Why the UK Needs Area Studies

Author: Harold Walker


This keynote speech was originally presented at the Area Studies Project conference: Understanding the world: Developing interdisciplinary area studies to meet the needs of the 21st century. The day began with an impassioned plea by former UK Ambassador to Iraq Sir Harold Walker that it is in the national interest that Area Studies programmes are maintained in the UK. In light of current events in Iraq and Afghanistan it is imperative that universities produce graduates who understand the languages and cultures of regions such as the Middle East.

This article was added to our website on 05/04/04 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents


When I came to the end of my statutory term as President - that is, chairman of the board - of the international aid organisation CARE International, the staff in the Secretariat in Brussels gave me a little book by Mike Etherington called “The Very Best of British - the American’s guide to speaking British”. They recognised, which perhaps many people British people do not, that for Britain the United States is a foreign country, and vice versa. Anybody who serves as a diplomat in the US quickly realises that American society is not just British society with a different accent. I will not expand on that: I am glad to see that the Chair of the newly formed UK Council of Area Studies Associations, Phil Davies, is to say a special word about American Studies in the course of today’s conference.

Bread-and-butter reasons - government

Why do we need Area Studies? It might be thought that in the light of recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq the question hardly needs posing. The answer has been demonstrated in bread-and-butter ways. The UK has been shown up as woefully short of people who understand the cultures and languages of those two countries, to the detriment of the conduct of our policies there. On 18 February the press had fun with the Army’s need, because of its shortage of Arabists, to go looking for Arabic translators and interpreters among university undergraduates.

Bread-and-butter reasons - academe

The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) has done some work on the background to this state of affairs. It is difficult to obtain precise statistics about the numbers of people studying relevant subjects at tertiary level because departmental names may not reveal the scope of the subjects being taught within the departments: one might think that for historical reasons a university Department of Theology in this country taught Christian theology only, and then find that it included a lectureship in Islam. But it is striking to note that Pashto, Berber, Kurdish and the Turkic languages of Central Asia are not taught at all in British universities.

There are something of the order of 300 undergraduates studying for degrees in which Arabic is a component. In 2001-02 just 45 people graduated in Middle Eastern Studies, compared with 102 in Celtic Studies. It is a tiny number if the requirements of government alone are to be met, not to mention those of the academic community.

True, the number of PhD students engaged in Middle Eastern studies is high. But the majority of them come from outside Britain. We are training the government servants of other countries, not our own. We are not training enough British Middle Eastern experts to maintain a home-grown academic community of ME specialists. None of the current professors of Arabic in Britain is British.

Bread-and-butter reasons - business

To stick with the bread and butter, if we are failing to stock our governmental and academic organisations, what about business? Many businessmen recognise that profitable relationships overseas require some knowledge of the local culture. I would certainly commend, to anybody wanting to do business in the Persian Gulf, an entertaining volume by Jeremy Williams, a former Defence Attache in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, called “Don’t They Know It’s Friday?”.

But many businessmen would also hold that in a globalised world business is business is business. If by chance they wanted a specifically local view on a problem, they could hire a local to do it.

Business and globalisation

Perhaps we need to divide business up into different kinds of business. Perhaps companies selling a certain kind of off-the-shelf widget for which there is a steady demand do not need to know much about the culture of their markets: a widget is a widget is a widget. But surely businesses that look to investment in the local market, or to a long-lasting and developing relationship, need to have some understanding of sentiments in the market. In different markets you will get quite different reactions to, say, powdered milk for babies or GM foods.

In this context I commend an article written in the run-up to the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos by Carlos Ghosn, Chief Executive Officer of Nissan Motor Company. Ghosn himself is an example of cross-cultural fertilisation: he was born in Brazil of Lebanese descent, was trained in France, and for the last four years has been running a Japanese motor manufacturer. He himself points out that large-scale business such as this is increasingly conducted on a global basis. But this does not lead him to believe that there is one business model that will succeed everywhere. On the contrary, he holds that there is an increase in complexity as cross-cultural teams and companies conduct business across national, cultural and social boundaries. I quote him: “The challenge is to acknowledge the differences from market to market and yet to manage the business cohesively to achieve corporate objectives”.

Not so long ago Renault effectively took over Nissan. Renault and Nissan are linked by a cross-shareholding. Each company has a direct interest in the results of its partner, and they consult each other monthly. But each company is responsible for its own performance and maintains its own corporate identity. I quote Ghosn again: “I have always believed that you can learn most from people who are not just like you. Seeing issues from somebody else’s perspective can be very instructive”. He finds that multi-cultural teams contribute richer solutions than the teams might have contributed on their own. He ventures some national caricatures: the French are conceptual, ingenious and innovative. Americans are direct, get-to-the-point, bottom-line-driven. The Japanese are naturally process-oriented thinkers.

Britain and globalisation

Britain cannot be compared with any precision to a motor company. But it is a country that by virtue of being an island, by its geographical position and by its history is perhaps more enmeshed with the rest of the world than any other country. Historically for us the flag has followed trade. We more than most, all questions of education and culture apart, need to understand other people.

I think that compared with most nations we used to have some understanding that there was a different world out there that affected us. For a period of history we had our antennae out in the shape of administrators, soldiers, diplomats, and bankers and businessmen who stayed for many years at their overseas posts. With fewer amusements than today to beguile them when they were off duty, these people learnt local languages and customs. Now of course we do not have the same cadres of well informed people.

But is not the world smaller, in many senses, than it used to be - a global village? Aircraft and the media have surely brought us closer to other people than we have ever been. And do not the international media, particularly television, make up, in this smaller world, for what we learned through people in the past? I fear not. Closeness of itself does not seem to breed understanding - only consciousness of difference. As for the media, again particularly television, while they can be frighteningly good at conveying the reality of the moment, they are not so good at looking at foreign communities in depth. We get the visual bangs, not the invisible workings of society. Moreover, it can hardly be denied that television in this country has recently been dumbing down in the battle for ratings: indeed, television executives have openly declared that they are sacrificing serious programmes about overseas developments in favour of domestic human interest stories.


All the more important, therefore, that the academic world should act as the leaven in the dough. How can it possibly be in the national interest that the Department of East Asian Studies at Durham University should be shut down when China may well soon be the second most powerful country in the world, when North Korea is one of the world’s flash points, and when we are all already affected by Japan’s trillion dollar economy? Of course it is unfair to point the finger at Durham in this way: the national interest as such is not their concern, but the way universities are funded is.

Somehow we need to get over these hurdles if this island is to meet the competition in surviving and prospering in a competitive world - and prospering not only in an economic sense but also as a country of culture and understanding in the diversified global village. Organisations like the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, and bilateral Anglo-X friendship organisations can help, but the weight of the burden of ensuring that there is in British society a real understanding of the overseas lies on the academic community. We have to look to the academic community to spread the benefits of cross-fertilisation between cultures in much the same way as we have look to people like Carlos Ghosn to spread the benefits of multinational business to the working community. To those who doubt that the academic community can have influence in this way I would point to Campus Watch in the United States, indicating that politicians of a certain cast of mind are well aware that their views will not prevail if the light of academic research is played on the societies they are interested in.

So those of you trying to promote area studies are engaged in a far from trivial enterprise. I naturally wish you - and this seminar - all success.

Biography of Sir Harold Walker

Sir Harold Walker’s career in the diplomatic services included serving as UK Ambassador to Iraq from 1990-91, the time of the First Gulf War. Following his retirement he served as President of the voluntary organisation Care International. He is currently chair of the Royal Society of Asian Affairs and maintains a strong interest in the Middle East. He is also a member of the committee of UKCASA (UK Council of Area Studies Associations) and a member of BRISMES (The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies).


Williams, J (1998) Don’t They Know It’s Friday? London, Motivate Publishing

Related links

Carson, I (2002) Nissan’ s Napoleon
Online article about Carlos Ghosn.

Partnering for Prosperity and Security
Carlos Ghosn participated in a discussion between business leaders and politicians at the World Economic Forum in January 2004.

Mike Etherington The Very Best of British
The American’s guide to speaking British.