The new Arabists: After the Arab Spring life is very different for UK students in the Middle East


The Arab spring affected the lives of millions in the region. For better or worse, the downfall of dictators happened and the consequences are there to see. The real effects of such an upheaval will always be far-reaching for the people who live in these countries, butt one area that hasn’t been discussed is where it leaves the UK's students of Arabic.

For the record, this article is not about worrying about how much fun some middle class British kids might not get to have on their year out; rather, it's more that the upheavals have had big consequences for those of us studying Arabic.

The instability means that British universities can no longer send their students to study in the countries that traditionally they might have – Egypt or Syria – and now those students from a number of UK universities are being sent to "safer" countries - for me that was Morocco.

However the Arab spring might have changed your perception of this part of the world – maybe it's confirmed your suspicions about hard-handed rulers or maybe it’s shown you that democracy is an inalienable human right and which all people are willing to fight for - the next few decades of Middle East experts and foreign correspondents will be coming away with a very different – and for many the first – experience of the Arab world.

For the students of SOAS, ever stereotyped as self-righteous freedom fighters for the Palestinian cause, the university’s continuing student delegates to Nablus in the West Bank will continue, but for others, now finding their plans for a year discovering backstreet Cairo bars have been replaced with the rather more tourist-savvy swindlers of Marrakesh and the administrative calm of Rabat, the issues that come up in conversation – whether in class or accosted in a café – will now be focused on the questions of Berber rights and whether the Western Sahara will ever be a free state.

Because of this, it's not hard to see a previous news focus on Egyptian politics and what we can sell to the Gulf monarchies taking a turn toward the weekly protests that happen in Laayoune, Western Sahara’s (or Moroccan Sahara’s - if the secret police is reading) main city, where the Moroccan authorities are known for their brutality towards the Saharawis.

Maybe we will hear more about the media blackout that the Moroccan authorities seem to have pulled off so well in the Western Sahara, a region often referred to as "Africa’s last colony", which has been ruled by Morocco since colonial Spain’s departure. Maybe a new generation of Middle East journalists – less enamored with the old world – will now bring a new passion to these human rights stories. The question of why we can’t talk about the Moroccan king’s health or take pictures around Laayoune might find their way to international news pages.

Our general acceptance that absolute monarchies are majority supported and good for Jordan and the Gulf states might start to be challenged as our students see the underlying unrest and state silencing techniques. Morocco has a free press some will yell, well, that’s true – unless you’re talking about the king or the Sahara or generally being a bit mouthy.

Of course, should the universities take a new decision and start sending their students to the Gulf the effect might be entirely different. Then our politicians might feel the real media pressure to stand up for Bahraini protesters or to take a look at the huge arms deals we constantly push for with repressive monarchies – a story ever relegated to the business pages and reduced to questions of BAE stocks.

The North Africa – Gulf divide would also come to light in women’s rights; returning from the Gulf you’d more likely to take the view that the headscarf is a tool for repressing half the population; from the Maghreb you’d see that covering your hair or not is about as controversial as wearing a hat.

It’s undoubted that where our media chooses to cover affects our views and how important we see an issue to be. If, in the not-too-far off future, the people we look to guide us around an ever confusing region start to tell us about issues they are passionate about that are relatively uncovered, it’s not unreasonable to predict our interest and appetite for those subjects to go up, for our international focuses to move and a more varied perspective to enlighten us.

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