Oil States Are the New Centers of Mideast Learning

For centuries, the academic center of the world lay in the Fertile Crescent, stretching from Egypt to Iraq. Institutions like Baghdad's Dar al-Hikma (a vast academic center that thrived from the ninth to the 13th centuries) and the Great Library of Alexandria produced innovations including key astronomical discoveries and the foundation of modern algebra.

Even in modern times, the relatively liberal and cosmopolitan natures of Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad made them magnets for intelligentsia. Coffee shops buzzed with debate and printing presses churned out revolutionary tracts. Schools like the American universities in Cairo and Beirut helped educate some of the area's top politicians and intellectuals, while others spawned proud anticolonial movements.

In recent years, however, war, unrest and economic malaise have caused a sharp decline in these centers, while the tiny Gulf emirates have begun using their vast oil riches to establish themselves. Western universities have started moving in, helping the new academic stars battle the old capitals for dominance.

Those old capitals are in real trouble. In 2004, Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, regional director of the U.N. Development Program, characterized traditional Arab universities as "buried in dust or smothered by ideologies." A UNDP report that year lamented that advanced research there was "almost nonexistent." Since then, the slump has only accelerated.

The war in Iraq has destroyed most remnants of academic life there. Lebanon's civil war has fractured its universities along sectarian lines and threatened learning. And Egypt's exploding population has overwhelmed its academies; Cairo University's student body, for example, has grown almost 50 times since the 1950s. The increasingly authoritarian government has also clamped down on free speech and academic autonomy.

All that has led to a massive exodus of intellectual capital. The U.N. estimates that in the past 30 years, 23 percent of Arab engineers and 50 percent of doctors have emigrated. According to UNESCO, the Arab world loses 10,000 Ph.D.s annually, a per capita rate four times greater than China's. This flight promises to wreak havoc beyond the ivory tower. The International Organization for Migration estimates Arab brain drain costs the region $1.5 billion each year in lost revenues.

The Gulf states have been happy to take advantage of this collapse. But a rearguard of academics contends that the new schools there are academic Disneylands that can't eclipse the old centers. "Intellectuals and academics don't want to live in a mall," says Osama El-Ghazali Harb, the Egyptian former head of the Arab Association of Political Scientists. "Science is more than labs. It's the people, it's the environment."

Egypt has even started fighting back, by trying to recruit U.S. universities to open campuses on its soil, too. But it's had relatively little success. "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.

Virtually everywhere, money is trumping tradition. Mariet Westermann, a former director of NYU's Institute of Fine Arts who was recently appointed vice chancellor of the university's Abu Dhabi campus, says that "historically, the smart use of financial resources has 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."

Still, concerns linger. Though many Gulf states are more liberal than their neighbors, homosexuality is still banned and Israelis are forbidden, for example. "It's always important to understand whom you are partnering with," says Andrew M. Fleischmann, a Connecticut legislator who led an official inquiry into the University of Connecticut's now stalled project in Dubai.

Yet the emirates have undeniable advantages. "If you want to look at the future of the region, you have to go to the Gulf," says Charles E. Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon's branch in Qatar.

The emirates are unapologetic about their efforts. Zaki Nusseibeh, deputy chair of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, says that "the Arab world has to accept that its future lies in the Gulf." Good news for the oil-rich new kids on the block—but real trouble for their resource-deprived older cousins.

Oil States Are the New Centers of Mideast Learning | World