In September, Kuwait’s Institute for Scientific Research signed a $52-million contract with a Spanish company, TSK Group, to design, establish, and operate the country’s first station for electric energy production using thermal solar energy, with a capacity of 50 megawatts.
The institute’s new contract shows the potential that Kuwait and other nearby countries have in applied research, scientists say, a potential some would like to see expanded with more public and private investment in science.
The Institute’s director, Nagi Al-Mottery, told Al-Fanar Media that Al Shagaya station will be a “cornerstone” of a new regional approach to energy that will prioritize solar energy.
The institute—which is one of the country’s main promoters of scientific research—is pursuing technology transfer and the development of renewable energy in Kuwait. The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, announced at the 18th Conference for Climate Change held in Doha late 2014 that by 2030 his country plans to meet about 15 percent of its domestic energy needs using renewable energy. Several other Arab countries have announced similar targets.
Despite its oil wealth, Kuwait dedicates a modest budget to scientific research—only 0.1 percent of its GDP according to Al-Mottery. Many developed countries spend about 2.5 percent of GDP on scientific research. Qatar has announced it will dedicate 2.8 percent of GDP to research and development (although it has not reached this target, largely due to a lack of qualified researchers).
There are 166 researchers for every million persons in Kuwait, compared to 42 researchers in the neighboring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and 7,707 in Finland, according to UNESCO 2010 statistics.
Hamad Mohammad Ali Yaseen, a faculty member at the Kuwait University Medical Sciences Center, emphasized that the barriers to scientific research in Kuwait have never been financial. “Obtaining adequate research funding is possible through several bodies, including Kuwait University and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences,” he said. he argued that the real problem lies in lengthy bureaucratic procedures. For example, he explained, it can take up to a year to obtain even modest amounts of basic research materials and supplies—ordering them requires the same lengthy procedures as multi-million-dollar projects.
The oil, water, and energy sectors are the main focus of scientific research in Kuwait, and of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, whose annual budget is 107 million Kuwaiti dinars ($354 million).
Al-Mottery emphasized that the Al-Shagaya complex for renewable energy can meet the electricity needs of 150,000 residential units throughout the year. The project should result in saving the equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil annually – which is expected to account for 15 percent of the country’s yearly energy needs in 2030—and provide 1,200 jobs in operation and maintenance. This complex will also diminish Kuwait’s carbon dioxide emissions, one of the major causes of global warming.
The institute also operates a number of other renewable-energy projects, including a national laboratory for photoelectric panels that have a capacity of 102 kilowatts “each” and a project that meets the energy demands of Kuwaiti schools using photoelectric cells.
The institute has embraced the idea of commercializing its research, something that is still rare in the region and sometimes frowned upon. Al-Mottery said “commercialization has become a basic element in research-institute programs to build competitive advantage, entrench the culture of quality, and upgrade innovative and creative activities.”
The Kuwaiti Cabinet has agreed to form a committee to establish a holding research company with capital of 10 million Kuwaiti dinars ($33 million). The Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research has submitted a request to the Kuwaiti government to establish three commercial companies: the first for bottling desalinated water, the second for tissue culture, and the third for technical petroleum services.
But Hamed Al-Hamoud, a researcher in economics who works at the national research institute and elsewhere, believes that scientific research in Kuwait requires more involvement from the private sector.
“If we take Apple and Pfizer Pharmaceutical Companies as an example,” he says. “Would they continue to flourish without investment in scientific research? In developed countries, scientific research is not limited to state-funded institutions. The entire society encourages the development of scientific research. There is usually cooperation between the private sector and the universities to fund research. This concept is not present in Kuwait, nor in the Arab world at large.”