More English, Less Islam? 


An Overview of English Language Functions in the Arabian/Persian Gulf


Andrea Charise


© 2007


Figure 1.  Geographical location of the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.




In the Arabian/Persian Gulf,[1] English language usage is closely linked to nineteenth-century British trade interests in the region.  The Gulf region refers to the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (namely Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain), each of which were established as British protectorates during the colonial era.  Given the tremendous religious and cultural influence of Islam in this area, the dynamics of English language usage in this post-colonial context are somewhat unique.  Although English is generally regarded positively, the aftermath of 9/11 has provoked renewed consideration of ideological issues associated with English language teaching (ELT) and usage in the Islamic context. This report will provide a brief overview of English language usage in the Gulf, paying special attention to the historical, social, and political contexts of its function in this region.



1.  Colonial History and the Arabian/Persian Gulf


            The six Arab nations that comprise the present-day Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) share a similar, though not identical, colonial history.  Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, much of the geographical region now comprising the Gulf was under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire.  Nomadic, Arabic-speaking Bedouin tribes sparsely populated the largely deserted land, and were internally organized by traditional hierarchies (AbuKhalil 44).  The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century provided an opportunity for European powers to assert their presence throughout the Gulf, initiating a veritable paradigm shift in terms of local control over trade, commercial routes, and cultural exchange (Butt 22). 


At this time, European (and particularly British) interest in the Gulf was primarily due to its strategic position along trade routes to India.  However, beyond a national imperative to support and enhance the revenue of the British East India Company, there was little interest in occupying the deserted Gulf region (Goldschmidt 147).  Although the Gulf states were never occupied as colonies proper, by 1820 Britain had entered into a trade agreement with the coastal state of Oman in order to secure the waterways used by British merchants in India; the threat of pirates, both Arab and European, was a constant menace to trade ships laden with trading goods from southeast Asia (“Neo-Piracy” 3). 


Shortly thereafter, Abu Dhabi, Dubai (which both now comprise part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)), and Bahrain signed similar treaties in 1835, Kuwait in 1899, and Qatar in 1916.  Saudi Arabia entered into a similar agreement in 1915, but only after an armed struggle with British troops.  In the subsequent agreement established with Saudi Arabia, the expansion of Saudi territory into or interference with other regions such as Bahrain, Oman and Qatar was expressly prohibited, which conflicted with prior Saudi attempts at expansion (Al-Rasheed 42). In exchange for establishing (what would become) the Gulf states as protectorates, the British provided military support and infrastructure development throughout the region and left traditional Arab monarchies nearly absolute rule over their subjects (“Neo-Piracy” 4).


            Despite occasional conflicts prior to British colonial presence, since the seventh century Islam and Arabic had proved to be powerful cultural unifiers in the Gulf region (AbuKhalil 43).  However, its geographical location –an intersection between West and Northern Africa, Europe, India, and Asia – ensured that the region was constantly in contact with other languages and cultures.  Prior to the nineteenth century, local varieties of Arabic comprised common languages of communication (Abuhamdia 38), though the number of travelling merchants in and strategic location of the region suggests the likelihood of multiple languages employed for trade purposes.  With the introduction of the British in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries, English was increasingly implemented as a lingua franca.  Nevertheless, it did not challenge the prevalence of Arabic in the region, particularly amongst Arabic speakers (Al-Khatib 3).


With the exception of Saudi Arabia (who had declared its independence from Britain in 1932), Oman, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait each attained their independence between 1951 and 1971 (“The World Factbook”).   Following the dissolution of British protectorateship, links to the English language were retained via its integration into Gulf states' public schools.  Because of the nature of colonial presence in the region, attitudes towards English were, and to an extent still remain, generally positive.  This is somewhat unusual in the context of sociolinguistic study, in which the language of former colonial powers is typically avoided in the wake of asserting national independence (Ostler 444).  However, as a result of the Gulf states' comparably high degree of political autonomy during the colonial era, English was perceived as a facilitator of, rather than an impediment to, the process of nation building.  Furthermore, long-standing historical, cultural, and religious attachments to Arabic continue to assure its primacy as a unifying language of the region; nevertheless, the English language serves several important roles in the Gulf.  The following section describes in what ways English has established its position as a utilitarian aide to the maximization of the Gulf region's economic resources, and its broader position within its “language ecology” (Pennycook 2004, 213).



2.  Language Diversity and Status Planning


2.1 Ethno-linguistic Diversity in the Gulf


As a function of its centrality to Islam, Arabic is indisputably the official language of the Gulf region.  However, several other languages are also spoken including Urdu, Farsi, Pashto and several minor dialects of Arabic (Gordon).  Although its geographical position along key trade routes originally contributed to such linguistic diversity, economic determinants have largely influenced the current ethnic profile and language ecology of the Gulf region.  For example, tremendous revenue from petroleum exports has resulted in an unprecedented amount of building and development projects requiring imported labourers from surrounding countries.  In the UAE, expatriates and workers from India, Pakistan, South and Southeast Asia comprise approximately 80 percent of the population.  Similarly, most Qataris are Arabs, but Indian, Iranian, and Pakistani communities also comprise significant portions of the population.  Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait also have considerable percentages of foreign workers, which contribute to the multilingual context of the Gulf region (“The World Factbook”). 


In order to coordinate the vast number of multiethnic immigrant workers’ projects in construction and development in the region, hybrid varieties of Urdu/Hindi and English are widely utilized as lingua francas (Peel 149).  However, the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Labour has recently announced plans to implement a policy dictating basic English-language skills as a precondition for any person seeking work in the country (Issa), suggesting the increasing importance of English as a lingua franca amongst a considerable proportion of the population.  Scholars have also noted the increased use of English as the primary lingua franca of foreign labourers in the region (Al-Khatib 122).


English and its variants are also widely spoken by the large number of Southeast Asian domestic labourers in the region (Leonard 679).  Historical links between the Gulf and South Asia were established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the British, whose presence facilitated commonalities between the two regions such as currency, political officers, and lexical exchange between Urdu (Hindustani) and Arabic (677).  Today much the Gulf region relies upon imported domestic labour from India, Philippines, Thailand, and South Korea: countries that often utilize English, if not as a lingua franca, then as an unofficial language of wider communication (Gordon).  For example, Emirati children are often tended by Filipino or Indian nannies who provide an opportunity for English language dissemination in conjunction with Arabic; Peel suggests that “a monolithic all-Arabic speaking Emirati household seems fairly rare” (150-1).  This is likely the case for similarly structured domestic circumstances throughout the region.


Although English is widely recognized as a major, if not the primary, lingua franca or link language (McArthur 612), there remain significant opportunities for linguistic research in the Gulf.  For example, the existence of established English-language varieties in the Philippines, India, Pakistan and other labour-supplying nations suggest that these varieties of English might be also common in this area.  However, it is unclear how widespread is their respective usage, and which of these (or other) Englishes are most commonly used as the link language in this region.  Furthermore, how are such Englishes affected by their interaction with Arabic?  Given the likely external influence of Arabic as an official language and the diverse ethnic composition of the Gulf, future research might investigate whether this unique language ecology has facilitated a variety of English specific to the Arabian/Persian Gulf.



2.2 Language Status Planning


Cooper defines language status planning as the “deliberate efforts to influence the allocation of functions among a community’s languages” (99).  Depending on a language’s ascribed functions, as well as its historical, political, and social implications, discernable local attitudes towards a language often evolve.  Cooper defines several terms describing both officially-mandated and emergent functions of language, which will be applied to describe the roles of English and Arabic in the Gulf region. 


2.2.1 Official

Throughout the Gulf states, Arabic is designated as the official language and functions, as per Cooper’s definition, “as a legally appropriate language for all politically and culturally representative purposes on a nationwide basis” (100).  Arabic is a typically diglossic language, comprised of the “high” variety (“Classical” Arabic) of the Qur’an and traditional religious study, and a “colloquial” variety (“Modern Standard” Arabic (MSA)) used in government, media, and day-to-day communication.  Between the Gulf states and other Arabic nations there exist slight variations in MSA, but local linguistic deviances from MSA are strongly discouraged and are rarely evident in media or official communications (Abuhamdia 34). 


The official use of Arabic is connected intimately with the prominence of Islam in this region, and is regarded as a sign of unity among Arabic-speaking Muslims of the world.  Consequently, “Arabic has its distinctive ideologically faith-based integrative and unifying role among the Arabs… [and] is not weakened by the domination of English and French as media for science and development” (34).  Despite the endorsement of English and its utilization in several functions in the Gulf, for the most part, English is not perceived as a threat to the prominence of Arabic. In these Islamic nations, political and cultural practices are based upon varying degrees of Shari'a law drawn from the teachings of the Qur'an.  Because the sacred text of the Qur’an is only formally recognized via the Arabic language, the influence of Qur’anic teachings on political policy-making practically ensures the primacy of Arabic language in Muslim societies.  Correspondingly, English is undoubtedly kept in check by the influence of religion upon governance, as well as recent trends toward official language status planning that seek to  confirm this centrality of Arabic in Arab world at large (Dahbi 630; Elkhafaifi 257).  For these reasons, it is widely regarded that “there is no likelihood that English will make inroads into interpersonal or regulative functions” in either the Gulf or other Arab nations (Schaub 236-7). 


2.2.2 Wider Communication

            Although it is not an official language, English has asserted several functions in the Gulf region.  It is used as a language of wider communication among the multiple nationalities and ethnic groups that reside in the region, “predominating as a medium of communication across language boundaries” (Cooper 104).  Although similar roles are served by other languages (consider also the prominence of Urdu, Hindi, or Farsi, for example), English is commonly utilized as a link language when speaking to or between the large contingents of immigrant workers in the region.  This usage, however, is not extensively or uniformly mandated; as mentioned previously, the emergence of English as a language of wider communication, rather than another language, is perhaps suggested by the fact that these workers’ home-countries (particularly India, Pakistan, Philippines) tend to speak their own regional varieties of English. 


            2.2.3 Mass Media

            English usage is evident in various media sources including newspapers, television, radio, and Internet.  Arabic and English daily newspapers are printed in all six of the Gulf states (“Press Reference”), and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) programming is popular in both televised and radio formats.  In fact, the BBC was the model for Qatar’s controversial Arabic Al-Jazeera News Agency (established in 1996), which, in November 2006, launched an English-language satellite news channel capable of reaching 80 million homes worldwide (Krane). 


            Although the internet is significantly prevalent in the Gulf in comparison to Western Europe or North America, “it would be a mistake to assert that the Middle East is beyond the reach of the information revolution” (Alterman 21).  The difficulty of typographically representing Arabic is a major drawback to internet usage in the Gulf, although one study has found that university students have adapted Anglicized keyboard technologies in order to email and chat via ad-hoc translations of Arabic into typeable, Romanized alphabet (Peel 146).  Online English language usage tends to be limited to that required by post-secondary education, and students' visits to Arabic websites and webpages dedicated to Arabic popular culture far surpass visits to English equivalents (150). 


            However, recent reports have also noted the growth of both Arabic and English websites and online forums based in the Gulf region associated with extremist Islamic and terror groups, including Al-Qaeda (Abbasi and Chen 67; Cole and Glasser).  The juxtaposition of Gilles Kepel's claim that “9/11 is a product of the Internet” and Sohail Karmani's observation that for the 9/11 hijackers, “being reasonably proficient in English...enabled them to operate and make the necessary language connections in a modern English-speaking context” (2005, 266), points towards the mounting implication of an ideological veil inherent to the English language.  The role of the internet and the unanticipated use of English by terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda presents a considerable challenge to the traditionally-held notion that English is inherently a non-ideological (or conversely, inherently democratic) language, and suggests future avenues for both linguistic and socio-political research.


            2.2.4 International

            English is also used in the Gulf for its international function, providing “a linguistic system (other than one which already has an [official] or [provincial] function) as a major medium of communication which is international in scope, e.g., for diplomatic relations, foreign trade, tourism, etc” (Cooper 106).  As a region that heavily relies on the international trade of its petroleum and oil reserves, a means of international communication is essential.  Significant trade partnerships with the United States and Britain and their provision of engineering and technological expertise to the region has encouraged English as the language of international communication in the Gulf. 


            2.2.5 School Subject

In recognition of its utility as an international language, English is also taught as a school subject (Cooper 112).  Although Arabic is the primary language of primary and secondary education, English is often the language of education in universities throughout the Gulf.  The decision to conduct at least some university training in English, particularly in fields like science, engineering, and medicine, is related to a dominant attitude that English provides a distinct, pragmatic advantage to Arabic-speaking students who wish to work in, around, and outside of the Gulf region (El-Sayed 155).  The following section will discuss in greater detail how English is taught as a school subject and as a language of instruction in the Gulf, and more generally, the unique considerations of English language training (ELT) in the Islamic setting.



3.  English Language Education in the Gulf


3.1 English Language Training (ELT) in Educational Institutions


            Although the British had established schools throughout the region during the era of protectorateship, it was with the discovery of enormous oil reserves in the early twentieth-century that the Gulf countries were able to begin funding their own primary, secondary, and post-secondary education programmes (Bahgat 131).  In order to facilitate economic development with former colonial partners and take advantage of growing North American petroleum requirements, the newly independent Gulf states formally integrated English language training (ELT) into public and private education programmes.  However, a comparison of national approaches to ELT reflects some considerable divergences in the age at which English is introduced, its role in post-secondary education, and Arabic students' attitudes toward English as a language of instruction.


            3.1.1 Primary and Secondary Schooling


English, and particularly British English (El-Sayed 160), has been mandated as a primary and/or secondary school subject in each of the Gulf states, but the age at which it is introduced and the hours per week it is taught varies from country to country.  In Kuwait, students undergo twelve years of schooling before entrance into university; every year during this time, four to seven forty-five minute periods per week are dedicated to English language instruction (Malallah 23).  The first primary school in the UAE was established by Britain in 1953, and currently English is introduced in grade one and taught yearly until graduation (Guefrachi and Toudi 2).  Slightly less emphasis is placed on English in Bahrain, where English is introduced in the fourth grade and is mandatory through the ninth grade (“Ministry of Education”).  Similarly, in Oman English is introduced in fourth grade until graduation, although a suggestion to increase time allotted to English amongst all grades is currently under debate in the Omani Ministry of Education (“Oman Elementary Education”). 


However, increasing time dedicated to ELT has become a hotly politicized issue as suggested by recent events in Qatar.  In 2002, massive reforms to Qatari public education resulted in the implementation of English instruction from first grade onwards.[2]    As a result of this new educational mandate (facilitated by an American consultancy company), Qatari students will have 900 hours of ELT throughout their primary and secondary education.  In contrast to Saudi Arabia, in which the number of classes in Islamic religion and Arabic has been recently increased at the expense of English instruction, these familiar cultural subjects have been cut in order to increase the time given to English curriculum (Glasser).


In comparison to other Gulf states, ELT in Saudi Arabia is introduced considerably later.  English as an elementary school subject was first taught in approximately 1924, although the exact date is unclear (Al-Abed Al-Haq and Smadi 453).  Until 1943 it comprised approximately 12% of the elementary curriculum.  At that time, however, it was eliminated from the elementary curriculum and implemented in grade seven and until graduation.  Until the mid-1980s six hours per week were dedicated to English instruction; now, it has been reduced to four (“Saudi Arabia”).  The Saudi Arabian national Ministry of Education has recently received criticism for their preference of Islamic and Arabic texts over English educational materials, under the assumption that this approach encourages religious extremism and terrorism (Glasser, Chughtai).  Such charges, both implicit and explicit, have instigated vigorous scholarly debate regarding the cultural, linguistic, and ideological confrontation of English and Arabic.  In summary, although English is mandated as a school subject throughout the Gulf, variation in curricular time dedicated to its study suggests less uniform perceptions of its neutrality as a second, link language in the Islamic context.


            3.1.2 Post-secondary Education and English as a Language of Instruction


            English is often the language of instruction at post-secondary institutions in the Gulf, although in some cases it is only employed in certain departments.   It has been generalized that in this region, the usage or English or Arabic as the language of higher education reflects a certain “epistemological paradigm” in which locally-focused or culturally-specific subjects such as Shari’a, Islamic studies, arts, humanities, social sciences, and education are generally taught in Arabic.  On the other hand, English is often the language of instruction for “globally-oriented” subjects such as technologically- or commercially-based trades and the applied sciences (Findlow 25).  For this reason, it is unsurprising that university students are often surveyed in linguistic studies regarding cultural attitudes towards English.  This section will describe the use of English in post-secondary institutions in three Gulf states in which linguistic studies evaluating attitudes toward English instruction have also been conducted.


Although Arabic is the primary medium of instruction at Kuwait University, engineering, medicine, allied health, and sciences, are taught in English.  However, competency in English is expected among all students.  Upon entrance, students are expected to pass a placement exam in order to ensure preparedness for library research, post-graduate study, or career requirements (Malallah 24).   A 2000 study of 409 Kuwaiti undergraduates suggests that generally speaking, Kuwaiti students possess positive attitudes toward learning English and English language speakers (19).  More than 70% of students surveyed indicated that they “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with the statement “Learning English is a waste of time” (27); similarly, more than 90% “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with the statement “It is of no benefit for me to learn English” (27).  More than 73% disagreed that “Learning English will harm the Islamic religion,” or ‘Learning English means gaining habits that are not required by Arabs” (33).  In summary, this study of Kuwaiti students concludes that English is highly regarded for its utility and role in career advancement, and was not perceived to be a threat to Arabic or Islamic values.


In Saudi Arabia, English departments directed towards producing qualified English teachers, translators, and government workers have been established at most universities (Al-Abed Al-Haq and Smadi 454).  English is also the medium of instruction at King Fahad University (founded 1975).  A 1996 study reports that a sample of 54 male students indicated an acute awareness of the practicality of English instruction in the Saudi Arabian context (468).  More than half disagreed with the linkage of English and imperialism, and similar numbers disagreed that English poses a threat to the Arabic language (469). 


Although knowledge of English is emphasized as a pragmatic asset for UAE university students, some variation exists amongst UAE post-secondary institutions with regard to languages of instruction.  Founded in 1976, UAE University’s original language mandate was exclusively Arabic, although that has been somewhat modified (Findlow 26).  The Higher Colleges of Technology (founded in 1988) are almost exclusively taught in English by non-Arab, expatriate instructors with the exception of Arabic and Islamic Studies.  Courses at Zayed University (founded in 1998) are conducted almost wholly in English (26).  A 2006 study of 340 UAE University students suggests some ambivalence regarding the perception of the English language as the primary medium of university study.  Although 50% of students preferred to be taught in English rather than Arabic, 22% indicated a preference for Arabic and a considerable proportion (28%) indicated a preference for “both” (Findlow 26). 


It is noteworthy that recent linguistic studies of attitudes demonstrate the most ambivalence towards the English language.  This may be due to renewed regional awareness of the long-standing linguistic debates regarding English as a vehicle of Western culture, as demonstrated by Arabic media's portrayal of the recent controversy in Qatari public school reform and the ongoing global aftermath of 9/11.  Future sociolinguistic research might investigate the longitudinal effects, if any, of students' attitudes towards English in the Gulf region in order to draw possible correlations between attempts to “Westernize” Islamic nations and changing attitudes toward both the English language and its usage in the Arabic context.



3.2 ELT Training in the Gulf

            3.2.1 English Language Instruction Organizations


            The rapid explosion of business and communications technology in the Gulf has led to an unprecedented interest in learning English (Al-Khatib 3).  ELT is extensively available throughout the region, primarily though not exclusively through organizations like the British Council.  The British Council has a significant and long-standing presence in the region, having established offices in Bahrain (1959), Kuwait (1955, closed 1990, reopened 1991), Oman (1971), Qatar (1972), Saudi Arabia (1965), and UAE (1969) (“British Council: When did we open in...?”).  On its main website, the British Council provides a frank account of its original mandate regarding ELT:

The British Council was founded as an organ of international propaganda. During the late 1920s an influential group of civil servants became convinced that British’ values of parliamentary democracy could be subsumed by the rising tide of fascism…Particular Council initiatives included the teaching of English, but political messages always came along with the language tuition. Geographical priorities included the Middle East and Latin America where the dictator powers were working hard to win friends. …This and similar efforts over the BBC external services facilitated the astonishing transformation of Britain from its pre-war image of perfidious imperialist manipulator into a new incarnation as truth teller and fount of fair play. (Cull)

            In addition to English language services provided by the British Council, US-based TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) also asserts a palpable presence in the region.  Established in 1966, TESOL is a worldwide professional organization for English language educators (Alatis). More locally, TESOL Arabia is an affiliated branch of TESOL based in the Gulf region.  According to its website, “TESOL Arabia is a not-for-profit teachers' membership organization devoted to the professional development of its members, who are mostly based in the UAE and the Gulf region, though we have many members in other countries around the world” (“Frequently Asked Questions”).  However, critics of TESOL and its affiliates identify the organization's tendency to promote, if only inadvertently, Eurocentric discourses of language and culture at odds with cultural paradigms such as Islam:

While the world at large seems to be treating English as a vehicle for global communication, a sizable segment of the TESOL profession continues to be informed by an anachronistic anthropological belief in the inextricability of the language–culture connection. TESOL textbooks continue to use the English language as a cultural carrier. There are instances where academic papers presented at professional conferences propagate an ethnocentric view of culture learning and culture teaching... Even textbooks on intercultural communication, with very few exceptions, still treat Western cultural practices as the communicational norm for intercultural communication across the globe. (Kumaravadivelu 19)


However, meaningful steps toward addressing the question of English language “culture” have been taken.  Most notably, TESOL Islamia is a new, comprehensive, independent internet resource[3] for both students and teachers of English in Islamic context.  Based in the UAE, TESOL Islamia is unique because of its critical approach to traditional TESOL pedagogy and its commitment to “promoting scholarship, disseminating information and facilitating cross-cultural understanding among all TESOL professionals (Muslims and non-Muslims) involved in the teaching of English in the Muslim World” (“What is TESOL Islamia?”).  In order to promote the teaching of English in a manner compatible with the Muslim faith, TESOL Islamia provides downloadable, alternative ELT materials that integrate and are sensitive to Islamic themes.  Although a number of its pages are still under construction, TESOL Islamia is a laudable initiative attending to the linguistic, social, and political complexities of placing ELT within an Islamic paradigm.


3.2.2 Cultural Considerations of ELT


          Several specific issues exist regarding ELT in both the Gulf and in the Islamic context at large. It is widely regarded that the common coupling of geographical colonization with religious and linguistic discourses identifies English as a “missionary language” of imperialist, Judeo-Christian values (Pennycook and Makoni, 137).[4]  Furthermore, English is often associated with Western practices, some of which –including alcohol consumption and overt or alternative sexuality– directly oppose Islamic doctrine.  Ratnawati Mohd-Araf summarizes the issue succinctly: “In the same way that English is more than just a language, Islam is more than just a religion.  Indeed it is a way of life, with its own worldview; a way of looking at the world that is different –on some fundamental issues– from that of the Western world” (104). 


            Indeed, some of these differences seem irreconcilable with the purported values of Western culture.  For example, government censorship of films, the media, the internet, and textbooks is commonplace in the Gulf.  Moreover, English language instruction materials are usually published in Western countries and reflect values that are at odds with those of the Muslim faith.  References to the non-Islamic celebration of birthdays are often removed (Pennycook 1994, 6), and one English teacher in UAE has recounted the “attentive…blacking out” of words and phrases deemed offensive including “‘Halloween,’ ‘Valentine’s Day,’ ‘alternative lifestyle,’ ‘homosexual,’ and a reference to a ‘father cooking’” (Martin 51). 


In response, some language scholars have suggested specific strategies for transcending the apparent discord between ELT and Islamic culture.  For example, one suggestion involves simply sensitizing English instructors to the cultural differences that may be encountered in the classroom (Mohd-Asraf 117).  By adopting an “Islamic approach” to ELT in which references to non-Muslim material is excluded, English could be made compatible with Islamic culture (Shafi 34-7).  However, Pennycook notes the pragmatic and ideological difficulties associated with this seemingly reasonable compromise: “[i]t would involve the retraining of teachers, the teaching of lexical items and Islamic concepts in context, rewriting syllabuses and textbooks, changing exam systems, and comprehensive structural support…with the domination of Western teaching practices, theories and textbooks around the world, a constant rearguard battle has to be fought to maintain such a project” (1994, 209-10). 


The question of whether ELT can ever be “culture-free” is particularly relevant to Arabic nations in which Islam is inextricable from governance, education, justice and politics.  The final section of this report will outline the revitalized debate surrounding the ideological value of English and its impact upon –and in some cases, outright conflict with– Islamic culture in the Gulf region and beyond. 



4.  More English, Less Islam?  The Renewed Debate Concerning English in the Gulf


            Although linguistic studies in the Gulf have often emphasized the utilitarian function of English, popular sentiment since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States may challenge this perception.  In 2003, The Washington Post published an article entitled “Qatar reshapes its schools, putting English over Islam” (Glasser).  This article praised the Qatari ruling family’s decision to implement “revolutionary” reforms to their public education curriculum by adopting a US-campaign to eliminate ostensible “breeding grounds” of Islamic extremism in public schools.  In rewriting its curriculum, teaching methods, and textbooks under the supervision of the Rand Corporation, Qatar enthusiastically endorsed English as an antidote to the “militancy supposedly fostered by Arabic-medium education” (Chugtai). 


This now-infamous article was the flashpoint for renewed linguistic and political anxieties around the influence of English on Islam, couched in contemporary rhetoric of the “war on terror.”  Sohail Karmani, a Muslim applied-linguist currently based at the University of Sharjah in UAE, has produced extensive and admirable commentary on this linguistic conflict.  In his article “English, ‘Terror,’ and Islam,” Karmani provides a well-supported introduction to an apparent paradigm shift in US foreign policy: from one strongly in support of Islamic schools (madrassahs) in Afghanistan during the Cold War, to current accusations that Islamic education breeds terrorism (263).  Karmani identifies his repugnance with the notion of “More English, less Islam” by pointing out the political impossibility of analogous calls for, say, “more English and less Buddhism, less Sikhism, or less Judaism– or even more absurdly, ‘more Arabic and less Christianity’” (264). 


In an interview with Alistair Pennycook, Karmani also notes the onset of “language wars” evidenced by both English and Arabic global media.  Indeed, the recent launch of an English version of the prominent Arabic Al-Jazeera[5] network is not unrelated to the development of an Arabic-language CNN[6] shortly after 9/11, exemplifying the perceived importance – by all sides of the ideological divide – of harnessing language as a communicative strategy in the “war on terror”.  However, linguistic scholars also warn of the risks involved with implementing such sociopolitically-charged linguistic tactics: “in a struggle by Al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite TV networks to reach a wider audience, to present a different picture of the world through English than the one so commonly available, surely this is...a necessary and urgent use of English.  In the same way that a reaction to the new may be that this increased use of Arabic is not so welcome, so a reaction to the increased use of English may also have to be viewed as both positive and negative” (Karmani, “9/11”).  The pragmatic but politically-motivated appropriation of English to critique the very culture in which it is embedded –identical in its impetus with CNN's usage of Arabic to advance the political agenda of Western superpowers– relies on the problematic double-bind of at once resisting and participating in the discourse of language as a cultural vehicle.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this issue highlights yet another opportunity for future linguistic research: the need to revisit –and possibly redefine-- what is understood by the notion of English as a “link language” in the Islamic context. 


By way of concluding this section, one might ask Shaheen Chugtai's question of whether English and Arabic, and more generally, English and Islam, are necessarily locked in a “zero-sum” contest.  Moreover, what are the implications of increasingly dominant Western policies that generate largely unexamined equivalencies between linguistic, religious, and political paradigms?  Finally, if Arabic can be so closely associated with Islam, can English justifiably retain its traditional claims to secularity? 


The dynamics of English usage in the Gulf suggest that, historically speaking, the language has not presented a viable threat to the Islamic religion in which Arabic is entrenched.  However, the rapidly changing dynamics of global linguistic exchange, particularly those offered by the internet and mass media, suggest the need to re-examine the “comfort” with which English is positioned within the language ecology of the region.  Initiatives like TESOL Islamia suggest that ELT and English language usage may be tailored somewhat to communicate issues sensitive to Muslim values but, nevertheless, there exists the reality of its “foreigner” status and association with cultural values at odds with those of Islam.  Indeed, asserting English and Islam as opposite poles of an ideological divide does not address the complexity of the linguistic strategy employed by, say, or English Al-Jazeera in which an “other,” culturally-invested language is employed to further the interests of the culture to which it is ostensibly opposed.  Although it must be remembered that English is not the language of the original texts of Christianity and is therefore not explicitly religious per se, its historical appropriation as a “missionary language” supplies an ideological burden which cannot be dismissed as a benign nor regarded as any less palpable than the explicit religiosity of Arabic in the Islamic context.  Brief and introductory responses to these questions will have to suffice for this report, but extensive sociolinguistic investigation of these issues is necessary to better anticipate the distinctive relationship(s) between English language functions an the Islamic setting such as the Gulf region. 


This four-part report provides a preliminary outline of the various functions of, and attitudes toward, the English language in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. Since the nineteenth-century this region has been a site of some struggle for English-speaking colonial powers; although British imperialism has left its remainders in terms of the incorporation of English language instruction and EFL teaching across the Gulf, the current climate of American empire-building has revived the distinctly political suggestion (to use Samuel Huntington's problematic but nevertheless evocative notion) of a potential “clash of civilizations.”  Both the prevalence of English in the Gulf region and the current politicization of Islam offer a distinctive case study of English as a link language and as a vehicle for cultural exchange: a unique and perhaps pace-setting example of the manner in which current global politics may decidedly influence linguistic phenomena, definitions, and their strategic utilization as vehicles of culture.






I would like to thank both Professor Carol Percy and my colleagues in the “Diasporic Englishes” graduate course offered by the Department of English at The University of Toronto, Ontario, for their thoughtful input and suggestions during the drafting of this report.
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[1] The appropriate name for this region is currently under dispute.  While Arab countries have utilized the name “Arabian Gulf” since the mid-twentieth century, Iran has objected to this designation in favour of “Persian Gulf.”  In the interests of remaining neutrality in this report, I shall refer to the region designated by the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) simply as the “Gulf” or as the “Arabian/Persian Gulf,” as suggested by Habibi and El-Najjar (2005). 

[2] A detailed report of Qatar's new curricular standards is available online at 

[3] See

[4] Although it is beyond the scope of this report, similar concerns have recently been raised regarding the work of evangelical Christian organizations in Iraq.  American evangelical organizations including Voice of Martyrs, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism have identified Muslims in Iraq as “priority targets for proselytising” under the pretence of providing free English lessons in vulnerable, war-affected communities (Chugtai).

[5] Available at

[6] Available at