Qatar Biobank: Crafting the Ethno-Nation through the Genetic Disease Landscape

By Laura Goffman
Submitted to Session P4926 (Circulating Science and Scaling Innovation: Science and Technology Studies in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; Gulf; Qatar;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The Qatar Biobank, an institution within the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development (founded in 1995 by Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani and Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser), collects bodily samples and measurements of Qatari nationals and long-term residents to provide data for researchers investigating the biological basis for disease. Recruitment to the pilot program was initiated in December 2012, and 1,200 samples were collected between September 2013 and October 2014, with the aim of collecting over 60,000 samples by 2019. The stated goals of this facility include: to provide data for biomedical research that focuses on the primary health concerns of the region (cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer), to understand connections between the health/genes and lifestyle/environment of residents of Qatar, and to improve and safeguard the health of future generations of Qataris. Moreover, the Biobank is presented as filling a lacuna in a global network of large-scale population based studies by providing the first facility for this form of research in the Gulf region.

This presentation examines the Qatar Biobank in the context of the institutionalization of medical practice in the Arab Gulf from the early twentieth century to the present. I argue that the Biobank research repository serves to legitimize narratives of exclusionary Qatari ethno-national identities by engaging with global scientific networks of mapping the human genome and forming population categories. Finally, I suggest that the Biobank narrates a particular version of the Arabian Peninsula’s genetic history in the processes of framing disease and stating which of the region’s residents will define the future of Qatar’s health status.

Using the Qatar Biobank as a case study, this presentation examines how global scientific networks and concepts of genetic communities adapt to Qatari society and state agendas. Following the work of Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, I approach biobanks as “unique social artifacts that concretize assumptions about population boundaries to organize and sort human samples” (2015). Specifically, I analyze how the Biobank project defines the Qatari community by engaging with a global scientific discourse, methods of recruiting participants and fashioning them as research subjects, and how the Biobank presents itself as simultaneously complying with Islamic law and modern research methods. My research on this institution is based on an interview with the acting director of the Biobank, a site visit, local news coverage, and publications and recruitment material produced by the Biobank.