He is also candid, calling suicide bombers “social rejects” and questioning the validity of those who would take the Muslim world back to the times of the Prophet Muhammad. “Are we talking Islam or Islamism?” he asks, pointing out the difference between the religion and those extremists who use the religion to advance their own agendas. “The danger [posed by Islamists] is not only to Christians but also to Islam itself. The real problem is not the Arab-Israel issue but the rise of Islamism.”
Science, rather than religion, is the way to ensure a country’s future, Prince Hassan believes, and he has made supporting scientific achievement a personal mission for almost 40 years. He envisions projects that would promote regional partnerships, including with Israel—an idea that, despite official peace between the countries, remains controversial.
He notes that some important science initiatives are under way. One of the Royal Scientific Society’s pursuits is the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation, or TREC, a multinational effort that would use wind, water, geothermal, and solar resources to provide renewable energy from Oman to Iceland. If successful, the endeavor would take decades to be realized. Like Moses standing on Mount Nebo (in fact, the site of the Exodus story lies just about 20 minutes outside Amman), the 60-year-old Hassan knows that he is not likely to see this technological promised land himself.
“Vision,” he says, “is not an individual thing. It’s a collaboration.”
“The biggest disaster in the region, I am sorry to say, is the loss of brainpower,” admits Hassan. The emigration of trained academics plagues the entire Arab world, and half of those students who graduate from foreign universities never return to the Arab states. “A large percentage of [America’s] NASA staff are of Middle Eastern origin,” Hassan notes.
In some ways, the brain drain in Jordan is more obvious than in Egypt because resources here are stretched to the breaking point. Conservative estimates put the number of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan at 700,000—an enormous burden considering that Jordan has just 6 million citizens. To put that figure in perspective, imagine the United States adding 35 million people in a period of four years.
The population influx has triggered inflation, soaring rents and property prices, and urban sprawl. Like Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria (and like Israel, for that matter), Jordan lacks significant natural resources; the country has little oil or fresh water. In fact, since most of the water from the Jordan River’s tributaries has been diverted and no longer flows to the Dead Sea, even the Dead Sea is dying. There are plans for resuscitating it, but they will require a delicate process of regional cooperation, including the Israelis and the Palestinians, and most likely Western aid.
Jordan also lacks financial resources, unlike the oil-rich Gulf states that can afford to treat knowledge and expertise as an accessible commodity, able to be imported as needed. Furthermore, the perception of danger—terrorists bombed three hotels in Amman in 2005, and Al Qaeda has admitted to killing an American diplomat—has all but shut the valve on Jordanian tourism and the considerable revenue it used to bring.
Jordan, the quip goes, is caught between Iraq and a hard place. For now, it embodies many of the issues that the Arab Human Development Report blamed for the region’s intellectual malaise, among them lack of freedom and dysfunctional, authoritarian governments whose security services have too much say; the triumph of who-you-know advancement over merit-based promotion; and poor communication between researchers within the region. Educational opportunities are limited, especially for girls and women. All of this means that if you are a talented scientist, there is a good chance you’ll leave.
“Science needs stability, democracy, freedom of expression,” says Senator Adnan Badran, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Michigan State University, as we drink Turkish coffee at his office. “You must have an environment that’s conducive to free thinking, to inquiry. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to release the mind’s potential. It’s a very bleak story, a very disappointing story, about the state of science and technology in the Arab region.”
He blames a tradition that began with the Ottomans in the 1500s: lowering educational standards and promoting dogma. “We were open. Islam was open, a strong belief with dialogue. It was tolerant, mixing with other civilizations. Then we shifted to being dogmatic. Once you’re dogmatic, you are boxed in,” he says. “If you step outside the box, you’re marginalized—and then you’re out. So you go west.”
That’s what Badran did, spending 20 years in France and the United States, where he earned four patents doing research for the United Fruit Company. His work, which focused on retarding ripeness in bananas, has had huge economic impact—billions of dollars, potentially, because it allows the company to ship its crops around the world without spoiling.
Even so, Badran returned home to Jordan, where he took up academic positions, including the presidency of Philadelphia University in Amman. In 1987, he was made the first secretary general of Jordan’s Higher Council for Science and Technology and was later appointed to the senate by the king of Jordan, Abdullah II. Then early in 2005, the king appointed Badran prime minister, the first scientist to hold that position. The king, who was educated at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and at Oxford in the United Kingdom, and also attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., appreciated Badran’s position on the need for Arab glasnost.
“I wanted to destroy every vested interest, to get rid of cronyism, to build accountability and transparency by freeing the press,” Badran says. The circumstances of Badran’s term were difficult, however. “He was an excellent academic and scientist,” a journalist tells me, “but an ineffective politician.”