For many years the most influential Western cultural institution in the Arab world was the American University of Beirut (AUB). Founded in 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College, during much of the 20th century it was both an important university and a hub of intellectual and political ferment. But, the collapse of Lebanon's traditional political system, the civil war of the 1970s and the lingering crisis, the roles played by Iran, Syria and the radical wing of the Shi'ite community have all served to diminish the AUB's standing and role.
This was not the only consequence of Beirut's tragic loss of its erstwhile position as the Arab world's principal window to the West: It also relinquished its role as a financial center, home to the region's most important newspapers and a diplomatic outpost.
Beirut was in many aspects irreplaceable, and it did not have a single successor. Some of its traditional roles shifted to London, some to Amman and some to the oil- producing sheikdoms of the Gulf.
It is difficult to think of a more striking contrast - the cosmopolitan, open, liberal atmosphere of pre-civil war Lebanon, on the Mediterranean, geographically and culturally close to southern Europe, versus the traditional, conservative, semi-tribal societies on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula. But other forces at work in the Gulf states have served to blunt the contrast: unprecedented wealth, stability, willingness to open up, innovative attitudes (as long as the political order is not challenged) and a quest for assets other than wealth that would make up for small size and population, and military weakness.
Three states in particular - Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi - have taken the lead in translating oil wealth into novel assets. Their drive during the past 10 years has been fueled by the dramatic rise in oil prices and inspired by the lessons of a squandered opportunity - the failure of an earlier leaders to exploit the oil revolution of the 1970s to create permanent assets and genuine economic diversification.
Dubai's initial new effort was invested in building a major aviation hub and a financial center. Qatar took the lead in developing satellite television. Its Al Jazeera is not the only such station, but certainly the most effective one. Al Jazeera has given Qatar a new political muscle, and together with its sister channels, has transformed the nature of mass communication and access to information in the Arab world.
Next came a major effort to bring Western cultural and academic institutions - museums and universities - to the Gulf. The scope and pace of this drive are staggering. In two main clusters, Qatar's Saadiyyat Island and Dubai's Knowledge Village, and in several other locations, Western schools were invited to open branches. These have been supplemented by branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums.
The first wave of academic import to the Gulf was of a strictly professional and technical nature - some first-class and some second-tier institutions were invited to open branches and teach medicine, engineering, telecommunications and accounting, etc. This was a familiar approach, employed by the Ottomans even in the 18th century, when they tried to borrow military technology from Europe, if possible without the concomitant importing of the intellectual and ideological components of modernity.
But this has now changed, with the decision to move to a new stage and invite Western universities to open up programs of general studies in the Gulf. The most notable step in this direction was made last October when New York University and the government of Abu Dhabi announced that a full-fledged branch of NYU, a liberal arts college, would be inaugurated in Abu Dhabi in 2010.
This means that students in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and the authorities of this principality, would be exposed to the full benefits and demands of a major American university and liberal arts education - admission standards, academic freedom and a curriculum that includes the Christian and Jewish dimensions of Western civilization.
This is an important experiment for both parties. Its failure would be embarrassing; its success could signify the emergence of a novel approach to modernization in the Arab world.
How should Israelis view this new trend? Some are fearful that the new relationships of Arab states with American and European universities and the financial stakes involved would be used to enhance Arab influence and anti-Israel sentiment in academe. There are precedents to substantiate such fears. But this does not seem to be the case now. Aside from the institutional values of a school like the highly respected NYU, it is important to note that the Gulf elites are less preoccupied with Israel and more concerned with imminent threats to their security, primarily the Iranian challenge. It's true that a failure to modernize has weakened the Arab world, and has in part enabled the small Israeli state to stand up against the much larger Arab collective. But the flip side of the failure to modernize has been the persistence of values and attitudes that have contributed to the inability of successive efforts to terminate the conflict.
Israelis, then, have a stake in the long-term effects that liberal arts education would have on the region. The transition from conflict to peace requires, among other things, the need to abandon the mentality of a zero-sum game. From that vantage point, the arrival of genuine liberal arts education in the Arab world's eastern part is good news for Israel as well.
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's former ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with Syria, is the Ettinger Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University. On sabbatical from TAU, he is also a Distinguished Global Prof at NYU.
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