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Shunned by Neighbors, Qatar Seeks New Research Partnerships

DOHA—When Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic, trade and travel links with Qatar last June, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups, Saudi milk was not the only commodity that disappeared from supermarket shelves here. Qatar imports 90 percent of its food requirements, and 40 percent of that had come through its only land border, with Saudi Arabia.

Faced with the risk of isolation and disruption of the food supply, Qatar quickly diversified its trade relations, reaching out to countries such as Turkey, Kuwait and Oman. This political and economic rapprochement was reflected in research collaborations between Qatar and its new partners, too.

In October, the Qatar National Research Fund joined hands with the Turkish research council, known as Tubitak, to fund a program to strengthen cybersecurity in both countries.

Hamad Al-Ibrahim, executive vice president for research and development at the Qatar Foundation, called the agreement a product of “science diplomacy.”

“This is not a research event anymore,” Al-Ibrahim said. “It’s an event to tackle cybersecurity from a policy perspective, an infrastructure perspective and a public-awareness perspective.”

The threat of cybercrime has escalated in Persian Gulf countries in recent years. The ICS Cyber Security Forum estimated the cost of cyber attacks in the Gulf region at $1 billion annually. In Qatar, cybercrime increased by 52 percent in 2015, according to a statement by the governor of Qatar’s central bank, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Saud Al-Thani.

A hack of the Qatar News Agency’s website last May helped spark the diplomatic rift between Qatar and its neighbors, further emphasizing the urgency of building the country’s resilience to cybercrimes.

The Qatari-Turkish collaboration follows a model called 2+2 that links academic and industry researchers from two different countries to better cope with the multi-dimensional cyber challenges. Such connections between research and industrial applications are often missing in Arab countries.

Murat Yesiltas, director of security studies at the Foundation for Economic, Political and Social Research, in Turkey, considers the research relationship between the two countries strategic, and not a reaction to the current diplomatic crisis.

“Turkey wants to develop its capacity in scientific research and Qatar has the economic power to do so. The two countries can complement each other in improving scientific research, especially in the defense field,” he said.

In August, the two nations also agreed to exchange technical expertise and the results of scientific research in the fields of agriculture and livestock.

Projects With Oman and Kuwait

Qatar recently signed other collaboration agreements related to innovation and commercialization of new technologies with research institutions in Oman and Kuwait.

Oman has remained neutral in the continuing split, and Kuwait is attempting to act as a mediator between Qatar and its rivals.

“If it wasn’t for the Omani and Kuwaiti opposition, the siege would have caused more pressure and isolation for Qatar,” Abdullah Mohammed Al-Ghailani, deputy dean at Oman Medical College, said. “I believe Qatar appreciates that, and this reflected in cooperation programs in economy, research and other fields.”

Al-Ghailani said the harmony between Qatar and Oman is not new. The countries have some common ground in their relations with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have long considered Qatar’s foreign policy rebellious, and Oman has opposed Saudi views on Iran, Syria and Yemen.

It remains in question whether these new collaborations will withstand the changeable political situation in the region, which can fragment research efforts and suspend joint projects on short notice.

A research project involving scientists from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to document the concentration of microplastics in the Gulf’s seawaters has been halted because of the diplomatic rift between the two countries.

Al-Ghailani thinks this fragility is inherent in the personal nature of Arab politics. “The individual nature of power structures in the Gulf region results in individual decisions affected by personal impulses rather than objective motivations,” he said. “That’s why any change in political relations affects other areas, including science collaborations.”

For now, Qatar appears to have learned that lesson and is opting to strengthen its innovation system and diversify its research collaborations to counter its small-state vulnerability in the face of frequent disruptions in regional political relations.

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