Middle Eastern Studies in the United Kingdom

Author: Lisa Bernasek


The study of the Middle East in UK universities dates back at least to the seventeenth century. The Middle East is taught and researched by scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines and student numbers studying Middle Eastern languages and area studies have substantially increased in the last few years.

Table of contents


The study of the Middle East in the United Kingdom has a long history dating back to the first chairs in Arabic, established at Cambridge and Oxford in 1632 and 1636, respectively. Today programmes in Middle Eastern Studies, often connected to allied subjects like Islamic or Arabic studies, can be found at nine universities in the UK, with other universities incorporating research and teaching on the Middle East into programmes in specific academic disciplines. Middle Eastern Studies is generally taken to mean the study of the languages, cultures, history, politics and societies of the Arab world from Morocco in the west to Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula in the east, as well as Israel, Turkey and Iran. Afghanistan and other predominantly Muslim countries or regions in Central Asia, and in North, West or East Africa, may also be included in the definition. Despite this broad geographical scope, study of Arabic and the Arab world tends to predominate in current programmes of study and research. Scholarship in Middle Eastern Studies is carried out within a wide range of academic disciplines, including languages and literature, history, archaeology, social anthropology, religious studies, geography, economics, political science and international relations.

Historical background

Over the history of Middle Eastern Studies in the UK, the shape of teaching and research programmes has been influenced by historical circumstances and national interests. At the time of the establishment of the first chairs in Arabic, interest in the study of Arabic and Islam was closely related to studies of the Hebrew Bible and missionary activities (Holt 1957, p. 446). Colonial interests in the region also gave rise to scholarly interest, and nineteenth-century British scholarship on the Middle East, often carried out by people with lengthy experience in the region like Edward William Lane and Richard Francis Burton, resulted in a body of literature important to later studies of the Middle East (Bosworth 1997). However, as pointed out repeatedly in government reports beginning with the Reay Report of 1909, Britain lagged behind other European countries in establishing academic centres for the study of the contemporary languages and societies of the Middle East. At the time of the Reay Report academic study was limited to teachers of languages and literature at Oxford and Cambridge; the report’s recommendations for a school that would combine scholarship and practical training led to the formation in 1916 of what eventually became the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS) (Hourani 1984, p. 113-14).
Later government-sponsored reports, including the Scarbrough report in 1947, Hayter in 1961 and Parker in 1986, also made the case for developing Middle Eastern (among other area studies) programmes for teaching and research. In these reports the need for Middle East experts was related to national interests of trade and diplomacy, though the reports also emphasised the importance of sound academic scholarship. They argued for a balance between training in classical and spoken languages, and between the study of language and the study of history, religion and society (Hourani 1984). Although each of these reports reflected the particular needs of the time, ensuing investments led to the development of important centres with a “critical mass” of Middle East scholars, including SOAS, Oxford, Durham, Exeter, Cambridge, Manchester, Edinburgh, and St. Andrews (Hourani 1984, p. 118). Certain institutions developed particular expertise, for example Oxford in modern history, Durham in geography, and Exeter in politics. Programmes in Middle Eastern Studies connected to Arabic or Islamic Studies departments also developed at Leeds and Lancaster, or as part of social sciences programmes at a number of other universities (Niblock 1990, p. 40). The development of scholarship, particularly since the 1970s, tended to shift the focus away from the Orientalist disciplines of philology and classical language study and towards the study of the contemporary Middle East.

Current debates

The relationship between Middle Eastern Studies and questions of national interest and security has intensified in recent years, particularly since the events of 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005. However, the UK has not been as caught up in the acrimonious debates and, some would say, threats to academic freedom that have dominated the field in the United States since 2001 (see Lockman 2004, Chapter 7 for a good overview). In the UK the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) has lobbied the Government for more funding for the field, arguing in reports issued in 2002 and 2003 that Britain’s historical strengths in Middle East expertise cannot be maintained at current levels of funding. In a report issued in 2002, BRISMES argued that funding for training in the languages and religions of the region must be accompanied by funding for a broad spectrum of humanities and social science disciplines that feed into Middle Eastern Studies. These arguments for further development of Middle Eastern Studies with a strong academic base were linked with questions of national security and international stability (Ehteshami 2002).

UK funding councils have created funding streams that attempt to address some of these issues. As part of its ‘Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects’ (SIVS) initiative, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) along with the Scottish Funding Council, the AHRC and the ESRC have jointly funded five language-based area studies centres (see HEFCE 2008). These include the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW), a consortium of the Universities of Edinburgh, Manchester and Durham. CASAW has been funded for five years from 2006 to support, inter alia, masters’ and doctoral studentships, post-doctoral fellowships and advanced language training, intending to contribute to a new generation of scholars with expertise in Arabic and research experience in the Arab world.

Islamic Studies, a field closely allied with Middle Eastern Studies, was also named a Strategically Important Subject in June 2007. HEFCE has since earmarked £1 million for the development of the subject, leading to debates within and outside academia about the proper place and focus for Islamic Studies programmes (HEFCE 2007; Suleiman and Shihadeh 2007). The historical location of Islamic Studies within or alongside Middle Eastern Studies programmes has been called into question as some argue for an expansion of Islamic Studies beyond the Middle East that would lead to a stronger focus on contemporary practice in the broader Muslim world, including the UK. The impact of these debates on the future of Islamic Studies (and, by implication, Middle Eastern Studies) in the United Kingdom is not yet clear.

These two funding streams have supported the study of Arabic and Islam specifically, without the broader interdisciplinary support called for by BRISMES. Outside funding, particularly funding from Middle Eastern states or individuals, has also played a role in the development of Middle Eastern Studies in the UK in recent years (e.g. see Garner 2008). Scholars are divided on the question of whether this type of funding might influence the scholarship carried out at these institutions (Vesper 2008).

Although funding structures and issues of “national interest” have clearly shaped the discipline over its history, this does not necessarily mean that research and teaching are focused on topics of direct strategic importance. In fact, the majority of Middle Eastern Studies scholars work on topics that do not have clear strategic applications, but reflect the vibrancy and diversity of scholarship across disciplines like history, language and literature, anthropology, economics, political science and international relations. As Fred Halliday has argued, the best work on the Middle East must remain “engaged but intellectually autonomous” (Halliday 2004, p. 960).

Current programmes

Programmes in Middle Eastern Studies at undergraduate and postgraduate level are often allied with programmes in Arabic (and other Middle Eastern languages) or Islamic Studies, and may be located in a variety of schools and faculties (e.g. Modern Languages, History, International Relations). Teaching about the Middle East also takes place in individual departments at universities that may not have a named degree programme in the subject. For example, A UCAS search for Middle Eastern Studies includes programmes at the University of Birmingham and the University of Wales, Lampeter although these programmes focus on Islamic Studies, not the Middle East per se. The University of Salford offers programmes in Politics and Arabic and Security Studies and Arabic that contain significant Middle East content, while the University of Westminster offers a number of combined degrees with Arabic. For the purposes of this brief overview, the focus is on programmes with a languages or area studies-based perspective, to the exclusion of programmes that focus solely on Islamic Studies or teaching found within another discipline.

The universities with a pre-20th century history of the study of Arabic or the Middle East (e.g. Oxford and Cambridge), and those where Middle Eastern Studies developed through funding made available following the reports mentioned above (e.g. SOAS and Durham) remain important locations for Middle East research and teaching in the UK. Other universities that developed pre-existing programmes or established new ones following the 1961 Hayter report include Manchester, Edinburgh, St. Andrews and Exeter (Hourani 1984). The University of Leeds also has a Department of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies which offers both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. These universities also have established clusters of academics carrying out research on the Middle East, often encouraged structurally by research centres like the Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College Oxford or the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Durham.

Reflecting the diversity of the region and of the disciplines that contribute to Middle Eastern Studies, students on undergraduate degree courses at these institutions follow a wide range of study patterns. Traditionally degree courses in Middle Eastern Studies required the study of a Middle Eastern language, but some institutions now offer three-year courses with no language requirement (e.g. Exeter, Leeds, Manchester). Four-year courses in a language on its own or combined with Middle Eastern Studies are also found, and there are also a variety of combined degree courses involving Middle Eastern languages and other subjects. Although Arabic is the most widely taught Middle Eastern language, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew are also available at different institutions, and some also offer the ancient languages of the Near East. The University of Exeter offers Kurdish, and SOAS teaches Azeri, Kurdish, Baluchi and Pashto through its Language Centre.

Degree courses in Middle Eastern Studies generally include introductory overviews of the modern history, societies and cultures of the Middle East. Students may also take modules in: classical or modern literature; ancient, medieval and modern history; Islamic studies; Jewish studies; Islamic art, architecture or archaeology; contemporary politics and international relations; social anthropology and ethnography; economics or Islamic finance; and cultural studies. Degree programmes that require the intensive study of a Middle Eastern language generally involve a period of residence abroad in the Middle East. Depending on the university, students may attend language or other study programmes in a number of Middle Eastern cities, including Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus, Amman, Fez, Sanaa, Tehran, Istanbul, and Jerusalem.

Subject associations and research trends

The main subject association for Middle Eastern Studies in the United Kingdom is the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), which organises an annual conference, an annual lecture, and publishes a newsletter as well as the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. The membership of BRISMES includes academics and students as well as diplomats, journalists, policy-makers and others who deal professionally with the Middle East. BRISMES is a member of the European Association for Middle Eastern Studies (EURAMES), which holds periodic conferences and coordinates a network of Middle Eastern Studies associations across Europe. Middle Eastern Studies specialists in the UK may also be members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), based in the United States.

Research on the Middle East in the UK draws on Britain’s historical strengths in the languages, history, politics, international relations, geography, economics and anthropology of the region (Ehteshami 2002). The UK also has well-established documentary and bibliographic resources for Middle Eastern Studies that attract students and researchers from all over the world (BRISMES 2003). Recent research has looked at issues of contemporary relevance for the Middle East and the rest of the world, including: Islam and Islamism; civil society in the Middle East; globalisation; and migration and diaspora studies. Research also continues in classical, medieval and modern history; literature and culture, including visual culture; social anthropology; linguistics; political science; economics; and Islamic studies, including a growing interest in Islam in Britain. The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies sponsors three research networks that bring together scholars from across the UK working on: Faith, Politics and Society; Domination, Expression and Liberation in the Middle East; and Representation and Identity in the Middle East.  Middle East scholars are generally engaged with debates and trends within their academic disciplines as well as in the field of Middle Eastern Studies itself.

Despite challenges faced in terms of funding, particularly of home graduate students, Middle Eastern Studies in the United Kingdom remains an active and vibrant field, with researchers pursuing a wide array of topics and issues of clear relevance to contemporary society. The range of degree courses and options is also a sign of the field’s adaptation to current student demand and interest, and indeed student numbers grew by 19% between 2002-03 and 2005-06 (Canning 2008, p.12). As the field looks ahead, perhaps its greatest challenge will be, as it has been since its beginnings, to maintain a balance between research of direct relevance to the issues of the day and broader academic research in a wide variety of disciplines.


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Hayter Report (Sir William Hayter) (1961) ‘Report of the Sub-Committee on Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African Studies’. London: University Grants Committee.

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) (2007). ‘Islamic studies: current status and future prospects’ (seminar report). Bristol: HEFCE.
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Niblock, T. C. (1990) The State of the Art in British Middle Eastern Studies. In Ismael, T., ed. Middle East Studies: International Perspectives on the State of the Art. New York: Praeger, pp. 39-57.

Parker Report (Sir Peter Parker) (1986) ‘“Speaking for the Future”: A Review of the Requirements of Diplomacy and Commerce for Asian and African Languages and Area Studies’. London: University Grants Committee.

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Related links

University departments and research centres:

Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW)

Durham University, Department of Arabic

Durham University, Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies

School of Oriental and African Studies, Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

University of Cambridge, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

University of Cambridge, Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies

University of Edinburgh, Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies

University of Edinburgh, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre

University of Exeter, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies

University of Leeds, Department of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies

University of Manchester, Department of Middle Eastern Studies

University of Oxford, Faculty of Oriental Studies

University of Oxford, St Antony’s College, Middle East Centre

University of St Andrews, School of History (includes degrees in Arabic and Middle East Studies)

University of Wales, Lampeter, Centre for Islamic Studies

Subject associations:

British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES)

European Association for Middle Eastern Studies (EURAMES)

Middle East Studies Association (MESA)

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