In This Review

Missions Impossible: Higher Education and Policymaking in the Arab World
Missions Impossible: Higher Education and Policymaking in the Arab World
By John Waterbury
American University in Cairo Press, 2020, 409 pp

For those who think the Arab world is stagnating, here’s some news: according to Waterbury—a distinguished political scientist, former president of the American University of Beirut, and my predecessor as this magazine’s regular reviewer for books about the Middle East—the number of universities in the region has quadrupled in the last decade. In a region where employment is highest among young university graduates, this may seem like a ray of hope. Most of these new universities are private institutions, many of them for-profit, and they raise the tantalizing prospect that antiquated educational curricula and pedagogy will evolve to meet the needs of a labor market glutted with unfilled jobs because current graduates don’t have the appropriate skills. Perhaps, too, that market could enlarge the space for institutional autonomy, as such universities might put profits ahead of political agendas in determining their performance metrics. Waterbury is not sanguine; universities everywhere face manifold challenges, and given the Arab world’s history of suffocating political interference and a long-standing brain drain, he thinks the region is unlikely to be the source of dramatic institutional innovation. But the higher education sector is a fascinating prism through which to observe both stagnation and change in the region, and there is no better guide than this book, which is vintage Waterbury: comprehensive, thought provoking, and often droll.