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12 May 2011

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

By Zamila Bunglawala

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.

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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.