Hamid Osman Arab Gulf Integration within Global Cultures The Role of Universities in the AGCC Gulf and Globe 2009 Conf by pHIXRdKl



      U.S. Naval Academy Center for Middle Eastern
                   & Islamic Studies

                Annapolis, Maryland, USA 21402

              Gulf and the Globe 2009 Conference

         Wednesday-Thursday 28-29 January 2009

        Arab Gulf' Integration within Global Cultures
           The Role of Universities in the AGCC

                      Dr Hamid Osman Ahmed

             Assistant Professor of Arab Gulf Studies
              Institute of African and Asian Studies
                      University of Khartoum


                             dsmhH namsO dimaH
                       2000n o sOH nol a olO anaOfa
rl ln s nh    hlO t   ohfs hlO ln natnlH f hlO ih il inh aO flOaaO l s iln


         The main point of the paper is that the university in the AGCC countries has

great potentials for leading the region into global cultural integration, provided that

the obstacles facing it are removed.

         First, the role of the university in the AGGC and its potentials as a pioneering

institution in cultural integration is identified. Second, the obstacles challenging the

university in the AGCC are shown. Third, suggestions to overcome these challenges

and free the university in the AGGC to play the role historically assigned for it is

provided. The paper is based on a book written by the current author (Ahmed, The

Pioneering Role of Universities in the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council: the Case of

Sultan Qaboos University, forthcoming)

The Role of the University in the AGGC

         University education in the AGCC is a huge and expanding industry which has

started in the late 1950s. In her excellent annotated bibliography on the subject, El-

Sanbry (1992) described the development of education, particularly the growth of

universities, as, “the most spectacular ... and the most dramatic” process in modern

history. The university in the AGGC has many strong assets and resources that enable

it to assume a leading role in the development of the society in general and the

cultural enrichment and integration in particular. Four elements of strength are given


         To start with, the university is a respected institution within the society of the

AGCC for historical as well as current reasons. Historically, people in the region

especially intellectuals strongly believe that the Muslim and Arab civilization had

made major contribution in the world's educational and advancement. The university,

after all, has been initiated in the Arab world and the Europeans borrowed the

                                          dsmhH namsO dimaH
                                    2000n o sOH nol a olO anaOfa
              rl ln s nh   hlO t   ohfs hlO ln natnlH f hlO ih il inh aO flOaaO l s iln

institution from the Arabs. The costumes lecturers and students wear in universities

all over the world are imitation of costumes of Arabs and Arab scholars. The

university is also respected within the contemporary context of the society and state in

the AGGC. Apart from the ruling family, the university is the best institution for the

young generation to get well-paid jobs in the modern sector of the economy and gain

a high social status. University graduates have easy access to lucrative scholarships in

European and American universities where they have the chance to obtain

international knowledge, skills, and links. Upon returning with high degrees, they get

the chance to be director-generals, undersecretaries, or ministers.

       Moreover, the government provides the university with all the necessary

financial, technical, and administrative support. Thanks to the oil revenues, the

governments spend huge amount of financial resources on the university in terms of

infrastructure, academic staff, equipment, books, and training. Academic as well as

non-academic activities receive the financial resources they require. The government

recruits highly qualified national or foreign personalities to fill administrative,

academic, and technical posts. In many cases members from the ruling families

become patron of the university in the AGCC.

       Furthermore, the university has a relative advantage compared to other

institutions in the AGGC's state and society in terms of establishing and promoting

educational and cultural links with the outside world. This is expressed in exchange of

academic staff, scholarships, access to ideas, and practice of global cultural activities.

       At last but not least, the university in the AGCC has strong potentiality to play

the role of a melting pot for all cultural systems from the region itself, from the Arab

and Islamic world, and from the Western world. This element of strength is of high

relevance to our paper.

                                         dsmhH namsO dimaH
                                   2000n o sOH nol a olO anaOfa
             rl ln s nh   hlO t   ohfs hlO ln natnlH f hlO ih il inh aO flOaaO l s iln

Actual & Potential Obstacles Facing the University in the AGCC

       The university in the AGCC faces a number of obstacles that hinder it from

undertaking the role described above.

       Historically, the university is a new institution compared to other institutions

in the region such as the religious educational schools locally known as Kuttab. The

first university in the AGCC was established in Saudi Arabia in the year 1958. Sultan

Qaboos University was established in the year 1986. Thus, the traditions of a well-

established entity has not materialized yet, causing the university to appear as an

isolated and alien institution that has no strong historical grounds.

       Politically, the university in the AGCC is strongly restricted by the ruling

elite; namely an alliance of royal families, religious scholars, and tribal sheiks. The

university in the AGCC does not have the right to discuss political issues, elect

administrators, establish student unions, or engage in any political activity. In fact, the

subject on political science is either forbidden or strictly limited; other subjects such

as philosophy and sociology are highly controlled.

       Economically, the university in the Gulf does not have its own independent

financial resources because it solely relies on the government. So far this is good but

there is a potential risk in such arrangement since the governments in the AGCC

depend on highly instable commodities such as oil and gas.

       Socially, the university in the AGCC is potentially facing a problem of

unemployment for its graduates, due to the changes in the labor market and

competition from expatriate workers.

       All these are actual or potential challenges and obstacles that face the

university in the AGCC. Each of these issues needs serious investigation, by

researchers and university administrators. Below, an attempt is made to identify the

                                         dsmhH namsO dimaH
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cultural problem facing the university in the AGCC and to find the appropriate

solution for it.

Cultural Obstacles Facing the University in the AGCC

        It is the starting point of this paper that the most serious challenge facing

university education in the Gulf is that of making a balance among three competing

cultural systems namely the Arab/Islamic, the Western and the AGCC/Oman. It has

been suggested that this challenge is causing a crisis in certain universities in the Gulf

(Faheem, 1982; Salim, 1982; Saegh, 1983).

        Certain historical factors had contributed to the emergence of the three cultural

systems in the AGCCG and to their struggle to control various aspects of university


        The Arab/Islamic civilization has an established educational tradition that goes

back to the dawn of Islam in the seventh century AD. There was a strong emphasis

on learning and thinking in the teachings of Islam, a factor that had made it possible

for the Muslims, during the “Golden Age of Islam” (the eighth to the twelfth

centuries) to produce significant contribution to human knowledge (El-Sanbry, 1992).

Nevertheless, an era of knowledge stagnation followed, and continued up to the late

nineteenth century.

        Since the late nineteenth century the Gulf region has begun to utilize the

Western system of education, a system that is spreading as part of an expanding

Western civilization. Naturally, this has led to a conflict between two systems of

education, that of the Arab/Islamic and the Western. But at the same time a third

system has begun to materialize namely the AGCC/Oman. Let me elaborate on these

three systems because the relationship among them constitutes the key for

understanding the direction of the paper as a whole.

                                          dsmhH namsO dimaH
                                    2000n o sOH nol a olO anaOfa
              rl ln s nh   hlO t   ohfs hlO ln natnlH f hlO ih il inh aO flOaaO l s iln

       Advocates of Arab/Islamic system are the Islamists and Arab nationalists.

Most of their ideas have been published by organizations that maintain a strong

commitment to the ideology of Islamic revivalism (The Islamic Thought Centre,

USA) and Arab nationalism (The Centre for the Study of Arab Unity, Lebanon).

       Because the constituency of the Islamists and Arab nationalists is the Arab-

Islamic world, they considerably marginalize any sub-region or country within that

world. In other words, they are not particularly eager to look at the local educational

problems of the AGCC in order to find solutions to them. Moreover, they explicitly or

implicitly reject the West’s philosophy and methods of education, viewing any

contact with the West in this field as a form of "cultural imperialism". They openly

call that education in the Muslim world should be based solely on “Islamic

knowledge” (Rizavi, 1986 and Ahmed, 1987) and on “Arab ideology” (Debate on

Education and Arab Unity, 1979 and Abdellawi, 1992).

       The Islamists and Arab nationalists, nonetheless, advocate ideas that could

positively contribute to a healthy educational system. They, or at least their moderate

scholars, call for an educational system that protects Islamic teachings and Arab

values (Abdelgani, 1980; Bugamra, 1982). They, rightly, argue that without making

use of the Islamic and Arab values of the society, university education may produce

nothing more than alienation. Moderate Islamists and nationalists develop their

argument by suggesting that universities in the region can and should constitute the

core of an Arab and Islamic cooperation in learning as well as in other spheres (El-

Fayllali, 1990; Nasser, 1990).

       Advocates of the western system are mainly Arab scholars trained in Western

universities, particularly those who are currently resident in the West. Most of

Western scholars, with certain interest in university education in the Gulf, also belong

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             rl ln s nh   hlO t   ohfs hlO ln natnlH f hlO ih il inh aO flOaaO l s iln

to this system. In contrast to the Islamists and Arab nationalists, the Western oriented

scholars call for the adoption of Western philosophy and methods of education and

consider it as a good example to be followed.

       Indeed, radical supporters of this system advocate Westernization with little

reservation or criticism. They reject the idea of “educational imperialism" and call for

extensive “transfer of knowledge and technology” from the West to the Gulf (Mursi,

1984; Zahlan, 1988). Carrying this argument to its logical conclusion, certain writers

come up with highly pessimistic viewpoints as far as the Islamic society is concerned.

Tibi (1990) argues that deep structures of society and thoughts in the region, mainly

traceable to the influences of Islam, resist the new. When he does refer specifically to

university education, he mentions, “the socially determined backwardness of Arab

universities, the cause of which is deeply rooted in history” (ibid: 80). He argues that

the universities in the Arab world are seeking to borrow Western knowledge and

expertise of a culture which had a fundamentally different view of the nature of

knowledge. Tibi’s thought is weak because he portrays Westernization as an

experience above the reach of millions of people.

       However, the Western oriented educational system has produced sober and

useful ideas. Some of its advocates call for mutual cooperation between Gulf

universities and their counterparts in Europe and America. This could take place in

the form of training, exchange of ideas, and research partnerships (Mustafa, 1987,

1992; Price and Hiler, 1995). To some of them (Shaw 1995) if Western ideas are

presented in positive and universal terms devoid of Euro centrism, Gulf universities

are bound to benefit from their contact with Western knowledge and learning.

       The initiators of AGCC/Oman system are mainly scholars and educational

administrators from the Gulf itself. Their ideas are found in the Gulf publications such

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as the Journal of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies, Kuwait; Risalat Al-Khaleej

Al-Arabi, Qatar, Risalat Al Tarbiya, Muscat. The concentration is on the countries of

the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); the region is portrayed as a unique cultural and

educational unit. The countries of the region are called upon to fully cooperate in the

field of education (Al-Rashid, 1985). Gulf universities should dedicate their efforts to

identify local problems, and seek solutions to them. There is a strong tendency among

the advocates of this system to encourage the Gulf universities to urgently train the

nationals to replace the expatriate academics whose presence should be “temporary

and not permanent” (Musa, 1984).

An Empirical Study of Sultan Qaboos University

          The empirical study is conducted on the non-academic activities organized for

the students of Sultan Qaboos University by the Deanship of Student Affairs. A list of

events executed for a period of three years (1966-1999) is arranged and then divided

into three categories, Islamic/Arabic events, Western events, and AGCC/Oman


          The study aims at discovering the appropriate methods for handling the three

cultural systems that compete at the university campus. One question is raised: how

does the university administration deal with the problem identified above, namely the

conflict among the local, regional, and international cultural systems?

          Of the one hundred and seventy activities identified, ninety activities are

dedicated to the Western system, while forty activities are dedicated to each of the

Arab/Islam and AGCC/Oman systems. This shows that advocates of each of the

systems have been given the opportunity to practice the activities they like.

          The Western cultural activities include photography, chess, Western theatre,

fine arts, Western music, scouts, table tennis, football, handball, badminton, first aid,

                                           dsmhH namsO dimaH
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and blood donation. The Islamic/Arabic activities include eastern dancing, classic

Arabic poetry, Al Khalil bin Ahmed Al Farahidi's evenings, horse riding camps,

Ramadan religious evenings, the prophet's birthday celebration, Quoran memorization

contests, Islamic studies competition, and series of lectures by the Sultanate's grand

mufti. AGCC/Oman activities include Oman folklore bands; internal tours by History

and Archaeology Society, Omani costumes carnival, folklore exhibitions, handcraft

festivals, Oman heritage training course, community service camps, visits to

traditional irrigation systems in the regions, and visits to various institutions in


          Thus, the administration of Sultan Qaboos University has provided advocates

of each of the three systems the opportunity to practice the non curricula activities

they like in particular. As the empirical study shows, the administration has

simultaneously worked towards the integration and amalgamation of the three

systems. This is attempted by the implementation of following two methods.

          Firstly, the administration utilizes the general functions such as the cultural

forums and honoring celebrations for the integration of the three cultural systems

within the university campus. In this case, the program of the function includes

Quoran memorization, a play for Shakespeare, and a folk dance of a particular region

in Oman, the three items go side by side at one place. In certain functions a stronger

link between the three cultural trends is made. A poetry evening, for instance, may

include classic Arabic poetry, Western-influenced poetry and local AGCC/Oman


          Secondly, the university administration has established some departments that

work hard and continuously to integrate the activities of the Arabic/Islamic, Western,

and AGCC/Oman cultural trends. The Cultural Department at the Deanship of

                                           dsmhH namsO dimaH
                                     2000n o sOH nol a olO anaOfa
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Students has the capacity to amalgamate and integrate the three trends by the adoption

of numerous techniques and methods. Unlike the religious department, the cultural

department has recruited open-minded and resourceful activities officers; it has

purchased diversified cultural equipment and instruments. Students from various

trends work together and produce one joint work such as exhibition of photography or

fine arts. In one painting by one student you find Quoranic verses, symbols of

telecommunications, and a building built in local style.

The AGCC University and Global Cultural Integration

       Falling under pressure from the three conflicting educational and cultural

systems, the university in the AGCC is in danger of losing its pioneering role in

building and promoting new cultural values and practices. More seriously, it could

face violent conflicts created by the supporters of these systems. This would have

damaging effects on the university, local society and the AGCC's positive integration

within global cultures. My theoretical and empirical study on the AGCC universities

has come up with 3-pillar strategy for handling this problem. Firstly, the university

administration should defend good cultural values that have been produced, accepted

and shared by all peoples, religions, and civilizations. Secondly, the university

administration should recognize the existence of the different cultures on the campus

and the society and allow diverse cultural practices, showing no bias towards any of

the three systems whether Arabic/Islamic, Western, or AGCC/Oman. Thirdly, the

university administration should outline a plan for gradual integration of the three

systems, paving the way for the students to be cultured, open-minded, and innovative,

by the time they graduate and deal with the outside world.

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