Originally posted July 2010

In an article in the Fall 2008 issue of The New Atlantic, the Doha-based Egyptian science writer Waleed Al-Shobakky, advanced the proposition that the center of creative initiative in higher education in the Arab world has shifted from the traditionally influential lands of Egypt and the Levant to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Whether such a sweeping proposition is fully warranted or not, I would argue that in the years ahead, the major center of higher education in the Gulf, if not the region, will be the UAE. The three leading emirates in this enterprise are Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. The hallmark of reform and expansion in all three cases has been Americanization, but the distinct differences in the models adopted by the three governments are in themselves instructive.

The first full chapter in this story was written in Sharjah, so let me begin with that emirate. To place this account in its proper context, I would refer to the 2003 Arab Human Development Report Building a Knowledge Society. Two central themes in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Report situate the work of Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, in a broader setting.

(1)The UNDP Report confronts directly one of the most sensitive topics in the contemporary intercultural dialogue, namely, how to account for the inarguable decline of the arts and sciences in the Arab Islamic world across several centuries. The Report deftly bypasses the debate initiated by Bernard Lewis and turns that glorious past into a motivating force for future achievements: “building the knowledge society in Arab countries [today] reclaims one of the brightest treasures of Arab history.”

(2) The second invaluable observation in the UNDP Report is that the broader cultural context is of decisive importance for the sustainability of the many promising new ventures in modernizing higher education. There must be a pre-college system in place that produces graduates capable of doing academic work at the university level, and also a civil society prepared to assimilate the graduates of these institutions into settings where they can continue to grow and to contribute their skills and knowledge to the advancement of their nations.

It is against this background that one should interpret the extraordinary work of the Ruler of Sharjah. His Highness is the most highly educated ruler in the Gulf with earned doctorates from University of Exeter and Durham University. He is also widely respected for his unquestioned devotion to Islam. This unique combination of qualities has given him the vision and the authority with which to lay the groundwork for a broad renaissance of Arab Islamic culture and science in the region.

Upon the completion of his own graduate studies, Sheikh Dr. Sultan began a comprehensive program of educational and cultural development, first for the people of his emirate and then more widely. The number of museums and other public cultural institutions in Sharjah is now just over twenty. These include an art museum that hosts a most exciting biannual exposition, a children’s science museum, a planetarium, a wildlife center that is also a center for a breeding program for endangered species, and so on. All of these institutions have been strictly local initiatives using international advisors only until they could be fully managed by the appropriate ministry of the government. Other initiatives include the annual Sharjah Book Fair, the Arab Science and Technology Foundation, and the biannual Arab drama festival for which the Ruler subsidizes playwrights throughout the region. The Ruler’s remarkable cumulative achievement was recognized in 1998 when UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Sharjah to be “The Cultural Capital of the Arab World.”

At the heart of the Ruler’s effort to lay the foundation for a renaissance of Arab Islamic culture is Sharjah University City (SUC). This was the first of the large complexes of multiple colleges and universities. This beautifully landscaped set of linked campuses opened in 1997 with the American University of Sharjah (AUS) as its flagship institution. In addition to AUS, SUC includes two campuses of the federal system of Higher Colleges of Technology, one for men and one for women, the University of Sharjah, a gender segregated institution developed in cooperation with several Canadian and US universities, a College of Fine Arts developed in partnership with the Royal Academy of Art, a Police Academy, the UNESCO Regional Center for Educational Planning, and a School of Medicine and Health Sciences undertaken in cooperation with Monash University.

SUC is unique in its combination of selectivity in admissions and the size of its collective enrollments. My estimate is that the combined enrollments in SUC are approaching 15,000. The comparable figure for Education City would be about one-tenth that number. The relevance of this observation is in the calculation of impact on the region through their respective alumni. But scale is not the most interesting factor differentiating SUC, Dohas’s Education City, and Knowledge Village in Dubai.

The strategy behind the promotion of Knowledge Village was to utilize the same model of incentives for entrepreneurial development that had been so the successful in creating Internet City and Media City. The sponsors apparently did not fully appreciate the magnitude of “sunk costs” required for the formation of comprehensive universities that incorporate the liberal arts in the curricula of their professional schools and have a substantial portion of the student body in residence.

Thus far, only a small number of institutions from abroad have tried to raise branch campuses in Knowledge Village, and, except for Michigan State University, The British University, and Herriot-Watt, they tend not to be leading colleges or universities in their own countries. Michigan State is finding it very challenging to achieve a viable level of enrollments. The most substantial resident institution is no doubt the Dubai branch of the federal Zayed University. The majority of tenants in Knowledge Village to date are, not surprisingly, online and/or for-profit institutions. (The plan is for all universities in Knowledge Village to relocate to the higher education free zone, Dubai International Academic City, in the near future.)

It should be noted that there are other colleges and universities in the emirate of Dubai that are not located in Knowledge Village. They include the London Business School, the Dubai School of Government, and the for-profit American University of Dubai.

Education City in Doha is an instructive contrast to both SUC and Dubai’s Knowledge Village. At last count, seven elite American universities have established branch colleges there. (The pattern of detaching single professional schools from discrete comprehensive universities presents a challenge in terms of forming a coherent “university” as distinguished from a collection of schools.) Although the enrollments remain modest, the profound resource commitment by the Qatar Foundation in the form of substantial subsidies and incentives to the participating institutions should assure Doha a prominent role in the years ahead as a source of highly trained elites in several professions.

Let me return now to the Sharjah narrative. AUS received full accreditation without qualification from the Middle States Association in record time for a new overseas institution. Specialized accreditations have been achieved or are in progress. AUS was the second university outside the US to have all of its engineering disciplines fully accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). The School of Business and Management is on track to receive accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). The School of Architecture, Art and Design is the first program outside the US to be accepted as a candidate for accreditation by the National Architectural Accreditation Board.

Over its first decade, the university has concentrated primarily on the development of a comprehensive set of high quality undergraduate degree programs offered by four colleges and schools. However, last year the Ruler gave the university 400+ acres contiguous with the campus for a Technology & Innovation Park. That will make possible the development of research-based graduate degrees in the sciences, engineering, and business.

The university is now governed by a self-perpetuating international board of trustees. The Ruler recently signed over to the university the ownership (entirely debt free) not only of its campus but also of the research park. This constitutes a new paradigm in the Gulf: a truly indigenous, yet fully independent Arab university conforming to the standards of best practices in US colleges and universities.

The second major center of creative initiatives in the UAE is Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi plays two roles in this story as the seat of the federal government and as the increasingly culturally sophisticated capital city. In the latter capacity, various members of the ruling Al Nayhan family have taken the lead in attracting distinguished Western universities to complement their coup in luring branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim to its shores. The Sorbonne is already operatiing. New York University is set to begin limited operations in the fall of 2010. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has also confirmed that it will begin offering research-based graduate degrees in conjunction with the science park being developed by the Al-Masdar Institute.

The story summarized in the previous paragraph highlights the significant similarities and differences between the Abu Dhabi model and the Sharjah model. Sharjah has stimulated the growth of its universities and other cultural institutions out of its own soil, with the aid of consultants from North America to be sure, but the result is an array of distinguished indigenous institutions. Abu Dhabi has used its extraordinary resources to import and seek to implant branches of Western universities and museums on its soil. The resulting educational and cultural landscapes may or may not look very much the same two generations from now, but the originating conceptual and practical differences are worth noting.

There is much more to this chapter of the story due to the fact that Abu Dhabi is the seat of the federal government. One of the most striking developments taking place under the leadership of the Federal Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research is the systematic reform and restaffing of the three principal branches of the federal system to bring them into greater conformity with US practices and standards.

One branch of the system consists of the sixteen campuses of the Higher Colleges of Technology located around the country. Over the last several years they have conducted a major recruiting campaign in the US, casting their net not only for faculty but also for senior academic administrators and chief executive officers.

Zayed University, a second branch of the system, was created to provide a more selective alternative to United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) for the most talented young Emirati women. They have from the outset appointed mainly American academics in all leadership positions. When the Middle States Association dropped US incorporation as a condition for accreditation, Zayed was in the first cohort of overseas institutions accepted as candidates for accreditation, for which they have now qualified.

The capstone of this strand of our story is the steady transformation of the national university in Al Ain. For more than a decade, UAEU has invested heavily in US consulting teams, obtaining advice from them on curricular revisions and other changes that would qualify major fields of study for accreditation by US professional associations. This has been particularly successful with business and engineering.

Read more recently, UAEU has intensified its recruitment of Americans to the faculty and to senior academic administrative positions. This process culminated in the appointment of the former provost of the University of California system as provost in Al Ain. Most strikingly, the Ministry recently announced that they will seek full institutional accreditation for UAEU from one of the US regional associations. To my knowledge, this thoroughgoing “Americanization” of a sovereign nation’s federal education system is without parallel.

In addition to the imported branch campuses and the Americanization of the federal system, efforts are also being made to develop first-rate private institutions in Abu Dhabi. The newly reconstituted Khalifah University of Science, Technology, and Research may be the most promising of these with its spectacular new campus under construction and aggressive faculty recruitment in the US.

The future is of course always contingent, but barring major political disruptions in the GCC, it would seem that the UAE is positioning itself well and comprehensively for a preeminent position in the field of higher education in the 21st century.