Once the protests stop, who will rebuild the Middle East?

British universities need to keep their doors open to Arab students, even if they come from authorit

As regimes in the Middle East are toppled and forced to adopt reformist policies, a question appears: should we play the waiting game or work with them to help them achieve the goals for reform their protesters now demand?

With more young Arabs in UK universities and professional training schools being "called back" by their governments, we have to ask ourselves: once the protests stop, where will the future political, business and societal leaders in the Middle East come from?

The Middle East is experiencing a youth bulge of a hundred million young people. Even though many of them are educated to university level, most have never been employed due to the woeful dearth of jobs and poor investment in their economies. Those who do have jobs are largely employed in the public sector, with its low productivity, cronyism and high salaries to keep the population "onside".

As more revelations emerge of UK universities accepting funds from autocratic Middle East governments – the London School of Economics being the most highlighted example – it is important not to tar all initiatives with the same brush.

Research centres in UK universities funded by Syria and Libya passed through university decision-making boards perhaps because they ticked the "we need to engage with them to help them reform" box (and possibly the "we need to find more external funding" box). These centres should have paid closer attention instead not to fall foul of the "avoid association with regimes with a record for human rights abuses" box.

However, the notion of training future leaders in the Middle East in leadership and management skills to undertake various jobs in their home countries is a sound one and worthy of greater focus by UK universities. This door must be kept open.

Indeed, many governments and organisations in the west do the same by supporting their high-fliers through management training programmes and funding their MBAs in the hope that one day they will take up senior roles in their organisations

These courses teach not only technical skills, but also the deeper normative values that underpin them. They also help create to global networks of professionals whom they can rely on for advice and guidance throughout their career.

This is especially true with regard to students who come from authoritarian regimes. Education exchange enables the participants to observe through professional and social interaction behaviour, norms and expectations within the country they are studying in – in our case, the democratic system and the interaction between government and citizen – which can directly influence their own expectations of their own government, leaders, institutions and wider civil society.

A recent paper by Carol Atkinson shows that students who have studied overseas return home with a positive view of their host country and often use the knowledge they have gained overseas to help improve their home country.

Reform is a long, often slow process. There is no way to ensure that the participants sent on overseas training courses are not government cronies from the existing or formerly established autocratic order; nor will ethical and economic trade-offs disappear as UK universities face budgetary pressures to become more entrepreneurial and self-standing.

Bucking these questions and shutting doors, however, is not a solution. We all have a long-term interest to help ensure that young people in the Middle East have the resources and opportunities necessary to secure the inclusive societies and economies they so passionately and impressively demand.

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.