Before 2011 Cairo was the undisputed top location to study Arabic in the Middle East. The last 5 years have been tough for Egypt and its schools that specialize in teaching Arabic to Americans and Europeans. Many US study abroad administrators and students are wondering what is the situation now, in 2016?
To find out more, I caught up with Aimen Hassanen, Managing Director of Cairo’s International Language Institute, and Karim Rogers, Executive Director of the International House Cairo, for a frank talk:
Let’s start with the Elephant in the Room – security. Yes it’s a serious issue that needs to be taken into consideration. However, it is also true that the media tends to dwell on negatives. This can make it hard for those outside of Cairo to know exactly what is going on. So let me just ask directly: is Egypt a safe place to study Arabic?
In my honest opinion, the American Embassy is extremely conservative with the travel warnings compared to European embassies. If you look at the European embassies, Cairo is in the Green.
Even during the Revolution, despite the fact that we had a lot of action in the areas near our school, we never shut a single day. We’ve been working very hard with universities to revive business; it takes time.
Our #1 strategy post-Revolution is attract back universities and study abroad customers. And we are seeing some great results. For example, this past year, for the first time in 5 years we had 5 [European] universities come back and complete a full-academic semester. That’s the first time that has happened post-Revolution.
Compared to Europe, these schools are finding Egypt a Safe haven.
Is this caution [about security] strictly from the US Embassy or is it American institutions in general? What about US universities that have sent students to Cairo to study Arabic in the past?
Yes, this seems to be American institutions in general.
Some of the [American] university professors are slightly conservative [about the risk issue]. Although this summer we have had lots of students from NYU, Texas, Georgetown.
However, at ILI we have always focused more on the European market, less so on the US market and so we’ve had more European students than Americans. Europe has been our core market. But we are going to the MESA conference in Boston this November.
Today in the US and Europe we have high schools and even elementary schools competing to offers languages like Chinese, Arabic etc. This wasn’t happening 15 or 20 years ago. Are you seeing that the Arabic language capabilities of students – at the time they come to ILI have improved compared to the past?
We are finding that Europeans at the point of placement when they come to us in Cairo – are at a higher level compared to US students, on average. If you look at US high schools, the focus is on Spanish, than Chinese.
Arabic is higher on the agenda in Europe. For example, there are more Arabic degree programs at European universities compared to the US.
Post-Revolution the Arabic level of Europeans has noticeably gone up. They have had to adapt. There is more and more interest in the higher level [government] positions that require Arabic, to focus in great detail on diplomatic , economic topics for example.
Such a surge in interest from European embassies has even forced us to adjust our placement system… we are now authorized to run the C2 diplomatic tests from ILI; most of the European diplomats are passing with flying colors.
Is it fair to say that the Europeans consider the learning of Arabic more important to successful diplomatic work than the Americans? Based on what you are seeing from your perch at ILI…
Absolutely. The European diplomats definitely take the learning of Arabic more seriously than their American counterparts. … John Casson, the British ambassador to Egypt, is practically a native speaker!
What are the goals for ILI during the next few years?
In 2017, our #1 goal is to ensure we get the Institute back to 100% occupancy. We want to return all of our customers and get back to 2010 levels. We are headed in that direction.
Post-2017, we want to expand to other areas of Cairo – places like Maadi, which are in a different part of the city than our main facility.
Building up our Teaching Arabic as a foreign language program is a huge priority. This is something we had done very well at in the past but got away from. Many European universities are looking for their teaching instructors to have more formal credentials in this regard. Our program is catering to both Egyptians and non-native Arabic speakers and it’s a major priority for us.
Another long-term goal is to expand into the international market. Scaling the market – but options are limited in the current Middle East situation.
That’s very interesting given the situation now in the broader Middle East. I don’t want you to give away your business strategy – but anything you want to share about particular ideas on location?
We are looking around at various places.
Jordan we are not a fan of. When the Arab Spring happened, many foreign universities decided to concentrate on Jordan as a study abroad location instead of Egypt. But the schools and the students were surprised at how expensive Jordan was comparatively. Many people thought the lifestyle there was less interesting than Cairo…they also found that the Arabic levels of the students coming out of these programs wasn’t as good as from Egypt.
It’s a tough market – in 2006 we set up a school in Syria. We wanted to strategically position ourselves in Syria. We saw that as a very strategic market. But then there was the tragic assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. We left almost immediately after that happened given that the Syrians were accused.
We are exploring other locations and will continue to evaluate the market.
I am trying to choose the phrase that most accurately characterizes your outlook on the situation for ILI and Arabic study in general in Cairo based on what I have heard from you here. Am I right to say you are “cautiously optimistic?”
No. We are “very optimistic.”
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