Beyond the Laboratory…and Into Diplomacy

PITAPOLICY continues its focus on the “T” in PITA (Technology) by breaking down the problem of Technology Use & Knowledge Sharing regarding science and diplomacy. This week, Stanford University PhD Candidate, Daniel E. Armanios, shares an in-depth piece regarding opportunities to engage scientific exchange and investment to increase transparency. In particular, Armanios reviews three MENA (Middle East & North African) countries: Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran. PITAPOLICY looks forward to posting more on this topic.

PITAPOLICY will attend the 2012 Arab Net Summit in Beirut, Lebanon at the end of March.

PITAPOLICY Invites PITA-Consumers Participate in Technology for Business Survey
PITAPOLICY is conducting a 22 question survey throughout March. The survey targets both technology professionals and non technology professionals who work in the Middle East & North Africa region. So yes, non Arabs (also pita-consumers) are also encouraged to participate -Turkey, Berber speakers, Iran, Persian Speakers, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Pakistan included. Click here to participate in the 10 minute survey!

Beyond the Laboratory… and into Diplomacy?
By: Daniel E. Armanios

ISIHighlyCited archives the most highly cited scientists in the world. In the Middle East, three countries’ scientists make the list: Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Their diplomatic relations are tense or nonexistent, yet cooperation amongst these gifted minds could bring new hope for the future. If such cooperation is used to build trust for diplomacy, this tragic irony can become a newfound opportunity for reinvigorating peace talks.

Often called track-II diplomacy, unofficial government representatives play a significant role in Middle Eastern diplomacy. Despite failing to reach lasting arrangements, track-II diplomacy was crucial in the Oslo Accords and the Taba negotiations. Yet, little track-II diplomacy has involved scientists. The most innovative of these attempts was the multilateral track of the Madrid framework, which brought scientists to discuss issues such as water and the environment. However, this multilateral process only played a confidence-building role while the “real” talks happened in the coinciding bilateral framework. Thus, this process created regional development projects but did little to jumpstart the path to normalization, let alone peace.

Science can develop trust between nations because it does not focus on issues that historically generate state conflict. Arguments over DNA chemistry or composite bridge performance are simply less impassioned and more resolvable than Israeli settlements or the Palestinian Right of Return. Given the complex regional problems obstructing peace, building trust around issues that are not central to the conflict could serve as a foundation for gradually addressing more central issues. This process is fragile. One Tel Aviv disco bombing or one Gaza incursion can destroy years of science-turned-diplomacy. Thus, this process can ill-afford for science to continue as a mere confidence-building gesture. Creating an environment of trust through science must be the central mechanism for diplomacy.

Using the Madrid framework, we already have a way for this to operate. Israeli-favored bilateralism can occur simultaneously with Arab-favored multilateralism to both generate scientific cooperation. For bilateralism, one avenue could be temporarily waiving visa restrictions for Iranian scientists to attend conferences with their Israeli counterparts. The political cost is minimal, equivalent to the US waiving entry restrictions on Iran’s Ahmadinejad to address the UN General Assembly. Just as nation-to-nation relations are separated from a nation’s involvement in the UN, we must differentiate between national policy and national scientific endeavors. Allowing scientists to present their findings in open forums only makes concerns intersecting both science and politics, such as nuclear energy and weaponization, increasingly transparent. As in-country meetings will likely meet initial hesitancy on both sides, an American or European university intermediary could serve as the first setting for such a bilateral meeting.

A second avenue for bilateralism is investment in university infrastructure for scientific collaboration. For example, scientific cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian universities begets little or no investment into Palestinian university infrastructure. Palestinian infrastructure is in a constant state of turmoil and uncertainty, leaving students and staff without consistent water and electricity to run usable scientific experiments. Thus, Israel gains most of the benefits from such scientific cooperation because only its infrastructural assets can maintain the fruits of such collaboration. If this infrastructure is included, Palestinian universities could more equitably realize the benefits of such partnerships.

Simultaneously, this arrangement requires Palestine to internally evaluate its university organization structure. The problem Israel historically has had with funding infrastructure is that some universities are Hamas-managed. If these tricky management issues are addressed, possibly through more arms-length distance between Hamas and Palestinian universities or another Palestinian third party to serve as an intermediary to handle such Israeli investments, this would assuage Israeli concerns. Given the internal Hamas-Fatah conflict, this could also serve as the first step of understanding towards ending this civil conflict.

Understandably, Palestinian boycotts of Israeli academics will make this avenue contentious. However, this process uses the idea that scientific collaboration and trust can form irrespective of political views. MIT’s Middle East Education through Technology (MEET) shows this process is possible. It brings together Palestinian and Israeli youth to break preconceptions through technology. As one youth stated, their differences become a “non-issue”. Thus, these reciprocating gestures build collaboration through science while preventing the abuse of these mechanisms for political gain. Only after this capacity for trust through science is deemed sufficient will later phases of diplomacy use this trust to gradually reconcile differing policy objectives regarding the central issues of conflict.

For multilateralism, many projects are underway that can potentially underpin diplomatic negotiations. The Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) in Jordan is a regional project to determine how light sources can be used for Middle Eastern scientific applications. Its partners include Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority, and many other Arab and international partners. Using this SESAME Council as a platform for regional science and technology policy, scientific cooperation can lead to government collaboration, at least in the short-term, helping build trust and working relations for future diplomacy.

The UNESCO-run Sustainable Management of Marginal Drylands (SUMAMAD) is a project geared to helping local communities adapt to increasing resource scarcity in arid/semi-arid climates. Already ongoing in the Middle East, SUMAMAD requires scientists to collaborate with local communities to tackle this problem of common regional interest. Using the UN as a facilitator, SUMAMAD scientists could form a network that teleconferences beyond diplomatic disavowal. This network could then create a database of best practices for sustaining desert resources that are shared and passed to local communities in the hopes of further long-term cooperation. In this way, scientists help each other and their communities, turning willing adversaries into unexpected collaborators.

These are hard yet also exciting times for the Middle East. Political uprisings across the region are not just pitting Palestinian against Israeli but Arab against Arab. In such seemingly endless tragedy yet burgeoning hope, we simply need to be more creative. Science thrives in such uncertainty because one aspect unifies all scientists: searching this unknown for new insights. Thus, when we value science, we intrinsically value dialogue, sharing this common curiosity that unites those engaged in science. In the resulting bridges, it becomes much more difficult to simultaneously hate and trust your co-worker. As Nasser Zawia, a Yemeni toxicologist in the US, noted in a 2003 Science article, “To fight religious extremism, you need to train more scientists”. Through science as diplomacy, unexplored mechanisms for trust can become realizable ways to psychologically prepare both Arab and Israeli populations for peace or, at the least, normalcy.

Note: Daniel E. Armanios is a PhD Candidate at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program ( in the Department of Management Science & Engineering at Stanford University. He may be reached at: Also you can find him on LinkedIn.


Filed under Analysis, Interests, Technology

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