For a change, good news from Arabia:Bernd Debusmann

ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Good news is a rare commodity in the Middle East but here’s a slice of it: for the first time in their history, the rich countries of the Arab Gulf are setting aside more money for education than for arms.

Saudi students attend a computer class at King Saud University in Riyadh October 30, 2002. Good news is a rare commodity in the Middle East but here's a slice of it: for the first time in their history, the rich countries of the Arab Gulf are setting aside more money for education than for arms. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia alone are planning to spend more than $22 billion on ambitious projects to close the knowledge gap with the West.

Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, the other countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are also spending sizeable sums on education.

Total spending on educational projects exceeds the $20 billion in arms sales from the United States to the countries of the GCC now under discussion.

That order of priorities -- more money for knowledge than for military hardware -- highlights a quiet revolution in an area once described as a “scientific desert.”

The label, in a U.S. scientific publication, stung as much as a devastating 2002 report by the United Nations Development Program, written not by Western scholars but by Arab experts.

They portrayed the Arab region as living in isolation from the world of ideas and lagging behind the rest of the world on virtually everything, from education to respect for human rights and on the status of women.


One week this October provided a snapshot of the way things are changing, thanks to a mix of great ambition, extreme wealth, and a desire to outshine your neighbor.

In Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s minister of higher education, Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak al Nahayan, presided over a “Festival of Thinkers” that brought together 16 Nobel prize winners and intellectuals from around the world with students from the UAE and other Gulf countries.

In neighboring Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah laid the cornerstone of a $2.7 billion research university which will break with rigidly enforced taboos -- men and women will study in the same classrooms and women will be allowed to drive on campus, which will be off-limits to the religious police.

There has been no official announcement on the size of the endowment.

But it will likely match the $10 billion Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the UAE Prime Minister, announced in May “to build a knowledge-based society throughout the region and enhance the standing of scholars and intellectuals in the Arab world.”


The 160-odd international thinkers who met in Abu Dhabi had hardly left when Arab scholars and experts gathered for a Knowledge Conference in Dubai, the flashier and better-known of the UAE’s two major cities, to promote education.

Sheikh Mohammed announced plans to re-establish the Arab House of Wisdom, a learning institute that flourished in Baghdad in the Arab world’s golden age, from 800 to 1500 AD.

“It’s well worth remembering,” said one of the participants in the Abu Dhabi conference, “that if the Nobel committee had existed 700 years ago, most of the prizes would have gone to Arab scientists.”

Arabs established the world’s first universities and hospitals. Scientific discoveries ranged from algebra to optics. The decline of Arab civilization in modern times can be measured by the number of Nobel prize winners: Of the 750-odd prizes awarded since 1901, only five have gone to Arabs.

(Ahmed Zewail for chemistry, Najib Mahfouz for literature, and Anwar Sadat, Yasser Arafat and Mohamed ElBaradei for peace, in different years).

During the Golden Age the language of science was Arabic much as English is today -- even in key Arab universities, such as the UAE’s Higher Colleges of Technology. English will also be the language of instruction at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

The push for modern education is a far cry from the Koran-based learning-by-rote model and the narrow thinking which gave birth to the extremism that led 19 Arabs -- including 15 Saudis and two from the UAE -- to crash airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and murder more than 3,000 people.

While those driving the education train see it as the start of an Arab renaissance, religious conservatives see an assault on traditional values. But social changes are happening so fast, it is difficult to see how they could be stopped or reversed.

In the UAE’s Higher College of Technology women outnumber men -- 10,000 to 8,000 -- and judging from the panel discussions they took part in at the Festival of Thinkers, many see the degrees they are studying for as passports to more freedom.

“This is a genie you cannot stuff back into the bottle,” said one. Similarly, will the co-ed women attending King Abdullah’s planned university be content to return to the regimented life outside the campus walls? Not very likely.

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. You can contact the author at