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Despite Controversy, Emirati-Israeli Research Cooperation Has Kicked Off

DUBAI—While emotions are still running high over the normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, the Gulf nation is moving forward in building research partnerships with the Jewish state, which many Arabs consider their enemy.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to cutbacks on research budgets around the Arab region, while Israel’s research spending is robust, so some of that collaboration could have public health benefits, scientists believe. Indeed, Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was the subject of one of the first Israeli-U.A.E. commercial collaborations announced after the decision to normalize relations.

“It is very normal that understanding and getting adapted to cultural nuances typically takes time,” said Mohamed Al Ali, director-general of TRENDS Research & Advisory, a think tank based in Abu Dhabi. “This is in addition to the fact that both sides are facing global headwinds that are posing a challenge to policymakers and having an adverse impact on economies and research collaboration as well.”

While Israel spends almost 5 percent of its gross domestic product on research annually, according to the World Bank, the Emirates spend around 1.3 percent, the highest share among Arab nations, where the average is around 0.5 percent.

Artificial intelligence is another area of cooperation between the two countries. Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, in Abu Dhabi, and the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel, have signed a memorandum of understanding “to work together across a range of fields,” the two institutions announced last week. Their accord is the first of its kind to be signed between two higher-education institutes in the Emirates and Israel, the institutions added.

“It is very normal that understanding and getting adapted to cultural nuances typically takes time.”

Mohamed Al Ali  
Director-general of TRENDS Research & Advisory

Bahrain, which also is normalizing relations with Israel, and the United Arab Emirates signed their formal, bilateral agreements with Israel in Washington last week. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been trying to persuade other Arab countries to follow suit, but considerable opposition remains, especially as the new accords do nothing to deal with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Egypt and Jordan have decades-old treaties with Israel, but research collaborations with Israel, like any other kind of cooperation, face wide popular opposition as a way to show support for Palestinians’ rights. (See the related articles “The Middle East’s Only High-Energy Physics Lab Faces a New Test: Surviving Covid-19” and “In a Fractious Region, a New Physics Facility Fosters Collaboration.”)

Hopes for More Collaborations

In another coronavirus-related development that followed the announcement of the new entente between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, TRENDS Research & Advisory hosted an online symposium, titled A Global Anti-Covid-19 Treatment: Between Development Efforts & Regulatory Protocols, that brought together experts from the Emirates, the United States, Israel and Russia.

Al Ali, the group’s director-general, believes that research collaboration can extend to include universities, research and academic institutions and technology providers in both countries.

“I see enormous opportunities for exchanging research in the fields of technology, agriculture, transport, aviation, and medical research that focuses on the development of vaccines,” says Al Ali, with more to be done in areas like e-government, space programs, and technologically advanced public services on which both sides have already made a lot of progress.

“The two countries can take this to the next level,” he says, citing the extensive studies done by his organization on the Muslim Brotherhood and its evolution over the years. The three books it has produced on the subject are also available in Hebrew, and Al Ali is keen to explore developing such research alongside Israeli experts, as well as other research areas.

A Bridge for Diplomacy

Dan Shaham Ben Hayum, Israel’s envoy for applied research to the United Arab Emirates, sees science as a bridge for diplomacy. “With science there is a neutrality, a common good, beyond profit,” he says. “Science is a very good beginning to relations.”

Ben Hayum envisages that the areas of primary interest for the U.A.E. will be food technology and agriculture, medical technology, water and energy. “On all these we have quite a lot to contribute,” he says, but the Emirates also have an interest in developing infrastructure for research and development, “so what I’m suggesting is co-R&D,” he says.

“Among the locals, too, very few will be forthcoming. Several will be very hesitant, especially the older generation, so there is no one response to this.”

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla  
An Emirati political scientist

The next step will be to engage research institutes, universities and companies interested in cutting-edge technology across a range of fields, he says. From an Israeli perspective, there is great hope. “The entire array of the Israeli market engages with the potential of this deal.”

Less Enthusiasm in Some Quarters

Not everyone in the Emirates shares that enthusiasm, however. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an eminent Emirati political scientist, says that some members of the U.A.E.’s Arab community undoubtedly will balk at the seemingly sudden changes announced last month.

“Naturally you will find different attitudes and reactions,” says Abdulla. “I would expect that one-third of the research community is ready to collaborate—it’s now official and legal, so why not? I think you’ll find another one-third who will be highly resistant. Psychologically and mentally, they are not ready to cooperate with Israel. Another one-third may be more aloof, taking it one case at a time. There is no one consensus.”

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Non-Arab expatriates are likely to be more willing to embrace the changes right away, Abdulla says, but Arabs, especially the country’s Palestinian expatriates, will not be.

“Among the locals, too, very few will be forthcoming,” he suggests. “Several will be very hesitant, especially the older generation, so there is no one response to this.”

While the first commercial collaboration signed between the two countries was specifically targeted to advancing knowledge of Covid-19, Abdulla envisages more types of studies to follow, in areas like artificial intelligence and medical research. “However, I see military and security collaboration will take off faster than all the others,” he says.

A Joint Study of Positive Psychology

One area in which Emirati and Israeli scholars have already begun collaborating is the study of positive psychology. Louise Lambert, of the United Arab Emirates University, and Shiri Lavy, of the University of Haifa, in Israel, are pioneers in this area.

Collaboration is a pivotal tool for peace and tolerance, Lambert says. “If we want to genuinely fix things in the Middle East beyond politics, to fix people’s perceptions of ‘the other,’ one way is through what we call the contact hypothesis,” she suggests, referring to a tool that brings people together, focusing on commonality over differences, families, life challenges, and common likes and dislikes.

“For me, it’s exciting on a personal note,” she says. “In the region, Israel does the most research on this topic of positive psychology, so this is good for me. In terms of developing more peaceful relationships however, this is how we do it. We can learn more about peace psychology, social psychology.”

In their new collaboration, Lambert and Lavy will each lead teams in their own country looking at character strengths in young adults and how to develop 21st-century employability skills. Lambert anticipates they will find that young people in the two teams share many of the same concerns: they want to make their parents happy, they worry about living a good life and finding a job, they want to be liked. “We’re just a lot more similar than we think we are,” she says.

Generally, Lambert sees the shift as a chance to push the envelope of knowledge for the U.A.E. “This is really an epic moment to be part of a new direction,” she says. “This feels like history in the making and I’m really excited to have this door open for us here.”

Lavy feels the same way. “There is certainly excitement among my peers about such opportunities,” she says. “Such joint endeavors are generally perceived as very meaningful. Beyond the scientific interest, there is also personal interest of many in Israel in the U.A.E., including many social scientists.”

While the initial enthusiasm is high, Lavy says practicalities will still need to be ironed out, and government-level support structures have yet to be put into place. “We will have to learn how we can sustain joint scientific endeavors over time—in terms of funding, language, goals of research, and so on.” However, the feeling is one of hope and positivity. “At this time, I think researchers, at least in some disciplines, can overcome these barriers, especially as there is a strong will to collaborate.”

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