Dubai, United Arab Emirates
When Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon was killed in a car bombing in February 2005, Toufic Mezher hoped it would be an isolated incident. But the country was subsequently racked by almost weekly outbursts of riots, assassinations, and bombings. Mezher began to fear for his family's safety. The 16-year American University of Beirut engineering professor also saw his beloved campus begin to deteriorate under the strain of the country's second civil war in less than two decades.
"Imagine sitting in a classroom teaching and all of a sudden a bomb goes off a few miles away," Mezher says, recounting an all-too-familiar scene. "Everyone is on their laptops, trying to figure out what happened, if any of their family members were killed, how they are going to get home. And then classes are canceled for a week. You are spending your time worrying about all these things instead of academic issues."
So when the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology — a new multibillion-dollar graduate and research university in Abu Dhabi being developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — offered Mezher a job, he jumped at the opportunity.
"Of course Lebanon is my country, it is my history, it is my culture," he says. "But today, with the booming economy in the gulf region, everybody is going to the gulf to be part of this boom. … I am not going to sit around and wait."
Mezher is part of a massive flow of the Arab world's best and brightest to the region's newest hot spot: the Persian Gulf.
With more than a dozen American universities opening branches and campuses there (see Page B9), the oil-rich emirates of the Arabian peninsula are threatening to dethrone cities like Cairo, Baghdad, and Beirut as the academic centers of the Middle East. Wealthy, safe, and relatively stable, these emirates are vying to become the new intellectual heart of the region, spending more than $20-billion on cultural and educational projects annually. Many Arab scholars, as well as American ones, are counting on their success. Myriad symposia, independent media, art shows, book fairs, film festivals, and other hallmarks of intellectual life are flourishing in these countries, transforming the coast of the Persian Gulf into what Daniel Balland, director general of Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, describes as "a modern-day Andalusia."
Many of the gulf countries see the traditional centers of Arab education as past their prime. "Yes, Baghdad had its time, Cairo had its time. But things don't work the way they did 100 years ago, or even 10 years ago," says Abdulla Al Karam, director general of the Dubai Knowledge and Human Development Authority, the recently established government branch charged with developing the emirates' educational institutions. "Times have changed, and the gulf needs to exploit this opportunity."
It certainly is, propelling the region into the international spotlight — even at the expense of neighboring Arab countries — and dramatically changing the intellectual landscape of the Middle East.
The academic locus of the Middle East has been in the area known as the Fertile Crescent — spreading from Egypt through Lebanon and Syria to Iraq — since the Islamic Golden Age, which lasted from the eighth through the 13th centuries. Baghdad was the first major intellectual capital of the region. At its heart was the Dar Al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), the academic home of such seminal scholars as the astronomer and mathematician Mohammad Bin Mousa al-Khwarizmi, whose book Kitab Al-Jabr laid the ground for modern algebra.
In the 10th century, Egypt became an academic center as well, boasting its own opulent House of Wisdom in Cairo, the Great Library of Alexandria, and the world's oldest university, Al-Azhar, founded in AD 975 — a full century before some of Europe's most prominent universities.
Even in modern times, the relatively liberal, secular, and cosmopolitan nature of cities like Cairo, Beirut, and Baghdad made them magnets for the region's intelligentsia, their back-alley coffee shops buzzing with erudite debates and their printing presses churning out the latest revolutionary tracts. Universities started in the region by American missionaries — like the American University in Cairo and the American University of Beirut — nurtured and spread influential ideologies in the Middle East, including socialism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism. The countries' indigenous universities, like Cairo University and the University of Baghdad, became the breeding ground for many of the region's anticolonial movements.
But in the past three decades, academic life across the region has deteriorated. "University libraries are in a sorry state, laboratories are old and cannot accommodate increasing numbers of students, and classes are overcrowded," lamented a 2004 report by the United Nations Development Programme. The document sent waves across the Arab world with its blunt characterizations of the region's universities. Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, the program's regional director, characterized Arab universities as "either buried in dust or smothered by ideologies."
That assessment is echoed by a World Bank report released last month, which described educational institutions in the Middle East as "not yet fully equipped to produce graduates with the skills and expertise necessary to compete in a world where knowledge is essential to making progress." And a 2005 Unesco report identified the Arab region as the least research-and-development-intensive area in the world, spending a staggering trillion dollars importing technology over the past three decades.
"I am afraid the Arab and Islamic world has not provided new knowledge in a long time," says Daniel R. Alonso, dean of Cornell University's new medical school in Qatar.
Academe has been particularly susceptible to the violence and political strife that has overtaken the region. The war in Iraq has essentially destroyed almost all remnants of academic life there. Lebanon's civil wars have fractured its universities along sectarian lines and unleashed waves of violence that have paralyzed the country. Egypt's swelling population has overwhelmed its once-stellar universities, with an increasingly authoritarian government clamping down on the last vestiges of free speech and academic autonomy.
As a result, scholars have left in droves. The United Nations estimates that in the past 30 years, 23 percent of Arab engineers, 50 percent of Arab doctors, and 15 percent of Arab bachelor-of-science degree holders have emigrated. Roughly 25 percent of the 300,000 graduates from Arab universities in 1996 emigrated from the region, and between 1998 and 2000, more than 15,000 Arab doctors left as well. Until recently, most went to Europe or the United States; now, more and more of them from the traditional academic centers of the region are going to the gulf.
"These people left for a reason," says Cornell's Alonso. "They didn't have the capability of doing excellent work, and they're not going back to their home countries any time soon."
Their new destination is markedly different from those countries, to say the least. The small Arab emirates that line the Persian Gulf have lived much of their history in relative isolation from the rest of the Middle East, their treacherous desert landscapes home only to scattered Bedouin tribes until recent decades. The various sheikdoms that became a protectorate of the British in 1853 did not gain their independence until the 1970s — around the time that the first paved roads were being built in many of these emirates.
The discovery of oil under the sands of the Arabian peninsula in the 1960s forever transformed these states. The desert emirates were immediately catapulted into the international spotlight as masses of foreign businessmen flocked to the region — first to get a share of the oil, and then to cash in on the enormous wealth now in the hands of these small sheikdoms. The billions of petrodollars generated in the oil boom of the 1970s and 80s were mostly spent on basic infrastructure projects for these underdeveloped countries, as well as squandered on vanity projects like palaces and monuments for the newly rich royal families.
The countries quickly realized the shaky foundations of an economy based solely on oil when prices crashed in the 1990s. Now, even with oil reaching $100 a barrel, they are frantically searching for ways to diversify their economies. Some of them are trying to become major tourist destinations, investing in resorts, airlines, and theme parks. Others are hoping to become financial hubs, offering tax breaks and other incentives to businesses that relocate to the region.
Almost all countries in the region have redirected massive amounts of money and effort to education. Qatar's gleaming Education City, with architecturally stunning buildings and palm-tree-lined walkways, is just the first of many such complexes sprouting across the region to house the staggering number of high-profile American universities flocking to the region.
But these partnerships are just the tip of the iceberg. "Clearly the gulf countries have come to realize that education is the basis for them to join the rest of the world," says Russel Jones, president of MIT's new Masdar institute in Abu Dhabi. "They know they need more intellectual horsepower."
These gulf states are not just interested in improving education within their own borders; they also aim to fundamentally alter the cultural landscape of the Middle East by shifting the intellectual and academic center of the region to the Arabian peninsula. "Look at the situation in Cairo, Baghdad, and Beirut. These cities had great days, but where are they now?" asks Zaki Nusseibeh, a Palestinian now living in Abu Dhabi who is deputy chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and a member of the Sorbonne-Abu Dhabi's board of trustees. "The Arab world has to accept the fact that its future lies within the gulf states."
The sheer magnitude of academic spending in the gulf makes the region impossible to ignore. But financial investment in education is just one factor drawing intellectuals to the region. The gulf has been spared most of the violence and instability that has paralyzed places like Iraq and Lebanon. Although there are no democracies in the region, its benevolent emirs and sheiks are a far cry from autocratic rulers like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Syria's Bashar Al-Assad. Each emirate has its own peculiarities, but the region is generally defined by broad freedoms relating to speech and expression — especially when compared with draconian censorship laws in neighboring countries. Though the native populations in these emirates tend to be relatively conservative, the governments have been happy to afford great social liberties to foreigners, with hardly any legal restrictions on dress, alcohol, or gender roles.
The heavy investment by many of the gulf countries in airlines and hotels has transformed them into an international aviation hub. Hundreds of airlines now use the gulf as a connection point between Europe and Asia. Visa restrictions (other than those against Israelis) are among the most liberal in the world, with places like Dubai even offering "smart cards" to regular visitors who can effortlessly pass through "eGates" without even showing their passport. This ease of travel has made conferences like last year's "Festival of Thinkers" in Abu Dhabi (which brought together 16 Nobel Prize winners and more than 160 intellectuals from around the world) an almost daily affair in the gulf. Last year 140 conferences took place in Qatar alone.
The ethnic and national diversity now found in the gulf is a key factor in attracting American universities to the region. "You can find people in the gulf from South Asia, the Far East, Africa, Europe, and the whole Middle East," says Hilary Ballon, a former professor of art and architectural history at Columbia University who was recently appointed an associate vice chancellor of New York University's new campus in Abu Dhabi. "That kind of cosmopolitan intersection of people is what drew NYU to the gulf, and it will be a great stimulus to intellectual growth in the region."
The media and publishing world, whose heart used to be in Beirut and Cairo, is also moving eastward. Following in the footsteps of Al-Jazeera — which has become the most popular Arabic television channel in the world and is based in Qatar — most satellite stations and print publications are moving their headquarters to the gulf, enjoying both the expanded freedoms and the financial perks offered in media "free zones," where many local laws don't apply to the occupants. There they can produce controversial talk shows, debate programs, and editorials that would be censored in other Arab countries.
"The UAE's first newspaper had to be printed in Beirut" in the 1980s, recalls Nusseibeh, the Sorbonne-Abu Dhabi trustee. "Now we have hundreds of international magazines printed here — and all the publishing companies in Lebanon and Egypt are shutting their doors and moving to Dubai and Abu Dhabi."
Administrators from the dozens of American universities flocking to the gulf see a definite shift in the intellectual center of the region. "If you really want to understand Arab history, go to Beirut or Cairo," says Charles E. Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon University's branch in Qatar. "But if you want to look at the future of the region and its rapidly changing dynamics, you have to go to the gulf."
Egypt in particular has been actively trying to recruit American universities to open campuses there, but most of them have been turned away by its dicey political situation. "Do you really expect us to open a campus in a country that could be run by the Muslim Brotherhood in a few years?" said one high-ranking NYU official involved in the school's search for a Middle East campus.
"Places like Beirut and Cairo have thousands of years of history and a very dense population and urban centers, which are a feeding ground for the arts," says Mariët Westermann, a former director of NYU's Institute of Fine Arts, who was recently appointed vice chancellor of the university's campus in Abu Dhabi. "But historically, the smart use of financial resources has also been a great stimulus to the arts. When I think about the gulf's resources and its willingness to deploy them in a certain way, I can't help but get excited."
"A Lebanese journalist once told me, 'The people in the gulf are Bedouins. We have all the intellectuals, scientists, and leaders,'" says Nusseibeh. "Now all their young people are coming here. If you ask a professor in Egypt or Lebanon in their 30s, 'Where would you want to work and live?' they would definitely say, 'The gulf.'"
American universities are happy to take advantage of the Middle Eastern talent flowing to the gulf. "Will all these new projects cause a brain drain in the region to the gulf? I sure hope so," says MIT's Jones. "We are intentionally trying to attract the best and brightest. Let's just say that I'm not having any trouble hiring from the other parts of the Middle East."
Peter Heath, who was recently hired away from his position as provost of the American University of Beirut to become chancellor of the American University of Sharjah, the emirate neighboring Dubai, also sees his former university as fair game for recruiting. "I am going to the gulf, and I know all the AUB faculty," he says, "so they should watch out."
But not all the region's professors are getting on the next plane. To many academics — both Arab and from outside the region — the artificial nature and over-the-top spending of the gulf will never be able to eclipse the deep-rooted culture and history of traditional Arab centers.
"Intellectuals and academics don't want to live in a mall, they want to live in a real society," says Osama El-Ghazali Harb, an Egyptian and a former president of the Arab Association of Political Scientists. "Science is more than labs. It's the people, it's the environment. Can you import that without making something that is very artificial?"
Many Arab professors dismiss the gulf as an artificial Disneyland in the desert that is using high-profile education projects to gain international prestige rather than establish anything of intellectual merit.
"They have nice hotels, fine," says Harb. "But if you want serious education, serious research, serious intellectual discourse, that's another story." And while the gulf countries may be more stable than some of their neighbors, many academics thrive on the political instability and layered complexities that define the traditional capitals of the region.
"You have amazing theater and poetry coming out of places like Syria and Egypt," says Shafeeq Gharba, a former president of the American University of Kuwait, who recently conducted a study of American-style higher education in the Middle East. "These are old societies with old roots. Even their cafes have been around for thousands of years. You can't replace that with shiny new classrooms and get the same level of depth."
NYU's Ballon says that, as a scholar of New York history, she finds this criticism familiar. "I am reminded of a time — and it was not long ago — that New York was seen as a place devoid of culture, remote from the kind of cultural sophistication that the Old World, that Europe represented," she says. "The view that it is all glitz and glamour with no substance is an argument made about all new arrivals on the scene. But the gulf is about to take off."
Its emergence as an academic hub in the region also faces pragmatic challenges, however. Although many countries of the gulf may be more liberal than other states in the region, their retrogressive policies in some areas — like homosexuality's being illegal, restrictions against allowing Israelis to enter the country, and the flagrant abuse of laborers — have caused more than one American university to think twice about opening a campus in the gulf.
The University of Nevada at Las Vegas declined Dubai's offer to open a campus there because of concerns about human rights, and a planned University of Connecticut project in Dubai is stalled. "I would be concerned about young people from Connecticut, or from anywhere else in the country for that matter, heading off to Dubai to get an education," Andrew M. Fleischmann, a Connecticut state representative who made an official inquiry into the project, told the Journal Inquirer, a newspaper in Manchester, Conn.Nor are the gulf countries immune to the broader instability spreading across the region. "There is a big question of how these American institutions that are coming fit with the cultural expectations, and within these political wars going on for larger social control between religious and secular groups in the gulf," says Mary Ann Tetreault, a professor of international affairs and a gulf specialist at Trinity University, in Texas. "This is a wasp's nest that they are walking into."
"I'm not sure the gulf countries have thought through the implications of creating this kind of open society," says Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. It is precisely the freedoms offered by cities like Beirut and Cairo that Haykel and many blame for their descent into instability. "Places like Beirut were a valve for the region, attracting people from all Arab countries because of its liberal atmosphere, but that also made the country very politically volatile and combustible at the time," says Haykel, who grew up in Lebanon.
Karem A. Sakallah, a Palestinian professor of computer engineering, was attracted to Carnegie Mellon's Qatar branch by the vast resources available to scientists, but he does not see a future there for himself — or for other highly accomplished Arab scientists. He points to the tight restrictions against non-Qataris for gaining citizenship, a provision that is true in all the gulf states, which are trying to get the best from an expatriate work force (which accounts for up to 90 percent of the population in some gulf countries) without diluting their national control.
"Professors are not hired guns, you cannot buy loyalty with money," Sakallah says. "If you want people to put their heart and soul into developing a country, they have to be invested."
But when the alternative is daily car bombings, riots, and assassinations, the gulf seems like an academic oasis for many Arab professors, like Toufic Mezher, the American University of Beirut professor in the process of moving to Abu Dhabi. "I waited one, two, three years, but everybody is leaving because of the better opportunities and better pay over there," Mezher says.
By the time he made his decision, two colleagues from his department had already left for the gulf, as had dozens from other departments. "Most of the full-timers at the university have left or took a couple of years of leave," he says. "It is really starting to have an impact."
It is a loss that is sure to have long-term repercussions for the less-fortunate Arab countries. "The oil-rich countries, to the extent that they continue to be strategic, will not slip behind the rest of the world," says MIT's Jones. "But the less-well-off countries run a heavy risk of brain drain, stagnation, and continued decline."
Losing their most prominent intellectuals will have an effect not only on their university systems, but also on society as a whole. "Academics are the heart of a country, and you can already see how their absence has hurt countries like Egypt and Lebanon," says Zachary Lockman, chair of the Middle Eastern and Islamic studies department at New York University and a past president of the Middle East Studies Association. "This is a worrisome trend that will certainly continue as the gulf becomes a more attractive place."
Mezher feels guilty about abandoning his country, but is convinced that his future is brightest in the gulf. "I found my best opportunity in Abu Dhabi," he says. "Even if things get better in Lebanon, I think I want to pursue the rest of my career in the gulf."
Zvika Krieger, a former correspondent in the Middle East for Newsweek and The Chronicle of Higher Education, is currently an editor at The New Republic.