Science for Peace in the Middle East and Beyond

It is no secret that climate change poses significant problems for countries in the Middle East. In worst-case scenarios, parts of the region could experience over 200 days of heat waves a year, rendering swaths of the region unsafe for human habitability; rising temperatures and changing weather patterns will reduce food and water security. This environmental stress may inflame social and political tensions, contributing to societal breakdown and war.

While these environmental problems pose significant risks to communities and societies across the region, they also represent an important opportunity for science diplomacy. Countries face common threats from drought, water shortages, and rising temperatures, and scientists and engineers can pool their knowledge and resources to address these challenges. Under the right circumstances, scientific conferences and discussions can also contribute to building the architecture for peaceful interstate relations in the region.

Often overlooked, science diplomacy briefly regained prominence following the central role former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, played in brokering the Iran nuclear deal. Backroom discussions between the two scientists moved the talks forward on the technical issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, even when political obstacles appeared insurmountable. As the two made progress on these issues, it became increasingly difficult for diplomats to walk away from the negotiating table.

These types of relationships are at the heart of science diplomacy, which focuses on the way in which scientific exchanges, collaborations, and partnerships among countries can improve relations and cooperation—even when those countries are adversaries.

While the Moniz-Salehi talks provide the most prominent example of science diplomacy in recent times, scientists frequently play a central, if unsung, role in building cooperative working relationships between countries. Science diplomacy has played a pivotal role in crafting water sharing agreements, for example, which help ensure interstate conflicts over water resources remain exceedingly rare. Prior to the removal of sanctions, scientists in the United States and Cuba cooperated over shared environmental problems, and scientists continue to play a critical role in limiting the use of chemical weapons and promoting peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

A variety of factors make the time especially ripe for a resurgence in science diplomacy. Because of the severity of the climate change threat, governments across the region are making addressing climate change a priority. Alongside its commitments to cut carbon emissions, Saudi Arabia is making significant investments in solar energy and slowly shifting its economy away from its sole reliance on oil revenues. Multiple sources of financing have been made available to Middle East countries to specifically address climate change issues, and this past February, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, called for regional cooperation on environmental problems.

The second important factor is the likely retrenchment of the United States from the environmental leadership seen under the Obama administration. Addressing climate change and wrangling environmental agreements will not be a priority of the Trump administration, and with the possible sidelining of the State Department, there may be significant constraints on the capacity of the United States to shape international environmental and energy discussions.

The U.S. withdrawal, however, may allow other countries, including those with the greatest at stake, to step into leadership roles. Make no mistake: the future of the climate is bleak absent cuts in U.S. emissions, and the Trump administration’s position on climate and environmental issues is a significant blow to efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Countries in the Middle East (and around the world), however, can take this as an opportunity to define their own vision for their environmental and energy future, crafting sustainable agreements and building durable relationships.

While academic bodies will play an important role in bringing scientists together, civil society groups can also facilitate the exchange of ideas. Interest and advocacy groups connected to distressed communities on the ground can help convene scientists, engineers, and other academics for targeted discussions of how to address these issues. In these initial discussions, the lack of government officials will help these conferences fly below the radar and avoid getting caught up in the political disputes between countries, allowing scientists across the region to build relationships that can serve as the foundation for broader collaboration.

Civil society groups that specialize in Track II diplomacy can also play an important role. This type of diplomacy involves convening private citizens with government connections to unofficially discuss their country’s views on political issues and to identify potential areas of agreement, and these civil society groups could help scientific conferences and exchanges transition into more concrete discussions of energy commitments and environmental agreements. As conferences successfully facilitate knowledge sharing and exchanges, NGOs can work with scientists to brief their national government officials on findings, demonstrating the value of these conferences and potentially bringing governments into these discussions.

There will be increasing incentives for governments to get involved in these processes. Environmental problems will put significant pressure on national governments to act and protect their populace, lest unrest grow and threaten their stability. Furthermore, highly publicized scientific exchanges on climate change and environmental issues will stand in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s views and actions on these issues, allowing national leaders to highlight their leadership and independence to domestic constituencies.

Because environmental problems are collective problems, they present a unique opportunity to shift away from the zero-sum thinking of regional power competition. Under the right facilitation, discussions of shared and common problems can highlight how the successes of country are successes for the entire region.

When the time is right, countries could participate in jointly funded research and engineering pilot projects to combat climate change and mitigate its effects. Advances in desalination technology can reduce water shortages across the region. Research projects can improve agriculture across the region by studying drought resistant crops and water efficient irrigation and agricultural methods. Countries can also help unlock their solar potential by funding joint energy projects, such as research into increasing the durability of solar panels to sandstorms, a major obstacle to solar development in the region. The success of these types of projects would benefit the entire region, providing valuable insights and lessons into how communities can best weather climate change.

In the best case scenario, the benefits of these agreements and projects are not confined to environmental, energy, or health issues. Successful scientific conferences and projects act as confidence building measures, proving cooperation among countries is both possible and mutually beneficial. Cooperative agreements and projects also increase the political ties between countries, acting as scaffolding upon which further cooperation can be established and paving the way for discussions on other political, economic, and security issues.

We should not, however, view this process as a straight line from scientific conferences to peace agreements in Yemen. For every two steps forward, there will likely be one (or even two) steps backward, and these processes could stall at any stage. While science diplomacy can facilitate changes in the political relationship between adversaries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, regional tensions could easily limit its effectiveness. Even if climate agreements and joint projects never manifest, however, the information sharing and personal relationships between regional scientists will play an important role in combating climate change.

Image: From left to right: the United States Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, the United States Secretary of State John Kerry, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, in the “Salon Élysée” of the Beau-Rivage Palace (Lausanne, Switzerland) on 16 March 2015. U.S. Department of State Flickr account.


Jacob Uzman is a Middle East analyst and peacebuilding practitioner with a focus on the Levant. He spent the past four years working on conflict resolution and peacebuilding initiatives related to the conflict in Syria, where he heard perspectives and stories from Syrians on virtually all sides of the conflict. His research interests also include WMD proliferation and environmental security. Jacob holds a B.A. in philosophy and political science from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

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