ON A bright summer day in Exeter, a university town in the south-west of England, an array of Gulf academics mingle to discuss the changes afoot in their countries, keeping an eye out for government officials, pro-royal lobbyists, and a handful of security-service people from Abu Dhabi, the richest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Gulf youngsters wishing to study the politics and histories of their countries often go abroad to do so, since those subjects are generally too sensitive for their universities back home. Many are on government scholarships. Saudi Arabia, for instance, sends 130,000 students abroad each year. Half go to America, tens of thousands come to Britain and a small but growing pool—still in the hundreds rather than thousands—head to China.
Governments invest in them in the hope of turning their revenues from oil, a diminishing resource, into human capital to grow a more durable, knowledge-based economy. But going back home can be tough, whether for young Saudi women who enjoy driving cars, which they are barred from doing at home, or for Gulf citizens with a taste for politics. Some adapt; some do not return; some become more religious; others feel torn between two worlds.
Investment in education in the Gulf is growing, with Qatar to the fore. Its Education City project has attracted satellite campuses in the Gulf from respected American institutions such as Georgetown and Texas A&M. A handful of such outfits are beginning to offer courses on the region itself. The American University of Kuwait recently launched the country's first course in Gulf history.
But Gulf autocracies and academic freedoms are not always an easy fit. Last month there was a wave of arrests of activists, bloggers, journalists and lawyers in Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, often without any formal charges being brought. In the past year all those countries and Kuwait have charged people with the ill-defined offence of "insulting the ruler", sometimes merely for a cheeky Facebook posting. Meanwhile, Islamist members of parliament in Kuwait have demanded the death penalty for "blasphemers". The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia said that a young man who had written a few lines of poetry about the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter should be tried.
Even in Exeter and Cambridge, where British universities take advantage of Gulf citizens who long for cooler climes to host big shindigs on Gulf studies every summer, young researchers are wary about what they say in public. Last year the authorities in Bahrain asked its overseas students to sign loyalty pledges, including a promise to report on fellow students involved in potentially embarrassing activities, such as demonstrations. This year an adviser to Bahrain's government pitched into a discussion at Exeter, complaining that two Bahraini analysts were "tarnishing the image of the country"—a crime back at home.
When Westerners criticise the Gulf, it often raises hackles, provoking accusations of imperialism. Many Gulf citizens would rather have lively discussions at home than criticise their governments on foreign soil. But if indigenous universities are to develop authentic studies of their own societies, they need to loosen their restrictions on free speech. Yet the Western education they regard as most prestigious requires a degree of academic freedom that most governments in the Gulf are still unwilling to grant.