Looking back, 2013 carried as much good news as it did bad news for the Middle East, especially so in the fields of science, technology and health.
Perhaps the biggest story so far—political turbulence aside—is Syria’s polio problem.
The outbreak of polio virus in Syria put the entire region at risk of infection of the once-thwarted virus, especially that refugee traffic in and out of the war-torn country continued unabated regardless of health risks. There are still question marks over how the vaccination campaigns were handled in war time, whether some areas were deliberately overlooked during vital health campaigns, and currently, how international organizations working in the region are planning to face up to the challenges of mobility and access, walking a thin line between attending to a public health emergency of international concern and maneuvering delicate politics.
The region had already plunged into 2013 heavyhearted with fears of the spread of another pandemic in the wake of the outbreak of the coronavirus, known as MERS-COV in September 2012. However, despite reported infections, some fatal, mostly in Saudi Arabia, in addition to Jordan, Qatar, UAE, and Tunisia among others, the outbreak did not warrant an international emergency status. In fact, research in 2013, has brought some significant revelations about the virus to light — including how complicated its transmission chain is, and how Omani camels may have been the elusive intermediate host that carried this virus to humans.
On the water front, both literal and figurative, 2013 saw the birth of a new partnership between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The countries will start feeding water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, in the belief that this grand project — which involves installing a 180-kilometre connection between the two sees — will save the latter from shrinking. And the World Bank is backing their game, releasing a new study that considers connecting the two seas via a channel as one of the feasible scenarios that could breathe life into the Dead Sea.
But the region’s water predicament, as revealed in 2013, is much more serious than the shrinking of the heavily saline lake. The Middle East, it turns out, has lost a drastic amount of fresh water—a Dead Sea’s worth of that.
A team of scientists released satellite images of water stores in the north-central Middle East, taken between 2003 and 2009, showing that, during this period, there was approximately 143.6 km3 less fresh water in the region between Tigris and Euphrates, which includes Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Now on the geeky front, things have been looking up, with scientists at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz’s City of Science and Technology and Texas A&M University in the US, publishing a new “mind-bogging” study that shows that communication can occur over vast distances without a physical medium—well, at least in principle.
The scientists challenged the long-held belief that for information to travel in empty space, physical particles have to be transferred — they use a complex assortment of beam splitters, mirrors and detectors to illustrate their point.
Now, on the health front, the region’s women have some work to do. Like exercise, and counting calories. A new study reveals that a dramatic increase in obesity among Arab women is threatening to become a health crisis with almost half of adult females overweight in some countries – double the rate of men.
But as some women are getting fatter, on this side at least, some are actually getting smarter. Like Iqbal El-Assad, who graduated medical school in May at the age of 20—possibly becoming the youngest Arab doctor ever.
Perhaps hers is the most inspiring story yet, out of the Middle East in 2013.
El Assad, a Weill Cornel Medical College graduate, a Palestinian by birth and Lebanese by nationality, considers herself luckier than many men and women from her generation; at least she didn’t grow up on a run-down refugee camp as many of her Palestinian brethren who were forced to leave their homes did. That said, she says she was always close to the suffering of her people; her parents took her on multiple visits to the camps, and she saw first-hand how dire and desperate the situation can get.
The young achiever says she learnt algebra as a toddler, and she spends her free time solving mathematical problems. She made the decision to be a medical doctor at 12.
Now if this is not a beam of light in all this darkness, this editor doesn’t know what is.