Saudi Arabia (Stem Cell)

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in a surprising move for a country that is very conservative religiously, has embraced stem cell research. In the proliferation of stem cell research centers around the world, the Saudis have decided to create a stem cell program that will do research into therapeutic cloning.

religious and political backgrounds and comparisons

The United States in contrast has adopted policies that prohibit government funded stem cell research using human embryos. The social wing of the Republican Party has been able to gain from President George W. Bush support for the position that all embryos, even those first gathered as unfertilized eggs and then fertilized in a test tube, are humans. The “Religious Right” in the United States, which is composed of evangelicals, fundamentalists, Roman Catholics, and other conservative Christians, has taken the position that the use of embryos from abortions or those remaining from in vitro fertilization procedures are humans entitled to be treated with humanity even if the embryo is simply to be buried rather than used for stem cell research.

In the main, stem cell research in the United States is opposed by the views of Roman Catholicism ,which joined with the concerns of evangelicals and others for human life. The key assumption is that life begins at conception. As a result the United States government has one of the most restrictive research programs in the world. Private research in the United States is not so encumbered; however, it is often not as well funded as publicly sponsored research.

The prevailing interpretation of Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia is the theology of Wahab-bism, which was first developed by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahab in the mid-1700s. Al-Wahab was an Islamic judge influenced by the writings of Taqiyyudin Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328). Al-Wahab was concerned about what he believed was a decline in Muslim strength. He believed that the weakness of Islam at the time was caused by a failure to faithfully follow monotheism. So he stressed tahwid, or the unity of Allah. With tah-wid as his chief guide, he found a sponsor and a brother-in-law in Muhammad ibn Sa’ud.

The teachings of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahab have influenced the use of Islamic law (Sharia) in Saudi Arabia. Through al-Wahab’s influence the Saudis follow the Hanbali school of Sharia. It is developed from both the Koran and the Hadiths. The latter are the sayings and actions of Muhammad the Prophet during his lifetime.

The Wahabbi theological emphasis upon the “unity” of Allah and a return to the simplicity of the first generation of Muslims during the lifetime of Muhammad has made Wahabbi Islam very conservative. For Muslims Sharia has long allowed that a fetus is not alive, or more correctly does not have a soul, until after 120 days following conception, at which time the angel breathes life into it. Some Islamic scholars say ensoulment occurs at 40 days. If any theological objections have arisen among conservative clerics, the Saudi government has been able to find leading Islamic scholars who approve of financing a world-class program of stem cell research.


To engage in medical research where a vast amount of money is available to finance it is also a smart move. Saudi Arabia has a huge but limited supply of oil, which it has been selling globally at prices that have generated enormous profits. As a result they have on hand a huge supply of petrodollars. Now since they have concluded that the future of health, and of medical research and medical business, will be in the area of new therapies that emerge from stem cell research, they have an area of scientific research that the government finances. Investors from the United Arab Republic and other Gulf states have also invested in the Saudi Arabian stem cell research ventures.

It is the apparent goal of the Saudi government to develop a biotech infrastructure. The goal would be to develop itself as a center for medical treatments developed from stem cell research. The new research center will be joining other countries also seeking to be a world-class stem cell research center. These other countries include Sweden, China, Israel, the United Kingdom, India, and others.

Saudi Arabian researchers have been using blood stem cells to engage in allogeneic stem cell research since the mid-1990s. Saudi research scientists have also published their research findings and reports in leading journals, making them available to other researchers around the world.

In 2002 Sultan Bahabri, the chief administrator of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Jeddah, announced plans to create a stem cell research center in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. It is the principal port on the Red Sea and open to non-Muslims, unlike Mecca and Medina.

The city of Jedda is believed by Saudis to be the location of the tomb of Eve, the first woman and the mother of all mankind. Saudi expansion of in vitro fertilization and stem cell research in Jedda is a move that would be more than poetic. Saudi Arabia has the world’s highest in vitro fertilization rate. With numerous surplus embryos produced by the 30 fertility clinics in Saudi Arabia, supplies of embryos for research will be abundant.

The new Jedda stem cell center was expected to be operating within a year. It was to be staffed by a team of international scientists in a new area dubbed Jeddah BioCity. The facility was expected to work closely with the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center. Some proponents of the project expect stem cell research to be the oil of Saudi Arabia’s future.

Hamad Al-Omar and Sultan Bahabri are to be in charge of the private venture. They are founders of several biotech companies. It was also to be expected that the stem cell center would include state-of-the-art biotech laboratories for research and treatment. Major financing has pushed construction of the facilities.

The financial resources of the Saudis could make them the world’s center for stem cell research. Therapeutic cloning could produce cures that would be cheap in Saudi Arabia but expensive to obtain in other parts of the world, including the United States.

Stem cell research in Saudi Arabia has already produced results. Scientists working in Saudi Arabia have published results of allogeneic stem cell transplants (SCT) in patients with Fanconi anemia (FA) conducted at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center. The implantations seemed to have provided successful eliminations of the disease.

In 2004, a press release was issued by TriStem, a biotech company founded by Llham Abuljadayel and Ghazi Dhoot in 1999. The announcement said that TriStem had developed a new stem cell technology that could be of benefit to victims of many kinds of diseases, especially anemia and diabetes. The specific technique is retrodifferentiation. The technique uses blood from a patient to produce stem cells that can be used in treating the patient. The stem cells are from the patient so there is little chance of rejection by the patient’s body.

The Saudis have also started to use umbilical cord stem cells to develop preventative medicines. They have banked these in order to have frozen stem cell materials that can be used for individually customized therapies. Many young Saudis have found this form of treatment commercially appealing.

The Saudi biotech company FutureHealth Technologies used cryopreservation methods to freeze umbilical cords. It operates under the accreditation of the Medicines Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which is a British licensing agency operating with standards agreeable to European Union standards.

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