The ACRPS’ Marwan Kabalan delivered the opening remarks at the first annual Gulf Studies Forum, slated to become a regular, recurring event on the Arab Center’s calendar. In his remarks to the audience, Kabalan pointed out that the Forum grew out of a pressing need recognized by scholars across the Gulf Cooperation Council for a venue for scholarly discussion on the Gulf states. Crucially, said Kabalan, such a venue needed to have “a modicum of freedom of expression”. Kabalan used his remarks to illustrate the variety of challenges which the Gulf states were coming to face. These include the growing uncertainty of military security due to the withdrawal of US forces from the region, and the economic challenges posed by unconventional hydrocarbons resources. In addition, Kabalan pointed out, there was also a “wide sense of disenchantment” over the experience of educational institutions and their products across the Gulf.
The first panel of delegates to the Forum, speaking immediately after Kabalan, was dedicated to educational affairs, with a particular focus on the question of language of instruction across educational institutions in the GCC states. Saudi academic Abdullah Al Beraidi was the most vocal in decrying how the “supremacy of English” made itself on the Gulf. In Al Beraidi’s words, the emphatic determination by academics across the Gulf to use English not only as a vehicle to publish their work but also as a medium of instruction in the classroom was a vestige of “academic slavery”, with the power to erase entirely the identity of Gulf Arabs. Citing as examples statements made by business leaders in Saudi Arabia and a requirement by many of the faculties within Kuwait University that academics publish in “high impact” English-language academic journals as a precondition for academic promotion, Al Beraidi decried what he perceived to be a growing official acceptance of the growth of English at the expense of Arabic.
A third of the four speakers on the first panel was Kuwait University’s Abdulhadi Al Ajmi, also an academic historian, whose intervention was focused on the political exploitation of historical narratives of the Gulf states. Reflecting a wider interest across the Forum, Al Ajmi spoke of how history and historical narratives were uniquely central to the formation of the nation-states in the Gulf. Referring to Kuwait’s recent past, Al Ajmi explained how an individual’s citizenship within, and perceived loyalty to, the state was determined by the historical pedigree of their family and its place in Kuwait’s national narrative. This set the stage, said the Kuwait University historian, for a politically charged definition of history which continued to be a living force in Kuwaiti politics, which Al Ajmi referred to as “historical citizenship”. The attention and dedication which Kuwait and other Gulf states paid to history would eventually come full circle, explained Al Ajmi, as growing oil revenues allowed the state to finance large scholarship programs that sent students to complete postgraduate work in academic history in “some of the world’s most prestigious universities”. Once returned, ambitious young historians were faced with a conundrum: their methodical, hard-nosed approach to history could not easily be squared with the state’s demand for a tame hagiography that “produced praise for the ruler”. With time, these academics would also contribute to the formation of state supported educational systems and curricula. Evaluating the performance of these was a topic mentioned elsewhere during the panel, and at the official opening ceremony.
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