Middle East & North Africa region | University of Oxford
Amun Temple
Amun Temple of Luxor, Egypt.
(Image credit: Shutterstock).

Middle East & North Africa region

The establishment of the Laudian Professorship of Arabic in 1636 marked the beginning of the University of Oxford’s tradition of scholarship and teaching in Arabic. Today, Oxford is one of the leading centres in the English-speaking world for the study of the Middle East, with more than 50 academics in Arabic language and literature, medieval and modern Near East History, Islamic Philosophy, Islamic Art & Archaeology, and ancient Egypt and the Near East. Oxford’s research in the Middle East is based in two key hubs: the Faculty of Oriental Studies and the Middle East Centre.

Studying

The Faculty of Oriental Studies is home to a range of undergraduate courses and graduate programmes focused on the region and Islam. Arabic is one of the main subjects taught within the Faculty of Oriental Studies. Undergraduates studying for a B.A. honours degree in Oriental Studies may choose Arabic with an additional language, or Arabic and Islamic Studies. In addition to these courses, students may study Arabic as an additional language within the Faculty and wider University alongside one of the following main subjects: Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hebrew, Persian or Turkish. In addition, Arabic may be studied as part of the undergraduate degree in Classics & Oriental Studies, or as part of the degree in European and Middle Eastern Languages. Students in Arabic spend a year studying in the Middle East. Oxford is also a leading centre for postgraduate study of the Arab World, with more than 75 students focused on the ancient and modern Middle East.  About half of these are studying for a doctorate, while the other half are enrolled in taught Master’s degree courses.

Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Oxford take place in the Faculty of Oriental Studies and through the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Yarnton. Oxford is an important centre of Hebrew and Jewish Studies and has been since the sixteenth century. Students come from all over the world for both undergraduate and graduate studies, and there are unrivalled collections of Hebrew and Yiddish manuscripts and printed books in the Bodleian Library. Courses available to students range from the Hebrew Bible to modern Israel, from developments within Judaism in the time of Jesus to the history of Jews under Islam or in modern Europe, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Modern Hebrew poetry.

The Middle East Centre of St Antony’s College, founded in 1957 and one of the first of its kind at a Western university, is a hub for the interdisciplinary study of the modern Middle East.  The Centre’s library and archive has exceptional resources, and houses over 400 document collections and well over 100,000 photographs. The Centre has received a £1 million benefaction from the King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Archives and Manuscripts in Riyadh, and is deeply involved with the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, a cultural award which is presented annually to outstanding Arab writers, intellectuals, publishers, and young talents whose writings and translations have enriched Arab cultural, literary and social life.

The King Mohammed VI Fellowship in Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies was established in 2004 as the fruit of an agreement between the Moroccan British Society (MBS) and St Antony’s College, Oxford University. As well as strengthening and promoting Moroccan-British ties, the new Fellowship aimed to promote study of Morocco in Britain through the endowment by the MBS of an academic position at Oxford. Other academic courses related to Morocco and the Mediterranean include North African Politics, The History of the Maghreb Since 1830 and International Relations of the Maghreb, all of which are available as options on the MPhil in Modern Middle East Studies.

Other research centres include the Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East, which provides facilities for research in the field of Middle Eastern art and architecture, and The Griffith Institute, which specializes in Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern studies. The latter is located within the Sackler Library complex, which holds some 30,000 volumes on these subjects. Its archive is the world’s largest collection of Egyptological papers, including the excavator’s records from the tomb of Tutankhamun and hundreds of 19th-century studio photographs of Egypt and the Levant.

The Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies is a Recognised Independent Centre of the University of Oxford, established in 1985 to encourage the scholarly study of Islam and the Islamic world. The Centre provides a meeting point for the Western and Islamic worlds of learning and contributes to the multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary study of the Islamic world. It has been host to a number of distinguished visiting lecturers from the Middle East including HE Shaikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani, former Prime Minister of Qatar; HRH Prince Saud al-Faisal, former Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; Mr Amr Moussa, former Secretary-General of the League of Arab States; and Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, historian, Islamic scholar, and author of well over fifty books in various languages. Additionally, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies Lectureships have been established in the University Faculties of History, Theology, Anthropology, Politics and International Relations, and Economics. Their outreach activities include the Young Muslim Leadership Programme, policy oriented studies of social, political and economic aspects of Muslim communities in Britain, particularly focusing on housing needs, and workshops for teachers of Religious Studies and school administrators to provide a better understanding of Islam and of the needs of Muslim pupils.

Research

Monumental Art of the Christian and Early Islamic East: Cultural Identities and Classical Heritage is a five-year project analysing the monumental art of two areas of the former eastern Roman Empire which came under Islamic rule: Egypt and Syro-Palestine (modern Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine). It aims to determine how local ‘classical’ (Greco-Roman) traditions and expressions of identities influenced monumental art in these regions during Late Antiquity (AD 250–750), the period of transition from paganism to Christianity and, in turn, to Islam. The results will be presented in a synthetic analytical volume written by the PI and two books on late antique and early Islamic mosaics by the post-docs, with material placed on the Manar al-Athar open-access website. The project aims to transform understanding of the artistic culture of the late antique Middle East.

The Cult of Saints, a major five-year project based at the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford, investigated the origins and development of the cult of Christian saints in Late Antiquity. Central to the project is a searchable database, on which all the evidence for the cult of saints is collected, presented (in its original languages and English translation), and succinctly discussed, whether in Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Greek, Latin or Syriac. The online database launched in late 2017.

The Palestinian Revolution is a bilingual Arabic/English online learning resource created by Oxford's Department of Politics and International Relations which explores Palestinian revolutionary practice and thought from the Nakba of 1948, to the siege of Beirut in 1982. These thirty four years of Palestinian political and social history were characterised by a distinctive revolutionary culture, which was expressed in specific political practices and forms of thought. The era also witnessed the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Arabs, and international volunteers outside and inside historic Palestine.

Dr James McDougall, Associate Professor, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, is the author of A History of Algeria, the first new general history of the country in any language to appear since the early 1990s. The book focuses on the political history of Algeria, beginning with the emergence of the Ottoman Regency after 1516 and ending 500 years later, in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings of 2011-12.

Libraries and Museums

The Bodleian Library's Islamic manuscript collection is one of the most important in Europe. It also holds extensive materials in the languages of the Middle East. It has an important collection of Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts, with particular strengths in fields such as Arabic science, mathematics and medicine, and Persian illuminated and illustrated manuscripts. It holds one of the most important collections of Hebrew manuscripts in the world thanks to accession of several key collections in the 19th century, such as the Oppenheimer Library and fragments from the Cairo Genizah, and important collections of unique early Yiddish printed books. The Bodleian law library holds numerous texts and resources on Islamic Law and North African and Middle Eastern law.

The Ashmolean Museum has renowned holdings of art and archaeology from the Middle East and has a dedicated Islamic Middle East Gallery which displays artefacts made over a period of more than 1000 years. These include beautiful examples of Islamic script and calligraphy, arabesque decorations and textiles from the Islamic world.

Oxford links with the Middle East and North Africa extend far beyond the academic study of the region. The University is increasingly forming key partnerships and collaborating with institutions in the region, and in recent years has opened up important new scientific and public policy collaborations with the Arab World; this is a small selection of the many projects currently in progress.

Humanities

IMVBox is the largest 'online cinematheque' and only legal platform for Iranian content. Its collaboration with the Oriental Studies Institute in film, culture and education aims to give students the opportunity to learn the diversity, depth and richness of Iranian Cinema and to raise awareness about the realities and cultures of the Middle East.

Conserving the Nabataean Temple at Khirbet Et-Tannur was a partnership between the University of Oxford and UNESCO’s Amman Office in Jordan to provide specialised research-based input into UNESCO’s plan for the conservation and presentation of the Nabataean temple sanctuary at Khirbet et-Tannur, Jordan (3rd century BC – 4th century AD). Khirbet et-Tannur is amongst the most important archaeological sites in the Tafileh region in southern Jordan. The research, completed in 2017, will enable UNESCO’s Amman Office to formulate a joint strategic plan for large-scale funding geared towards the improved site presentation of the sanctuary as part of an integrated plan for enhancing archaeological tourism through community participation in the Tafileh region.

Social Sciences

The Executive Education team of Saïd Business School has developed extensive links with the Middle East and North Africa. The School has developed a number of custom programmes for many different countries in the region for delivery to a wide range of audiences including top civil servants and senior business executives. Tailor-made courses have been developed for leading business leaders and public officials in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

Generations for Peace, an international NGO established by HRH Prince Feisal Al Hussein of Jordan that counts Oxford among its partners, is dedicated to the innovative and sustainable use of sport for peace building and development. In 2012 it established a new DPhil scholarship at Oxford, the King Abdullah II of Jordan Generations for Peace Scholarship, focused on research into “sport and conflict resolution”.

The Reuters Institute for Journalism, in collaboration with the Saïd Foundation and the Asfari Foundation, offers a unique opportunity to journalists from Lebanon, Palestine and Syria through the Saïd-Asfari Fellowship scheme. Each year, one journalist from the Levant region is brought to Oxford to study with a group of journalists from all over the world. The objectives of the fellowship programme are to strengthen journalism in the Levant and to improve the skill set and networks of journalists working in the region.

Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences

The University of Oxford and the University of Bahrain are embarking on a research partnership in the area of low energy osmotic technologies for the desalination of sea-water. It aims to produce high efficiency solutions that will help to reduce energy consumption for water desalination, both in the Gulf region and in the UK.

Medical Sciences

Collaborations in the Medical Sciences include a collaboration and knowledge exchange with the Jordanian Royal Medical Service into human genetics and rare diseases, and a collaboration with the Dasman Diabetes Institute on the aetiology of diabetes, its prevention and therapies, and assorted clinical trials.

Interdisciplinary

The Earthquakes without Frontiers partnership brings together earth scientists, social scientists and practitioners in the communication of scientific knowledge to policy makers, including from the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford and the Geological Survey of Iran. Focused on China, Iran and Central Asia, and the Himalayan mountain front, the researchers work closely with local scientists, policy-makers and organisations, both government and non-governmental to achieve the partnership's core aims: to provide increases in knowledge of distribution of earthquake hazards in the continental interiors; to identify pathways to increased resilience in the populations exposed to these hazards; and to secure long term gains by establishing a well-networked, interdisciplinary partnership.

Delivering Food and Water Security in a Middle East in Flux (DeFWS) is a partnership between the University of Oxford, Ecopeace (Tel Aviv and Bethlehem) and the West Asia North Africa (WANA) Institute (Amman). Looking at water scarcity and food insecurity, the research analyses the scope for Jordan and Palestine to follow the example of Israel, which shares a similar geography, in increasing agricultural production while reducing pressure on water resources through modifications to agricultural composition and practices. It aims to inform planning and policy on agriculture, food security and environmental impact, with a view to enhancing water-food security, raising agricultural productivity and promoting livelihood sustainability.

Students

Today there are nearly 200 students from every country in North Africa and the Middle East studying at Oxford, with Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Lebanon the leading sources. The vast majority of students from the region are engaged in postgraduate study and research, especially in the social sciences. Oxford benefits from a range of research and resource centres that support and serve as a focal point for those focusing their research on the Middle East and Islamic culture.

Scholarships

A number of scholarships are available to students from North Africa and the Middle East, including the Qatar Thatcher Scholarship at Somerville College, available to one student normally resident in Qatar or Arab countries, and the Yousef Jameel Scholarship is available to one graduate student demonstrating exceptional academic merit and/or potential, commencing a course of study in the history of Islamic art. 

Societies

A vibrant student group, the Oxford University Arab Cultural Society, organises public lectures and cultural events for those originating from and those interested in the region. Similarly, the Oxford Chabad Society hosts high profile national and international guest speakers on Jewish and Israeli topics during university terms and holds open Shabbat dinners every Friday night.

Academics

There are nearly 80 academic staff from North Africa and the Middle East currently working at the university with research specialties ranging from art history and classical architecture to structural biology.

Dr Guy Kahane (Israel)

Dr Kahane is director of studies and research fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics in Oxford’s faculty of philosophy and also deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. He specialises in medical ethics, particularly the philosophy and ethics of neuroscience and psychology. In 2009 he was awarded a grant by the Wellcome Trust University Award to undertake a five year research project on ‘Well-being, Consciousness, and Moral Decision-Making’. He is also working on a 3-year project on ‘Intuition and Emotion in Moral Decision-Making: Empirical Research and Normative Implications,’ funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. Dr Kahane studied for his BA in Philosophy and Psychology at Tel Aviv University before coming to Oxford to read for the BPhil and then the DPhil in Philosophy.

Dr Amin Benaissa (Morocco)

Amin Benaissa is Associate Professor in Classical Languages and Literature in the Faculty of Classics and Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Lady Margaret Hall. His research interests include Greek literary and documentary papyrology, Archaic, Hellenistic and Imperial-period Greek poetry and the social, cultural and institutional history of Graeco-Roman Egypt. He studied Classics at Yale University and took his postgraduate degree at Magdalen College. Before joining LMH he was a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Wolfson College (2008–10) and a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at St Anne’s College (2010–12).

Alumni

Oxford’s alumni base is especially strong in the region, numbering above 1,600. Most live in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Alumni groups are active in thirteen countries. Oxford has a number of distinguished alumni in the region, including:

  • King Abdullah II of Jordan
  • Farah Al-Daghistani, Executive Director of the Jordan Hashemite Fund for Human Development.   
  • Prince Faisal bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia
  • Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian-born Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University
  • H.E. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE Minister for Higher Education and Scientific research    
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