Once upon a time in the land where the light of creation first shone, the fertile grounds around Baghdad nurtured the House of Wisdom.[1] Even as Europeans were looking for the light at the end of the Dark Ages, Caliph Haroon al-Rasheed and his son Caliph al-Mamoon had made Baghdad a center of learning. In Baghdad, scholars put words on “real” paper. They preserved Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Euclid, Ptolemy, Pythagoras, and Brahmagupta and translated Greek, Persian, and Indian manuscripts. In Baghdad, they built upon the knowledge of the greatest ancient scholars and evolved the scientific method of observation and experimentation.[2]

About a millennium and a third later, much of the Arab world has lost its educational vision, needing an incarnation of Diogenes to find its honest educational soul. On the surface, impressive new facilities, millions of words, and reams of documents with elegant course maps point forward to a better future.[3] Unfortunately, little fuel for a knowledge-age economy has resulted from this feverish activity. Most observers agree that the root cause remains educational systems that do not develop motivated and enquiring minds; many, such as experts at the Rand Corporation, have made tangible suggestions for governments; but, few, if any, entities have been able to transform the Arab world’s educational systems or their curricula.[4]

Multiple reasons exist for repeated failures. Topping the list is the ability of the educational bureaucracies to resist change. Originally, many of these bureaucracies mostly replicated the pedantic and stultifying structure of the Egyptian educational system.[5] Today, the Gulf Cooperation countries of Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) arguably have tried to move away from this inefficient and antiquated system, but bureaucrats have exhibited a rubber band-like elasticity — stretching, but not breaking, while successfully thwarting advances. Often, wrapping themselves in their nationalistic flags, bureaucrats have successfully shifted the dialectic ground from change and modernization to job preservation and affirmative action. If all else has failed, bureaucrats can draw upon wellsprings of ambivalence, reservoirs of distrust, and the web-like connectedness of wasta-based tribal politics. Practically speaking, these causes combined with endless, mentally exhausting rework after rework of policies and programs, has generated much sound and fury, rarely signifying actual reform.

A few governments, having thrown up their hands in disgust at the existing quagmire, have erected entirely new institutions from the sand up. In the UAE, the Abu Dhabi and Dubai branches of Zayed University were created in direct response to the political nightmare of reforming existing federal institutions. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology was sculpted from the desert along the Red Sea at Thuwal — about 80 kilometers north of Saudi Arabia’s second largest city, Jiddah.[6] The goal is to have a community working in a self-contained learning environment far from the madding crowd.

Even if educational reform could gather steam in wonderful new facilities, armed with bright new attitudes, the glaring lack of learning materials with culturally-appropriate, localized examples remains a critical flaw. While the stuff of science, math, and engineering is similar anywhere on earth, the same cannot be said of most liberal arts and professions, such as business. Business students in the Arab world sometimes study commercial law and uniform commercial code law based upon European examples; communications students look at how ethnic campaigns are executed in the United States and examine the history of American newspapers; architecture students learn about Bauhaus, but are woefully ignorant of wind-tower architecture. Urban planning students can gaze at derivative “master-planned communities” reminiscent of golf course suburbs in Texas.

Unfortunately, few academic administrators are interested in creating learning materials in electronic, print, or other forms. Many Western administrators, who yo-yo in and out, view a university press as a money-losing proposition. Most are unwilling to create fundamental materials. On the surface, this reluctance makes economic sense because GCC countries comprise a tiny market. Yet, such a stance makes little educational sense over the longer term. That is because the dearth of localized materials disengages students who need appropriate examples in appropriate forms and discourages development of critical thinking skills in context. Instead of spending cash on developing a vernacular voice and an intellectual infrastructure, administrators engage in pornography-of-excess “world-class” pseudo-events, which generate more media heat than academic light.

The substance of learning materials aside, sensitive (and natural) educational issues revolve around the survival of Arabic, Islam, and the local culture. Gulf Arabs are rightly worried about their children’s future. Some have fears about the cultural confusion that Westernized curricula might create and the possibility of rearing a child of two cultures, with no firm grounding in either. Educational policymakers have added to this angst by inviting American academic superpowers, such as Cornell, Northwestern, American University, and Texas A&M, to create campuses in the Arab world. Lured to the Middle East with promises of petrodollars, illusions of global prestige, and assumptions of motivated and prepared students, most of these universities have been gravely disappointed on all fronts and have scaled back their presence and programs.

These and other private pay-to-play institutions often have fancy facilities and tuitions to go along with them. They cater to the rich and to those whose employers pay the bills. Less fortunate students are doomed to substandard, rote education that does not stretch the imagination or exercise critical thinking skills. Given the choice and the ability to pay, parents always choose private school education, leaving the public system without a base of popular and political support.

This is not the pathway to happily ever after for the Arab world. The road so far not traveled suggests adapted, but not adopted, curricula in modern form and in substance, choosing the best of both Western and Arab/Islamic worlds. On a practical level, what this perspective means is developing a strong, and region-specific, intellectual infrastructure. Academic talent must be homegrown, not imported, ending the reliance on the Western university brands. Modern educational materials, developed (not merely translated) in cultural context and using pertinent examples must support locally-designed programs and courses, offered in English and Arabic. This perspective also means respect and adequate pay for teachers within the public school system; development of native colleges of education, meant to study local solutions and create fundamental studies; less dependence upon Westerners who come and go; and a system rewarding merit both inside and outside the classroom. Lastly, the pathway suggests a need for a House of Wisdom redux, founded to develop local scholarship, teaching methods, and learning materials, and providing the people of the Arab world with the possibility of a happy ending.


[1]. Kān Yāmā Kān [Once Upon a Time], translated from Arabic using http://translate.google.com/#en|ar|.

[2]. Huda, “Baghdad in Islamic History”, Retrieved on August 2010 from About.com, http://islam.about.com/cs/history/a/aa040703a.htm.

[3]. Bernadette Redfern, “Educational Reforms Will Reap Benefits for the GCC in Years Ahead,” MEED Educational Supplement (2010), http://www.meed.com/supplements/2010/gcc-education-survey/educational-r….

[4]. D.J. Brewer, C.H. Augustine, G.L. Zellman, G.W. Ryan, C. Goldman, C. Stasz, and L. Constant, Education for a New Era: Design and Implementation of K-12 Education Reform in Qatar (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007), http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2007/RAND_MG548.pdf.

[5]. Gulf Research Meeting, (July 7–10, 2010), http://grcevent.net/cambridge/index.php?page=program.

[6]. See http://www.kaust.edu.sa/about/about.html for further information.