Qatar University’s collaborations with universities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have ended.

Giuseppe Masci/Alamy Stock Photo

Qatar’s science suffers under Arab blockade

For the third year running, Qatar last week put on a major conference in Doha showcasing the Middle East’s growing efforts in genomics and precision medicine. But unlike in previous years, star speakers from Saudi Arabia were absent from the event.

That nation and three others—Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt—abruptly severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in early June, citing the Qatari government’s purported support for terrorism. They also imposed sanctions on the gulf state, hampering its decadelong effort to build a world-class scientific infrastructure and catalyze research in the region. “Everyone is losing when it comes to science,” says Hilal Lashuel, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and a former executive director of the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute.

Qatar’s scientific community is tiny: It has about 2000 research staff, including several hundred scientists, many of whom are expats. But to wean itself off income from natural gas and develop a knowledge economy, the government has sunk billions of dollars into R&D. Qatar increasingly punches above its weight in science, having more than doubled its output of scientific papers tracked by Web of Science since 2013. 

The 6-month-old diplomatic freeze is a setback for those efforts. After Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain ordered their citizens to leave Qatar, students and visiting scientists had to pack their bags, along with Qataris in the blockade countries. “It disrupted or ended the education of students,” says Mariam Al-Maadeed, vice president for research and graduate studies at Qatar University in Doha. “Regionally, this is unparalleled,” adds Steven Wright, a political scientist also at Qatar University. He estimates that several hundred students withdrew and went home.

The blockade also disrupted shipments to Qatar of lab reagents and equipment, which came mostly from UAE. Workarounds through other countries are now in place, but Qatari researchers can’t easily exchange materials with their gulf neighbors. According to one researcher, a geneticist who comes across a patient with a novel, disease-causing mutation, for example, can’t send DNA samples to colleagues in Saudi Arabia who have seen similar cases.

The blockade has put on hold some grants with Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia in fields from solid state physics to coral reefs sponsored by the Qatar National Research Fund. King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, told faculty on five grants to end the projects, says Hamad Al-Ibrahim, executive vice president of research and development at the Qatar Foundation in Doha, which steers many of the country’s research efforts. Scientists in the emirates could face jail time and fines if they show sympathy for Qatar, creating “an environment of fear,” says one Doha-based U.S. scientist. Even without a directive to halt collaborations, UAE’s ban on money transfers from Qatar complicates efforts to pay some of the grants, a Qatar Foundation official says.

Another casualty of the tensions are eight projects in biomedicine and other areas, funded in 2016 by Qatar University and four Saudi and UAE universities, Al-Maadeed says. She and Al-Ibrahim emphasize that those grants were a tiny fraction of Qatar’s international collaborations, which include many other countries. “The impact on our scientific activities is nil. It was just scientific diplomacy,” Al-Ibrahim insists.

Still, a sense of isolation is creeping in, researchers in Qatar say, as contingents from Qatar’s neighbors vanish from scientific meetings, and Qatari scientists are barred from entering UAE, Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia for conferences there. It was “discouraging” to see Qatar’s empty booth at an international diabetes meeting last month in Abu Dhabi, says the U.S. scientist in Doha.

Lashuel, for his part, is dismayed that the blockade is stifling nascent biomedical collaborations, because the gulf countries share common disease challenges that are best tackled through coordination and leveraging their collective R&D investments. “None of these countries,” he says, “have the resources, the human capital to do globally impactful research on their own.”

With reporting by Eli Kintisch.