Dubai: Hub of Islamic scientific renaissance?

by Saleem Khan, CBC News Online

With daily headlines from what we commonly refer to as the Muslim world often dominated by reports of violence and strife, it's easy to forget that the technology-infused lifestyle we lead today exists in no small part to the preservation and advancement of math, engineering, medicine, astronomy and other knowledge during the Golden Age of Islam, which roughly parallelled what we in the West commonly refer to as the Dark Ages.

Now, it appears that long tradition of enlightened learning is extending roots in a way that could soon begin to reshape our perceptions of where scientific and technological advancement can flourish.

Wired science blogger Brandon Keim pointed us to the Bio 2007 international biotechnology conference underway this week in Boston, Mass. There, in a bid to escape the lineups for Michael J. Fox's keynote address, he wandered to the trade show floor, where he found a representative of a state perhaps most recognized for its architecture and landscaping.

I happened quickly on Dubai's booth (above) — a sanctuary of unexpectedly plush minimalism, furnished like an upscale hotel lobby — and was greeted by Abdulqader Al Khayat, executive director of the Dubai Biotechnology and Research Park…. Asked about Dubai's regulatory environment, he enthusiastically mentioned that Islamic law… was actually more open than the United States to certain types of research, particularly embryonic stem cell research.

"The definition of human being in Catholic is from the day of conception — whereas in Islamic law, a fetus is considered human after four months of pregnancy," he said. "Under Sharia law, any research that has human benefit is supported. There is no boundary for that."

Historically, said Al Khayat, Islamic science flourished between the 14th and 16th centuries; that Dubai could be a home for cutting-edge life science research in the 21st century was simply part of the grand cycle of history, the rise and fall and rise again of the East.

I met representatives of the Dubai government at a technology trade show here in Toronto about a decade ago. Even then, they dazzled convention-goers with a computer-generated vision of becoming an internet hub for the region. It seems they're on their way toward that goal.

Queen Noor of Jordan is to speak at the Bio conference on Tuesday about biotechnology's impact on global health.

Could this be the start of something old that's new again?