Is the Gulf the new heart of academia in the Middle East?

Universities in the Gulf are increasingly attracting scholars and staff from across the Arab region and beyond. What are the main pull factors? And how is this shifting the knowledge centres of the Middle East?

November 13, 2023
The bicycle peloton rides around in Doha, Qatar. To illustrate the movement of scholars into Gulf countries.
Source: Getty Images

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In August, Neha Vora gave up her coveted role as a tenured professor in a US liberal arts college for a job at a university in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates.

The anthropologist, who specialises in the Middle East, had worked at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania for more than 10 years and had become increasingly frustrated by students’ lack of curiosity about her subject area.

“It was very difficult for me to get enough interest…to even fill classes on the Middle East,” she says, adding that her last effort resulted in a class of only eight students. She often ended up designing “generalised” courses, such as “An introduction to cultural anthropology” instead.

But it was not just that frustration that drew Vora to the Arab world, where she now works as an anthropology professor at the American University of Sharjah. She says US academia has a dearth of intellectual community and mentorship in Middle East scholarship. And despite being a professor “at the highest level”, she had found it hard to sustain herself financially in New Jersey, where she lived.

Now, with a position in the region of her research, she is excited about the prospect of carrying out fieldwork all year round – her teaching duties had previously limited her research time and travel to the summer holidays. She says universities in the Gulf are already assigning research in areas that she is interested in – a welcome change, especially after years of hunting for external travel and research grants.

Vora is not alone in having been won over by the Middle East’s universities. For a variety of reasons, scholars like her are taking up academic posts in the Gulf region. Some want to research and teach in their region of expertise; others value the reframing of Western-centric scholarly narratives. Still others are moving from neighbouring countries in pursuit of economic stability or to escape political turmoil.

This movement of scholars into Gulf economies such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar reflects shifts in knowledge systems and economic growth; highlights the strength of diverse classrooms; and underlines the complexities of academic freedom.

Vora says that even the narrative around the kinds of scholars who are attracted to the region has changed. Previously, it was assumed that the only incentive for academics to move to the Gulf was money, or there was a perception that one was a “not-so-good scholar”, she says.

“As these institutions organically developed, the students challenged the institution for the things that they wanted, like diversity of offerings and more localised offerings. And the faculty also started changing because, I think, the recruitment processes became much more [led by] academics. The jobs became much harder to get; they became very attractive jobs.”

While Vora is a recent transplant to the region, political scientist Mehran Kamrava has been teaching and researching in the Gulf for more than a decade and a half.

A professor of government at Georgetown University Qatar, Kamrava says he moved to the region in 2007, two years after writing a book about the Middle East.

“I thought I knew the Persian Gulf. And then I came here, and I realised I didn’t really know the Persian Gulf, which is the new heart of the Middle East,” he says, adding that he has enjoyed studying his area of expertise “from within”.

“It’s one thing to sit in an office in Los Angeles or London or Paris and write about the Middle East. It’s something quite different to be here and to write.”

Kamrava, who trained and worked at top institutions in the US and the UK, says universities in the Gulf region have also become “beneficiaries” of academics from elsewhere in the Middle East. And while academia in the region has always been diverse, he says, political strife and economic crises have “changed the formula” of why people are moving to the Gulf states.

“There is an old Arab saying that Egyptians write, Lebanese publish and Iraqis read,” he says.

“Now, you know, Egyptians writing…they can’t necessarily. Today, if you write, you’re in the cross hairs of the government. The publishing industry in the Arab world is still based in or concentrated in Lebanon, but there are major economic issues there. And the Iraqis, you know, they’re worried about a civil war [and can’t] necessarily [afford] the luxury of reading.”

As a result of this turmoil, he suggests, there has been a shift in the knowledge centres of the Middle East. The prosperous Gulf states, with their social and political stability, offer a nearby option for regional scholars who feel the need to leave their home countries, Kamrava explains.

In her analysis of Lebanon, Hana El-Ghali, senior education specialist on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at the World Bank, confirms that the country’s academics are leaving for destinations such as the Gulf. She blames low pay and a paucity of research support, sabbatical leave and other benefits as push factors.

“This brain drain will directly impact the quality of education [in Lebanon], given that some of the most qualified faculty members were among the first ones to leave,” El-Ghali predicts.

As for academics who remain in the country, they face “additional pressure” to teach at several universities for economic reasons. This leaves “little time for other much-needed professional development and research, let alone student support”, according to El-Ghali.

Many universities in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries were founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (although the oldest – Egypt’s Al-Azhar University – dates back to AD970). In contrast, universities in the oil-rich economies of the Gulf are relatively new, having been established with government investment in recent decades.

Roozbeh Shirazi, an associate professor in comparative and international development education at the University of Minnesota, says the increased investment in higher education by these countries is perhaps part of a bigger vision for economic development and a “signalling” to the world that the Gulf states want to move beyond commodity export-driven growth.

Shirazi compares this image-building in higher education to the pursuit of international football stars by countries such as Saudi Arabia. Just as the nation’s universities are attracting top talent from the region and beyond, its football league – the Saudi Pro League – has drawn in the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, and Lionel Messi was offered an eye-watering sum to join them, although he declined.

“Given the speed and the compressed nature of economic growth and national development in the Gulf states, being able to project a particular kind of image is also very important to say: ‘It’s not only oil that we should be known for; we’re also investing in entertainment, we’re also investing in education,’” Shirazi says.

Alexander Farley, program associate for the Middle East Program at the US-based Wilson Center, says that the Gulf nations’ spending on higher education also attracts private investment and paves the way for other specialised institutes and satellite campuses.

“The highly market-oriented nature of higher education in the Gulf also allows it to make stronger ties to industry, improving overall job prospects,” he adds.

Another lure of teaching in the region is the diversity of the classroom, with some scholars reporting that the Gulf’s universities have classes with the broadest range of students they have ever taught and a cosmopolitan environment that is hard to replicate. These views are backed up by the latest Times Higher Education data: the UAE’s University of Sharjah has the highest international outlook pillar score among all institutions in the world (the metric measures institutions’ share of international students, staff and co-authored research). Other high scorers include the UAE’s Abu Dhabi University and Khalifa University, and Saudi Arabia’s Alfaisal University.

But while student bodies at universities in the Gulf may be highly multicultural, some will wonder about the scope that scholars have to teach arts and humanities subjects freely in nations without democracies.

“There is this pervasive assumption that if you teach in a non-democratic setting, then necessarily what you’re teaching is constrained,” adds Georgetown Qatar’s Kamrava. Contrary to this, the politics expert says he feels that he works in a “very free and unfettered” environment in the branch campus.

Georgetown University Qatar opened in 2005, and since then successive generations of alumni have been entering mainstream Qatari society, Kamrava says. “What are the consequences of these alumni who have been trained in critical thinking? What is the role of those alumni in Qatari society? That’s a question that can only be answered over time,” he observes.

Farley also says that censorship has not been cited as a barrier to work in his conversations with academics in the region. He suggests that this may be because the Gulf nations’ interest in attracting highly qualified academics “outweighs the political suspicion of higher education found in other countries in the MENA region”.

In other MENA countries with longer histories of higher education, academic appointments have often been in response to political unrest – for example, “political spoils” following student unrest that threatened the state, he says.

Compared with this, the Gulf region can be a “clean(er) state”.

“Arab academics may already be comfortable with a degree of censorship, especially if their positions are better protected,” he adds. 

Ilyas Saliba, a political science researcher at the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute and one of the scholars behind the annual Academic Freedom Index, notes that there are different levels of academic freedom across the region, with the Gulf states scoring lower than their neighbours on the scale from 0 to 1.

“If we take a look at the 2022 scores in the Academic Freedom Index, we observe great disparities between the countries of the region, ranging from the top performers like Tunisia (0.71), Lebanon (0.63) and Morocco (0.58), to Egypt or Syria, scoring below 0.1,” he says.

“Interestingly, the Gulf states – which are a destination for many academics in the region seeking better working conditions – score worse than other countries. Saudi Arabia (0.06), the UAE (0.12) and Qatar (0.12) all receive very low scores.”

Scholars say that some sensitive topics to teach and discuss in the Gulf include sexuality, as well as the rights of migrant workers and Bidoon people. But Vora challenges this country comparison of academic freedom. While it may be easier to teach about sexuality in the US than in the UAE, scholars in the US may still face repercussions for teaching on Palestine, she says.

Although it might be argued that rules are different for foreign branches of Western universities and national universities, Kamrava insists that irrespective of red lines, a classroom still “instils critical thinking”.

“What is important is the magic that transpires in the classroom, whether you’re in Cambridge or Oxford or Alexandria, Egypt, or Doha, Qatar,” he says. “That magic transpires when a light goes on in the student’s head and you see it.”

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