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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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.