Britain faces dearth of home-grown Arabists

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The Independent Online

Even before Lawrence of Arabia led Arab forces to victory against the Ottoman empire, Britain has always provided world experts on the Middle East. But now the intelligence and diplomatic services are facing a recruitment crisis because few British graduates are fluent in a Middle Eastern language or experts in the region's politics and cultures, an eminent group of academics and experts say.

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, and the military action in Afghanistan and Iraq the demand for graduates with skills in Middle Eastern languages has never been greater, experts from the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (Brismes) say. British intelligence services try to recruit 20 speakers of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu and Pushtu a year. But they find it difficult to recruit enough experts, who need not only to be UK citizens but to also have a good knowledge of the politics and culture of the region.

University Middle Eastern studies departments provide a pool of recruitable linguists, and in-house language courses for staff at GCHQ, the intelligence service's main listening post. They seek a multimillion-pound investment to fund new academic posts and to support young postgraduate students who will form the next generation of experts.

After a meeting at the Foreign Office in the summer of 2002, the group is now lobbying MPs and peers in an attempt to make them aware of the crisis facing Middle Eastern studies in the UK as the present generation of experts heads toward retirement. The society says Britain could lose the enormous advantage it has enjoyed over the rest of the world in Middle Eastern studies because of its historical involvement with the region.

The volume of documents and archive material on the Middle East held in the UK is superior to that in any other European country and some fields are superior to those held in the US or even in the region itself.

The experts say the key area for action was at post-graduate level because that level of expertise was needed to become an effective adviser or commentator. But they also called for more non-European languages to be taught in schools, financial incentives for undergraduates beginning "less commonly taught" languages at university and for better funding for post graduates who specialise in the Middle East.

Applications for post-graduate courses in Middle Eastern languages have shot up since 2001 but the proportion of UK students is small, and diminishing. Although there are 737 postgraduate students studying Islamic and Middle Eastern studies in the UK at present, only 12 of those who received funding were British.

In a report for MPs, Carole Hillenbrand, professor in Islamic history at Edinburgh University, warned that the crisis would become acute over the next five to 10 years as the present specialists retire. She called for "positive financial discrimination in the national interest" to award more grants to researchers studying the Middle East.

"Urgent steps should be taken to encourage home-grown UK students to do research," she said. "Undergraduate numbers are increasing dramatically in the wake of recent world events. But we are failing at the post- graduate level to produce the next generation of specialists in the universities. There are 300 million native-speakers of Arabic across 20 countries but the language is taught at only 12 UK universities.

Hebrew is studied at eight institutions, Persian at six and Turkish at five. Other relevant languages such as Pushtu, Berber, Kurdish and the Turkic languages of Central Asia are not taught by UK universities.

Brismes was founded in 1973 to bring together diplomats, teachers, academics, students and others who work with the Middle East.

Clive Holes, professor of contemporary Arab world studies at Oxford University, said: "There is a strong demand for graduates with Middle Eastern language skills and area-studies knowledge in the UK intelligence, diplomatic and military services, particularly in the area of Arabic, which is not being met. The main structural problem here is that those employed have to be British nationals. We do not produce enough British graduates with the requisite detailed knowledge of the Middle East and Arabic language competence."

There were more than 40 applications for the 10 places on the Oxford post-graduate course in Middle Eastern studies last year, Professor Holes added. But only six were from British students, and 29 came from the United States.

In a written submission to MPs, Tim Niblock, director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic studies at Exeter University, says: "The Middle East, and the wider Islamic world, is not just 'a region' among other international theatres in which Britain needs to operate. Its significance for Britain puts it in a different category than most parts of the world."

He says the small number of British students taking PhDs on Middle Eastern topics was extremely disappointing. Britain was fortunate to have ethnic minorities from the Middle East who could use their cultural and linguistic knowledge as a basis for in-depth study of the area.

"Yet it is a poor reflection on British society if the only parts of the population prepared to devote themselves to the region are those who have a family link with it. Most new Middle East studies posts in Britain are not being filled by British people. Again, this has its value: we are taking advantage of the best expertise in the world. But it suggests a failure on the part of British society to look outwards."


The state of Middle East language teaching in the UK.

ARABIC: Taught at 12 universities: Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, SOAS, Durham, Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, St Andrews, Birmingham, Salford and Westminster

HEBREW: The main places in which Hebrew is taught are Oxford, Cambridge, SOAS, University College London, Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester

PERSIAN: Taught at six universities: SOAS, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Manchester and Edinburgh

TURKISH: Taught at five institutions: Oxford, Cambridge, SOAS, Durham, Manchester and Edinburgh

SYRIAC: Taught at Oxford and Edinburgh

Pushtu, Berber, Kurdish and the Turkic languages of Central Asia are not taught in the UK.