The politics of educational change in the Middle East and North Africa: nation-building, postcolonial reconstruction, destabilized states, societal disintegration, and the dispossessed

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter examines the system level changes and developments in education in the Middle East, focussing primarily on the relationship of education to its regional and international contexts where there is adequate information available (in some cases significant events have been happening so rapidly that scholarly information is not yet available). The argument made here is that given the political and economic instability throughout much of the Middle East (Aman & Aman, 2016; Korany, 2010) the social institution of education is a function of local and foreign contextual factors undergoing other forms of development than ‘reform’ (as it is generally understood in the West), unlike the 19th century during which many Middle East states experienced periods of educational reform (Hourani, 1991). The Middle East is is still affected by ongoing influence of World wars, colonisation, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars and disruptively high levels of modernisation and globalisation influences, perhaps more so in this region than many others globally. Barakat (1993) approaches this combination of internal and external factors as those that fall into a set of diversity and integration polarities that create the tension Middle Eastern states are coping with: unity vs fragmentation, tradition vs modernity, sacred vs secular, East vs West, and local vs national, all of which have a profound impact on educational systems and their curriculum, teaching and administration as well as the ends it is conceived to serve (e.g., Kaplan, 2006). The politics of education in the Middle East for many countries is not a matter of reform, but of other kinds of political processes in combination with international and regional forces that affect these political processes and the legacy of history that shaped their political structures, social norms and social institutions. There are five major country patterns, each of which has a corresponding structure and condition of educational system: 1) those countries undergoing rapid modernisation and multiculturation that are relatively stable states in which nation-building is well underway, characteristic of the Arabian Gulf states like Qatar (Tok, Al Khater & Pal, 2016) and the United Arab Emirates (Davidson, 2005); 2) postcolonial, revolutionary and/or post-war reconstruction characteristic of Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon (Najem, 2011; Shuayb, 2012) and Jordan (Alon, 2007); 3) destabilised states that are experiencing varying degrees of transformation and tension such as Turkey (Axiarlis, 2014) and many of those referred to as ‘Arab Spring’ states (Danahar, 2013; Lynch, 2014) like Egypt (Lacroix & Rougier, 2016) which has experienced a long history of student activism in national politics (Abdalla, 2008; 4) states that are in disintegration and human devastation like Syria, Iraq (Al-Ali, 2014; Isakhan, Mako & Dawood, 2015), and Yemen (Brehony, 2013; Heinze, 2016); and 5) the dispossessed like the Palestinians (Knudsen & Hanafi, 2011), Kurds (Allsopp, 2015; Aziz, 2011) and Syrians (Fisk, Cockburn & Sengupta, 2015; Yassin-Kassab & Al-Shami, 2016). The corresponding patterns of educational system, therefore, are the following: 1) those countries undergoing rapid modernisation and multiculturation that are stable states in which nation-building is well underway, characteristic of the Arabian Gulf states like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey (Abdel-Moneim, 2015; Abi-Mershed, 2011; Davidson & Smith, 2008); 2) postcolonial or post-war reconstruction characteristic of Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon and Jordan (Abi-Mershed, 2011; Fontana, 2016; Rohde, Dhouib & Alayan, 2012); 3) destabilised states that are experiencing varying degrees of transformation and tension including Turkey (Kaplan, 2006; Nohl, Akkoyunlu-Wigley & Wigley, 2008; Ozgur, 2012) and many of those referred to as ‘Arab Spring’ states like Egypt (Abdel-Moneim, 2015; Mohamed, Gerber & Aboulkacem, 2016); 4) education in disintegrating and devastating conditions like the identity politics of the Iraqi disputed territories (Shanks, 2015), destruction as in Syria (Glass, 2016), and Yemen (Mohamed, Gerber & Aboulkacem, 2016); and 5) the education of the dispossessed include schooling in refugee populations, as with many Syrian children in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan (Abi-Mershed, 2011; Culbertson & Constant, 2015; Demirdjian, 2011; Rhohde, Dhouib & Alayan, 2012). Understanding the developments and changes in educational systems also requires an historical perspective that extends in its most immediate effects to colonialism (Owen, 2004), the effects of late 19th century European imperialism and post-Ottoman Empire influences primarily from France and Britain (Fieldhouse, 2006) and Cold War activities (Halliday, 2005) that positively and negatively affected state and nation building. Current globalisation influences, therefore, can be seen as a continuity of foreign influences, currently mostly from the US, the UK and Russia, in combination with regional and local dynamics that create a complex regional and international assembly of factors that Jreisat (1997) refers to as ‘converging obstacles’ due to the inextricable interplay of internal and external factors. If one defines colonisation as not only the imposition of political and military power, but also the cultural shaping of ideas and imagination, as Said (1993) does, or Thiong’o’s (1986) through his notion of colonising the mind and Spavik’s (2010) ‘subaltern’ identity, then globalisation through education carries with it a recolonising effect. According to Sayigh (1991), education’s role in colonising Middle East territories provided the intellectual framing of colonised and postcolonial states as dependent and underdeveloped, which colonised the mind by dispossessing people of their own (intellectual) history, providing a foreign ideology of development that was disadvantageous to them, and has continued to conflate a positivistic approach to growth with national development that effectively alienated Middle East people’s from a societal development that preserved the integrity of indigenous social institutions. One example of this is the assumption that developing one’s educational systems requires a knowledge transfer that only travels from ‘West’ to ‘East’. Equally significant are security concerns that directly and indirectly have an impact on education, originating during the First World War, and continuing up to the present time related in part on an international level to parts of the Middle East like the Arabian Gulf which is an economic strategic location with vast oil reserves. Halliday (2005) identifies three main influences on Middle East societies that frame or shape an investigation into any aspect of society: 1) security issues internal and inter-nation; 2) overall economic decline with a rising population creating greater labour demands; and 3) an increasingly disruptive ideological atmosphere affecting internal and external relations. Complicating the development of education are also many waves of migration from Western ex-patriates moving into the Arabian Gulf for employment opportunities, Eastern European migration due to perceived life improvements, and Arab expatriates who have either moved for employment opportunities or as refugees. This produces a great cross-cultural complexity that can lead to conflicts and tensions over ideas and practices about how organisations should be structured and function. Another dimension of foreign influence relating particularly to education are schools and colleges operating on a foreign curriculum, usually American, British or Australian and many branches of Western universities throughout the region over the last several decades (Buzan & Gonzalez-Pelaez, 2009; Willoughby, 2008), affecting the development of many social institutions as well as the strong influence of Egyptian, Iranian and Iraqi teachers, faculty and administrators on many smaller countries (e.g., UAE, Bahrain). Despite the level of destabilization, etc., some educational developments in the region are quite literally astounding: in stable countries, especially in the Arabian Gulf, a rapid and extensive attendance and investment in schooling and higher education that began in the 1950s and has carried through to the present day, which however carries limitations in contributing to nation-building if modelled on an external source (Badry & Willoughby, 2016; Brown, 2000), and the heavy involvement of women, particularly in higher education in a number of countries (Kirdar, 2007). However, there are other problems such as those that are relatively minor like the ‘borrowing’ of what Donn and Al Manthri (2010) refer to as the ‘off-loading’ of failed educational experiments (or reforms) from the West to full-scale destruction and devastation in states where education has all but disintegrated.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Wiley Handbook of Global Education Reform
EditorsKenneth J. Saltman, Alexander J. Means
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages26
ISBN (Print)9781119082347
Publication statusPublished - 23 Oct 2018


  • educational change
  • Middle East education

Cite this