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The ABCs of Iraqi Education

By Lee Hudson Teslik

SULAIMANI, IRAQ – In a compound guarded by gun-swinging, camo-clad Kurdish police, a small group of Iraqi students is trying to recreate the American college experience.

I’m sitting in on classes at the American University of Iraq, which just this academic year opened its doors in a relatively calm corner of southeastern Iraqi Kurdistan, in the city of Sulaimani. For the first wave of undergrads, today is test day. The most advanced group at the university faces its first exam in introductory political science.

I glance at the test.

Question #3: Do you agree or disagree that Iraq in 2003 was a good candidate for successful democratic transition? Why or why not?

You get the sense the stakes here are higher than who makes honor roll.

The university, which students and staff know as AUI-Sulaimani or AUI-S, is the brainchild of Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Barham Salih. Funding flows primarily from the Kurdish regional government. The purpose of the place, the teachers say, isn’t to teach any specific ideology, but to expose Iraqis to Western teachers and a Western classroom environment focused on critical thinking and academic inquiry. The word relativism pops up a lot. Often the teachers pose questions without clear answers.

This differs sharply with the existing academic model in Iraq, which focuses on rote memorization, particularly in English classes. “They only teach you some rules, grammar rules, and you use it in the exam just to pass, not to learn English,” says Bayad Jamal, one of the students taking the political science exam. By contrast, Jamal says, the teachers at AUI-S “make you think.”

The emergence of AUI-S and other like-minded schools in the Middle East presents a compelling policy opportunity the United States has yet to fully seize upon as it works to improve its image in the region. That’s a missed opportunity. A variety of factors, from the comparative weakness of local academic institutions, to a swelling Middle Eastern youth population, to the increasing difficulty of obtaining visas to study in the United States or Europe, make the moment particularly ripe for Washington to embrace pedagogical diplomacy.

A shift toward institutions styled after the U.S. liberal arts model is already afoot across the Middle East. The longtime standard-bearers, the American Universities of Beirut and Cairo, have recently been joined by newer institutions Jordan, Morocco, and two in the United Arab Emirates, in Sharjah and Dubai. A third UAE school is on the way: a joint venture in which New York University will essentially duplicate itself in the Abu Dhabi desert, with Emirates funding. Saudi Arabia recently took on a massive project to build a university fashioned after MIT, a little outside Jeddah. The school’s planners say Saudi religious police will be banned from the premises and that men and women will be permitted to study side by side. (Achieving this apparently required seeking direct funding from the national oil company, Aramco, and convincing King Abdullah himself to overrule the Saudi education ministry.)

The United States should embrace these projects—and, in some instances, help support them financially—not out of charity so much as self-interest. To its credit, Congress apportioned a loan of a little more than $10 million to AUI-S, but it is notoriously hard to convince policymakers to invest more sizeable sums in soft-power initiatives like overseas education. Yet the arguments in favor of such funding are compelling, even in purely economic terms.

A more liberal educational model might not sway hard-line radicals, but it presents a way to connect with the broader Middle Eastern population, many parts of which resent Washington and express mixed feelings about militant Islam. Unlike the radicals, this group holds a stake in their region’s economic future. And whatever else they think about the United States, for the most part they still equate American universities with opportunity.

If, by emulating a liberal arts model, Middle Eastern institutions can produce capable graduates ready for integration into the international workforce, they will help alleviate poverty, isolation, and other factors that lead young people into militancy. This in turn will facilitate increased oil production, particularly in Iraq, and will lower geopolitical risk assessments across the region, lifting a major anchor on Middle Eastern equity markets. The economic benefits of such a blossoming would reach well beyond the region itself, and certainly would be felt in the United States.

The private sector can also capitalize on the popularity of U.S.-styled academic institutions. Energy companies in the United States bemoan a dearth of qualified petrochemical engineers. By recognizing the mutual gains to be had from building academic institutions, particularly in Arabic-speaking countries, they can help solve this problem. One of the primary long-term goals of the Saudi and Iraq universities is to help fill the engineering gap. Saudi Aramco has taken notice. Will Exxon?

Finally, on the most basic level, the presence of western faculty in the Middle East provides an aspect of human interaction that should not be discounted. On my flight out of Sulaimani, I sat next to a British engineering contractor who told me about the “bubble formation” in which he and his security detail drive around Iraq. They never stop for checkpoints, he says, because they don’t know whom to trust. If an Iraqi officer tries to stop the convoy with force, they will open fire and drive straight through. Being hesitant to stop at a strange checkpoint is perfectly understandable. But so, too, is the kind of bitter sentiment that such a “bubble” mentality can spawn.

Education alone can’t pop that bubble; AUI-S is still tiny, and prohibitively expense for most students. Nor will educational diplomacy succeed, period, unless it comes alongside material improvements in infrastructure and security. Yet for all the caveats, it’s still well worth noticing the efforts currently underway in these classrooms in northern Iraq.

Lee Hudson Teslik is assistant editor for CFR.org at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Comments (6)


If, by emulating a liberal arts model, Middle Eastern institutions can produce capable graduates ready for integration into the international workforce,...(quote)

Why only "workforce"? A really uninspired goal for offering to internationalize the Middle East.And not a word said about what cultural assets those students may have to offer us, the mostly marauding "internationalists" that we are.

Robert Baker:

Fabulous! For our own Nation’s security we need to maintain a military presence in Iraq (we may have to contain Iranian and other fanatic terrorists for the foreseeable future there rather than on our streets here at home); but it should also be buttressed by education of the people there to encourage basic human rights. Such an educational model, as Anderson and others at the University have established, must be encouraged. In my field of science it is also important to stress the inquisitive analytical minds of the Iraqis in math and science in order for the Muslim world to reassert their scientific heritage.


Clearly you have to have it all: capture the criminals, kill the jihadists and offer a better life though education to the rest. The US can do the second and help do the third. But most of it is up to the Iraqis


Stop invading and destabilizing places like Iraq if you want lower oil prices.


Better to fund colleges than to keep pouring money into weapons and millions of military dollars. I guarantee you will get more for your money.


All this education is well and good. But the author must have his political blinders on if he thinks that American taxpayers would fund colleges in oil-rich Arabia.

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