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Education in the Gulf: The Search for a Balance between East and West

Education in the Gulf countries
Class activities for children in a school in Kuwait City, Kuwait. Photo Corbis/Anthony Asael

Oil—it can never be left out of the equation in the Gulf. Largely rural, nomadic, underdeveloped, illiterate, and poor societies became, in the blink of an eye, extremely rich. Nations were built, money was showered on the people, businesses were run, and consumerism rocketed, Western-style.The Gulf states relied largely on Western professionals and experts to develop their countries, not out of laziness but from necessity. Until the 1950s, the main purpose of education in the Gulf was to preserve and transmit traditional culture and religion. When petro-development kicked in, there were simply insufficient native human resources to do the job.

The regional leaders found that this could not go on forever, and Western-style education entered the classrooms. Half-heartedly, though, because at the same time those leaders were, and are, keen to limit the already significant erosion of national culture and traditional Islamic values.Discussions in the region about further modernizing—i.e., Westernizing—curriculums have therefore always centred on the split between Westernization and traditionalism. For some, there is not enough of the first, while for others, especially fundamentalists, there is too much. The latter feel that their schools and children have been “imperialized” enough as it is.

So far, it seems that the latter group has enough political power to maintain the status quo, in addition to the fact that the ruling families themselves are still reluctant to teach their peoples how to think critically. Self-reliance and independent thinking are therefore still subordinated to memorizing “facts” without questioning them.

In the most recent UNDP Arab Human Development Report (“Building a Knowledge Society,” 2003), Edward W. Said is quoted as saying, “It isn’t knowledge as a product or commodity we need…but a qualitatively different knowledge based on understanding rather than on authority, uncritical repetition, mechanical reproduction.” These recommendations are not only for the sake of critical thinking itself but because, outside the classroom, there are banks, insurance companies, oil companies, law firms, trading companies, and even ministries that need creative thinkers, not followers.

Apart from the mismatch between education and the market, there are other problems, including the quality of teachers. In the early days, there were simply no native teachers available; just like the oil men, they needed to be “imported.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as there is a rigorous screening and selection process, but there wasn’t, and there often still isn’t. A participant in an Internet forum in Kuwait ironically describes the situation as follows: “Do you speak English or French? Come work for our school. You are a teacher now.” He is talking about private schools; public schools have even lower standards. When asked why their English is not remotely up to academic standards, university students often reply, “because we went to a public school and our teachers were Indian or Egyptian.”

Third World teachers, who have been educated in the same tradition of memorization rather than critical thinking, go only so far in a First World economy. This is not their fault: they accept low salaries and are willing to live in countries that are often hard to live in. Many Western teachers do not, so the demand for good teachers exceeds the supply. Educating your own teachers, an obvious solution, does’t seem to work either. Gulf Arabs are not keen on becoming teachers—it is not considered a sexy profession—and faculties of education thus often have to accept students whose high-school grades were too low to get them into other, more popular faculties, such as medicine, engineering, or law.

Another problem is the students themselves, who often lack motivation. With secure government jobs, housing, health care, and easy bank loans, it is hard to find an incentive to study, let alone to study hard. To use a parallel from the development aid business, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) governments long ago decided to give their people a fish instead of a fishing rod. “We are creating a generation of young citizens so swayed by consumerism and instant gratification that they are unwilling to make the slightest effort to gain the knowledge to question what they see and hear,” wrote Mohammed Alrumaihi, a professor of political sociology at Kuwait University, in 2013 in Gulf News, an Emirati newspaper.

That is not all there is to it. There are still plenty of motivated students who do want to obtain knowledge and insight, but they are often discouraged by the fact that, in order to find a good job, it does not matter what you know, but whom you know. Wasta (connections) are still more important than grades or diplomas.

What to do? Experts from all over the world are flown in for advice. Saudi Arabia hired experts from Finland to help reform the state education system. The UAE and Qatar try to attract Anglo-Saxon educational institutions to their countries and are working, like Bahrain, on the improvement of teachers’ standards. Oman and Kuwait have similar plans.

It may work—there may be better selection criteria for teachers, the curriculums may be modernized, exams may become tests of insight rather than memorizing skills—but it remains to be seen how much resistance the religious hardliners put up, especially when it comes to public schooling (private institutions usually have more freedom to construct their own programmes). Will they ever agree on lifting gender segregation in classrooms, on more room for music, arts, and other forms of self-expression, on teaching about non-Islamic ethics, on Darwin? In 2009 a group of Saudi clerics, including educators and university professors, called the reform plans “a junta” known for “its deviant Westernizing tendencies,” which formed “the eyes and ears of the foreign enemy.”

Whether the ruling families will or will not be intimidated by clerical resistance will vary amongst the Gulf states, but modernization has not been and will not be easy, and the experts must tread with care. Money, at least, should not be a problem. Education spending over the last years has been about 20 percent of the total government spending in the GCC countries and, according to local media, will be about $150 billion in coming years.

The greatest challenge however, is probably outside the education system. The Gulf countries may seem Western, but they are not. Guaranteed jobs and Ferraris are not just signs of showing off or a means of keeping the people quiet (although it helps); they are also a tribal tradition. A powerful sheikh is supposed to take care of his people. Wasta too, has a tribal background and has been used to manage relations between families, clans, and tribes for centuries.

Copying and pasting Western best practices will therefore not be enough. Nor perhaps should it. Companies in the Gulf may need managers trained Western-style, but they also need managers who understand the art of Arab negotiation.