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Science, Technology and Security in the Middle East

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This is an excerpt from Regional Security in the Middle East: Sectors, Variables and Issues. Get your free copy here.

Science and technology enhance the capabilities of states and societies to obtain and transform resources necessary for their development and advancement. On the other hand, lack of scientific knowledge and access to technology not only affects a country’s level of development but also jeopardises its national security. In an anarchic international system, security interdependence implies that the security of a state is closely tied to the security of the other states and especially its neighbours. Since national securities are interdependent, the security or insecurity of a state may have a considerable impact not only on the security of its immediate neighbours but also on the security of the whole region in which it is geographically embedded (regional security).

Technology, as a factor affecting national security, is closely related to population growth. The greater the population growth and the greater the pace of the technological development of a country, the greater the likelihood its activities and interests beyond its borders will expand. The greater the demographic growth and the less rapid the technological development of a country, the greater the likelihood it will face significant socio-economic problems and instability (Choucri 2002, 98). In other words, unevenness in the interactive growth and development within and across the societies contributes to unevenness in the size, development, and capabilities of such societies, to differential capabilities among them, and to competitions, conflicts, and violence (Choucri 1984).

As an engine of growth, the potential of technology is still largely untapped in the Middle East where states not only lack adequate skilled labour and capital, but also use these factors less efficiently. Therefore, the purpose of this chapter is to investigate the impact of science and technology on national and regional security in the Middle East. In doing so, the chapter is divided into six sections. The first section discusses the relationship between technology and development, while the second section explores the relevance of science and technology to security. Drawing on a historical analysis, the third section examines the reasons science and technology have not, so far, played an effective role in the development of Middle Eastern states and societies. The next section identifies and discusses the instruments and patterns of technological development in the contemporary Middle East. The last section of the paper offers a sectoral analysis of the relationship between science and technology, on the one hand, and security (national and regional) in the Middle East on the other.

The Technology-Development Relationship

The commonly held view is that technology and development are strongly linked with development driven by technology and technology serving as a key indicator of national development. In reality, however, technological change is often highly problematic with respect to its socio-economic and environmental implications as it may exacerbate inequality, uneven development, ecological degradation, and/or social exclusion (Murphy 2017, 1). A critical understanding of the drivers, dynamics, implications, and geographically uneven distributions of technology and technological change is thus an important component of development studies and practice (Murphy 2017, 1).

Generally speaking, technology is the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, sciences, and applied sciences. In this sense, technology is embedded deeply in social, cultural, economic, and political systems. Due to its spatial diffusion, technology has uneven geographies of use, significance, and impact (Murphy 2017, 1).

With respect to development, technology is seen as an essential driver and determinant of socioeconomic, cultural, environmental, and political change. Economically, technology can increase national productivity through improvements to the efficiency of production and logistics, while encouraging and enhancing innovation and knowledge creation. Alternatively, technology can exacerbate socioeconomic differences and create uneven development within and between countries and regions. Culturally, technology has a profound effect on the norms and identities that help to constitute particular social groups. Environmentally, technology can contribute in significant ways to greener and more sustainable societies or exacerbate ecological degradation through intensified or expanded impacts locally and globally. Politically, technology can have democratising effects (e.g. the Facebook revolutions in the Middle East) or it can facilitate enhanced forms of repression or surveillance by state authorities (Hanska 2016, 32).

Science and technology are key drivers of development. This is because technological and scientific revolutions and innovations underpin economic advances and contribute to improvements in health systems, education, and infrastructure. Thus, developments in science and technology have profound effects on economic and social development. Apart from constituting a salient political issue, access to and application of technology are critical to a country’s development. By the same token, access to high quality education, especially higher education, is essential for the creation of scientific knowledge. Science and technology are the differentiating factors among countries separating those that are able to tackle poverty effectively by growing and developing their economies, and those that are not. The level of countries’ economic development depends to a large extent on their ability to grasp and apply insights from science and technology and use them creatively. To promote technological advances, developing countries need to invest in quality education for youth, continuous skills training for workers and managers, as well as to ensure that knowledge is shared as widely as possible across society. Moreover, adopting appropriate technologies leads directly to higher productivity, which is the key to growth. Creativity and technological innovation emerge naturally in societies that have large stocks and flows of knowledge. In sharp contrast, in societies with limited stocks of knowledge, creative people feel constrained and migrate to other countries thereby causing ‘brain drain’ to their own countries and societies. Such societies are prone to remain in poverty and dependency.

Hence, in the presence of many social, economic and defence needs and demands, access to quality education as well as the adoption and application of appropriate technologies do not only constitute a policy question but also a question of policy priorities. Moreover, both of these questions are tied to a country’s political development.

Science, Technology and Security

It has been suggested (Stivachtis 2011, 397–422) that development and security are interrelated. Indeed, the end of the Cold War allowed the identification of development with human security (UNDP 1993, 2). For instance, the Declaration on the Right to Development (1986, 2) asserts that all human beings have a human right to development and that

“development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all its individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom.”

Development has been consequently subdivided into several sectors, such as political development, economic development, and socio-cultural development. In addition, development and the environment are inextricably linked (UNDP 1994, 24–40). Moreover, it has been shown (Stivachtis 2011, 414) that there is a close relationship between development sectors and security sectors in the sense that the absence or presence of development in a particular sector impacts security and vice versa. For example, political development is related to political security, while economic development is related to economic security. As a result, lack of political development has the potential of enhancing political insecurity. Yet, as in the case of security, problems in one development sector may affect other development sectors and, as an extension, the corresponding security sectors. For instance, political underdevelopment may affect economic development and, therefore, a state’s economic security. This means that security and development can, to a great extent, be operationalised in the same way (Mittleman 1988, 22). Yet, it has been argued (Stivachtis 2011, 415) that national security becomes inextricably connected to national development. This means that neither development can be achieved without security nor security without development.

One of the most important questions in the field of security and development studies is whether a particular security or development sector is so significant that policy priority should be given to it. The expectation is that if problems/threats in this sector are addressed this would have positive effects on the other sectors. Addressing this question, political scientists stress the political prerequisites for economic development – political order and stability – implying the presence and function of viable institutions and enforceable rules (Almond and Coleman 1960; Almond and Powell 1966). For example, whether political instability in a country may result from the inability of the national government to promote economic development and create sustainable and effective welfare mechanisms, or from its inability to manage social and political change in a period of rapid economic growth, political development appears to be fundamental.

As far as the last point is concerned, the record contradicts the conventional wisdom that the way to avoid political instability is to stimulate economic development and industrialisation (Olsen 1963). Empirical research shows that whatever the long-term benefits of modernisation, its short-term impact tends to be more instability and sometimes violence (Skocpol 1994; Feierabend et al. 1966). Thus, discussion about development has emphasised political development, meaning the need to establish institutions capable of managing socio-political tensions and preventing their escalation into violence that may threaten the security of the state and its citizens.

However, since developing states have widely divergent social, economic, and political attributes, this diversity implies the absence of a unique policy formula that could apply without distinction to any developing state. Development enhances state power and capabilities and enhances national security. On the other hand, security provides the fertile ground for development while any threats to security ultimately affect development. Underdevelopment, on the other hand, increases the vulnerability of the state thereby enhancing its insecurity. Science and technology are key drivers of development and therefore central not only to a country’s socio-economic development, but also its national security.

Science, Technology and Development in the Middle East: A Historical Account

Over the centuries, scientific and technological advances have repeatedly enabled foreign powers to interfere with the functioning of Middle Eastern economies, as well as to undermine the security of the less advanced countries of the region. This section will discuss some of the main technology-related events that led to this situation, which continues today.

Following the rise of Islam in the seventh century, science and technology flourished in the Islamic world to a far greater extent than in the West. Muslim rulers promoted the translation of Greek philosophy and science, and then encouraged further scientific exploration in numerous fields including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, pharmacology, optics, chemistry, and physics. Much of the knowledge developed by the Muslims and transmitted to the Europeans enabled Europe to emerge from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance (Saliba 2011).

Until the sixteenth century, the Arab world was connected by a unique system of trade and transport that unified its large population scattered over vast areas of land and sea. The system sustained the economy of each Arab state, underpinned trade with Europe, and fed into the various international trading systems (Bahlan 1999, 261).

In fact, the Arabs had developed an effective transnational trading system which........

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