Excuse me, where are the Arabs?

Should a lack of Arab students at elite British universities raise concerns for future leaders being developed for Arab states?

Earlier this year I returned to London, to the London School of Economics (LSE) to complete my postgraduate degree in Politics and Communication. In between starting and finishing I was at Al Jazeera, with the last year in Doha. Returning to London, I found my eyes searching for Abayas and Thobes, staring at scantily clad and interestingly dressed men and women and of course seeking warmth in a winter that extended snowfall into April. It was quite the reverse culture shock – from the Gulf to the ‘West’, from heat to freeze and from a small city to a global one, and also leaving the world of work to become a student again. One building I spend a lot of my time in is the New Academic Building.

The New Academic building was a £71 million investment which opened in 2008. The building houses a 400 seat theatre, the second largest lecture hall at the LSE and has hosted notable speakers from Gordon Brown to Sheryl Sandberg, from Wael Ghonim to Kofi Annan. The theatre was named for Sheikh Zayed along with a  £2.5 million donation from the Emirates Foundation. As one of the largest and prominent locations on campus, my first observation when returning to the New Academic Building was… where are the Arabs? By that I mean, where are the Arab students?

Sheikh Zayed Theatre. Photo: IGC

If a prominent theatre has been named after a former ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), does this say something about the links between the LSE and UAE, is this part of an investment to raise the stature and mark the influence of wealthy Arab nations? In my classes, Arabs are largely absent. The student population is dominated by Europeans, Americans and Chinese. This concerns me, when there is such tumultuous terrain in the Middle East, this means there is opportunity for investigation and also change. This means change in the media, society as well as political structure. In the context of the US and Europe, with all but a  few economies have untouched by financial woes, should the Arab world, notably the Gulf with all its recent investments in London particularly be somewhere to be paying attention?

I looked at LSE’s latest enrolment statistics (up until the 2011-12 academic year) and what I found was not reassuring. In that year, there were 3 students from Qatar. The UAE fared much better with 40 (the UAE also has a scholarship for Emirati students to study at the LSE whereas the Qatari education ministry will fund Qataris (living expenses included) who secure places at overseas institutions). I cast the net a little wider in the Arab world :

Algeria: 2

Bahrain: 13

Egypt: 20

Iraq: 0

Libya: 1

Palestine: 4

Saudi Arabia: 10

Syria: 2

Some of these countries listed have experienced, or continue to experience conflict. If the LSE is indeed an elite institution drawing the best from all over the world, where are the Arabs?  The lack of Arabs is concerning, as is asking random students whether they know who Sheikh Zayed was, yielding not a single positive response. So who is attending the LSE? From the same year, here are some triple digit representations:

China 814

France 282

Germany 507

Russia 102

USA 962

Any flags going up here? They should be, these numbers still reflect global power realities –  measured by military. It also seems to me that there should be some shifts. The LSE, to me represents a space where leaders can be cultivated, to go out into the world with a different kind of weapon: intellectual ammunition. Considering the transitions and turmoils in the Arab world, it also represents a space where a new generation of Arab leaders could be cultivated, to then return to their countries with the fruit of intellectual tennis and not just that, the contacts of the many bright minds who will indeed go on to do great things all over the world. The LSE does have a reputation of being an elite university producing Nobel Laureates, and many prominent government and policy people. There are some wealthy Arab/Gulf countries investing heavily inside and outside of their countries in education and infrastructure but where are the students? As studying has intensified and exam season is around the corner, I’ve met one girl from Jordan and a Palestinian, but still find myself looking for someone or something just to connect back to a special world that unfortunately many of my London peers know not much about .


So, what do you think of Doha?

Why walk when you can gondola?

I’m back in Doha and have had some time to gnaw on this question for the past months absence, in addition to almost 3 months there earlier this year. To be asked this question implies some answers;

  • It’s too hot
  • It’s boring/there’s nothing to do
True, during my first weekend in Doha, I did what any ‘westerner’ does in a Gulf country: go to the mall. But this gets rather old….fast.

Good morning Doha

Yes, the mall might have its own gondola (yes really) and ice rink – not a surprise there so much and sensible considering the heat, but my answer to the ‘what do you think of’ question is’ has remained the same through all this time.  It’s not sustainable. After all, how much shopping can satiate one’s consumer appetite? The desert can be interesting but how much camel riding, sand dune- ing, quad biking can you do until the adrenalin runs a little on empty?

Qatar’s population is slightly over 1.4 million, with an estimated 800,000 ex-pats (largely migrant-workers from the Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh). There are two Doha’s really. There’s the fresh steel faced, window glazed skyscrapers

Hello steel & glass

and then there are the dusty streets, neon lit stores, a far cry from plush residences and malls. There are efforts to reinvent, reinvigorate and integrate. The downtown Souk Waqef (outdoor and projects to build a hybrid residential-cultural-markety type area in the middle of Doha, that will take into consideration city design to create wind tunnels, maximize shade, for a place that is notorious for 50 degree Celsius plus weather). As a colleague once told me, no one moves to Doha for the weather. The weather is a restriction and impediment. I haven’t (yet) experienced a Gulf summer but it is basically ferry from one air conditioned building to the next. Efforts for outdoor bike-lanes will only go so far in the ‘winter’ months. Now, add to this mix a burgeoning consumer culture, an almost invisible recycling culture, a society heavily heavily dependent on cars and you begin to see what I mean. A trip to the edge of Qatar where a spanse of water divided Qatar from Saudi Arabia was marked by garbage. Indeed even the tour guides would toss drink cans down sand dunes and hills for the magic garbage fairy to pick it up.  These seemingly small acts can add up to become larger problems. This isn’t sustainable and. Not for the environment and not for regional or global competitiveness. The solution will be to progress without sacrifice and without leaving the majority of the population behind.

Rollin’ along in my auto-mo-bile

What will it take to change? Investments in education (building education city – a complex of satellite universities and other institutions) is one way to realize and maximize human capital. With so many ex-pats, the ground is ripe for global best practices to make an appearance. Another key is not to look outside for fulfilment. Instead of ‘looking for things to do’, how about looking within. Its during the quiet times that the opportunity presents itself to cultivate within. My list is ready: begin studying Arabic again, pick up guitar and piano, again, a limited symphony culture presents an opportunity to cultivate that, a lot of opportunity to read (thank you Kindle) and of course, not only get the skates on but start coaching again.
At the end of the day, in my circles at least, people move to Doha because they believe in something that is bigger than themselves. When you enter that news room, or walk past the galleries, you feel that collective intelligence and that collective consciousness. To be surrounded by people from 51 different countries, and a team who are on that journey with you, Doha living doesn’t look so bad.


More snaps of Doha days here as well as some cool Doha-living people on that journey to follow:

Kamahl – AJE presenter; Steff – AJE meterologist; Bilal – AJE web correspondent + stand up comedian. As always, more to come 😉