• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Dilemmas of Partnerships in the Arab World

Arab universities, regardless of their resources, are no longer interested in being cash cows in exchange only for the privilege of being associated with a prestigious foreign university.

November 29, 2015

At the beginning of the “Arab Spring“ many were optimistic that this might bring about the long awaited meritocracy to Arab societies and position the young and (especially women) so that they could exert influence. With the exception of Tunisia that, despite continuing assaults on civilians, is celebrated as a somewhat successful example of the so-called revolution, most Arab countries not only retain their rigid structures of oppression but the grip has tightened. Egypt has gone full circle and along with other countries in the region contains students through archaic traditions such as the government appointing the leadership of every public university and reserving the right to sack any top university administrator at will. Bearing in mind that Arab youth forms the great majority of the population in the region with an average age of 28, the future of the Arab world depends on whether their talents can be developed and if employers will hire future employees on the basis of merit. If higher education can be a force for changing societies for the better, students must have the chance to shape the institution and influence who works there through regular evaluations.

It would not be fair to paint a completely gloomy picture of the region even though what prevents universities from excelling is primarily systemic and consistently results in mediocrity at the leadership level. Nevertheless, initiatives like the King Abdullah Scholarship Program have produced results that have moved Saudi youth beyond the past limitations of gender, hierarchy, royalty or religious tendencies. The cohorts of students who enrolled in the Netherlands (for example) during the years since the program was initiated were truly diverse, selected and supported without bias or preference. Sending students all over the world surely relieved the pressure on the Saudi higher education system while at the same time benefiting the Kingdom’s reputation.

Against this background it might not look very appealing for foreign universities to engage with university partners in the Arab World, but the potential for successful partnerships is great in the long-term. Euro-Arab universities often founder on issues of miscommunication and cultural difference. It takes tremendous patience and persistence to understand cultural intricacies, especially at government level. Managing expectations is key.  Long waits for what might seem to be straightforward oral agreements to be put into writing are not uncommon. And in times of geopolitical upheaval ministries move even slower. In essence, it can be an exhausting exercise to reach a partnership for research cooperation, exchange or capacity building.

Communication—typically done by email in Europe, the US or Canada—in the Arab World is most effective in person, or at least by phone. Decision-making processes and the execution of projects also differ substantially. International universities often feel their efforts to move things forward have fallen into a void, where schedules flounder with unanswered. Arab universities that maintain momentum, even after the first MoU has been signed, are unfortunately, the exception.

The frustration over the seemingly unprofessional attitude on the Arab side is often the result of the opportunistic and short-term approach of international universities, many of whom see partnerships with wealthy Arab institutions primarily as a source of additional funding. But Arab universities, regardless of their resources, are no longer interested in being cash cows in exchange only for the privilege of being associated with a prestigious foreign university. A thorough preliminary assessment of the partnership is indispensable to match potential partners appropriately in quality and scope and minimize risks, but a long-term commitment is essential to build significant relationships.

Successful partnerships with Arab universities require that the international partner offer value in exchange for funds. Too many universities look for a quick win and fail to keep the long-term strategic potential of the region in mind. Arab universities want genuine collaborations, requiring international universities to be flexible and allow faculty not only to engage in capacity building but also to find creative ways to enhance partnerships. This requires a significant investment of time when, unfortunately, most academic staff are preoccupied with publishing pressures.

Hence, to reap the fruits of partnerships, putting researchers in charge may not be the best policy. Academics may spark collaborations into life and sustain the bond, but often they do not have the time or the skills to meet the administrative challenges. Projects need dedicated team members with regional expertise, who understand how to connect academic excellence and international outreach in mutually beneficial relationships.

A successful example is the Middle East Leadership Research Centre in Sharjah launched by the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge in 2014 with the goal of filling a void in case studies about Arabian businesses instead of teaching only about Western companies. Another successful venture is Cambridge’s Centre of Islamic Studies, whose mission is to translate its research for policymakers and the public addressing questions facing communities in the Islamic world and abroad. These cross-cultural bridges are based on genuine two-way engagement with institutions in the region.

Talented students in the Arab world, including a growing number of women, are increasingly seeking opportunities to excel in local universities at a time when Arab countries are becoming more deeply entrenched in the region’s conflicts, putting socioeconomic stability at risk. This makes the case for long-term cooperation with international universities stronger still. Universities should play a crucial role in times of change and take a leading position in shaping societies in collaboration with local partners, well beyond the comfort zone of political leadership.


Guest blogger, Tijan Ramahi, has been building bridges between Arab higher education and international universities for almost a decade. His consulting company, ArabEu, is based in London. 


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