contrasting Firms, Macmillan, 1991.

[4] A. Uzan, ʻA Bibliometric Analysis of Physics Publications from Middle Eastern Countriesʼ, Scientometrics, 36, 2, pp. 259-269, 1996.

[5] Detailed information on R&D regional and international collaboration provided in A. B. Zahlan, Science an Technology in the Arab World: Progress without Change,in Arabic, Centre for Arab Unity Studies, Beirut, 1999.

[6] See note 3 above.

Source note:
This was published in:
Essays in Honour of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Munajjid, 2002, Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK., p 577-590.