By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 20, 2007
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- For Nabil Al Yousuf, a senior aide to the ruler of the Persian Gulf state of Dubai, the indignities of arriving in the United States since 2001 have become routine, but remain galling.
A U.S. airport immigration official typically takes Yousuf's passport, places it in a yellow envelope and beckons. Yousuf tells his oldest son and other family members not to worry. And Yousuf -- who goes by "Your Excellency" at home -- disappears inside a shabby back room. He waits alongside the likes of "a man who had forged his visa and a woman who had drugs in her tummy," he recounted. He is questioned, fingerprinted and photographed.
So when it came time this year for the oldest son to choose a university, there was one choice that seemed right to Yousuf, a fond alumnus of universities in Arizona and Georgia.
"Australia's more welcoming," said Yousuf, the director general of the Dubai government's executive office and the executive director of the Dubai School of Government. He spoke in his glass-walled corner office high over the thrusting metallic skyline of the port city of Dubai, one of seven emirates that form the United Arab Emirates.
"When I was there, the U.S. used to be a welcoming place. We never felt we were foreigners," Yousuf said, cupping prayer beads in one hand and displaying his University of Arizona mug, discolored with age, in the other. In the United States, "you just don't feel part of society anymore."
The Yousuf family is not alone. A generation of Arab men who once attended college in the United States, and returned home to become leaders in the Middle East, increasingly is sending the next generation to schools elsewhere. This year, Australia overtook the United States as the top choice of citizens of the United Arab Emirates heading abroad for college, according to government figures here.
Ten percent fewer students in the Emirates elected to go to the United States in 2006 than in 2005, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.
In neighboring Oman, the drop was 25 percent. Jordan, Kuwait and Lebanon recorded single-digit falls, continuing a trend begun amid the crackdowns on visas and security that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The drop isn't across the board. Iran sent more students to both Australia and the United States. So did some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is dispatching thousands more students abroad under a massive scholarship program.
In Australia, meanwhile, the number of Arab and Iranian students has climbed from 2,580 in 2002 to 7,122 in 2006, according to Australia's Education Department.
For Australia, the numbers are the product of campaigns aggressively seeking the post-9/11 Arab and Muslim market, from tourism to higher education. The campaigns appeal to Arabs who once might have picked Disneyland vacations for their families and U.S. universities for their teenagers, but worry now about affronts at U.S. airports and visa problems interrupting educations.
Australia offers something different, Yousuf said: a smile at immigration counters.
Theme parks and universities in Australia have installed prayer rooms, and restaurants offer food certified as halal, prepared in accord with Islamic dietary law.
Tourism from Middle Eastern and North African countries rose by 20 percent this year, Australia's tourism board said.
"The opportunity to have a photo with a koala is very, very powerful for the Middle Eastern market," Shelley Winkel, a spokeswoman for the Dreamworld theme park on Australia's Gold Coast, said by telephone.
Australian trade offices court Arab students with semiannual college fairs. Australian tourism boards routinely include a section for the Muslim holidaymaker in their guides. Schools hand new students from the Muslim world booklets pointing out local mosques.
Yousuf's 18-year-old son, Mohammed, chose the University of Queensland, chiefly because a couple of his friends also had selected it. But he noticed that university officials went out of their way to make Muslims feel comfortable -- serving halal food at a luncheon for prospective students and pointing out the halal barbecue chicken chain off campus.
"I felt it was nice and I'd adapt there very quickly," Mohammed said last week while home on semester break.
UAE citizens still bristle over an incident in the United States last year. Returning with his family to California to finish his doctoral degree, the son of the country's foreign minister was detained for 26 hours at Los Angeles International Airport, then expelled with his visa canceled, according to news reports and Emirate officials.
The incident was front-page news in the Persian Gulf region. For days, newspapers chronicled the doctoral student's outrage, that of his wife, and that of his professors in the United States.
"That had a major impact," said Yasar Jarrar, executive dean of the Dubai School of Government.
This year, the school offered a student a full scholarship to Harvard University to pursue a master's degree at the Kennedy School of Government. The student turned it down, citing fears of visa hassles, Jarrar said.
The United States counts higher education as one of its top five service exports. More than 500,000 foreign students studied at U.S. universities last year, pouring $14.5 billion into the U.S. economy, according to the Institute of International Education. Overall, the number of foreign students studying in the United States is inching back up after a decline following the 2001 attacks, led by surging numbers from India and China.
Less concrete than financial losses caused by Gulf students who have gone elsewhere, but potentially more important, is the fraying of a bond between the United States and the Arab world, Gulf officials said.
"Our generation, all of us went to school in the States," Nabil Yousuf said. King Abdullah II of Jordan and Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia are among current leading figures in the Arab world who were educated in the United States. Both went to American prep schools and Georgetown University.
The United States and Saudi Arabia "understand each other very well, and for that we can give credit to those half-million Saudis who have lived in the United States," said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Saudi Arabia's Al-Watan newspaper, a former spokesman for Faisal and a graduate of Indiana State University.
The tradition of Saudis studying in the United States "integrated the relationship we have with America, so that despite 9/11, despite problems with foreign policy, with the Middle East, with Iraq, with Israel, we continue to have a close relationship with the United States," he said.
For the United States, the priority has been preventing new attacks. Muslim travelers, some on student visas, carried out the Sept. 11 hijackings after entering the United States with little screening.
In June, Australia's government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute issued a report cautioning about the surge of foreign students. "Australian universities may be attractive targets for talent-spotting by extremist individuals or groups," the report said.
Some Australian university officials rejected the report.
"Our strategy is we are on a mission to find the future leaders around the world," said Timothy Zak, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management in Adelaide, an affiliate of the U.S.-based school. "Regardless of where we find them . . . that's where we find them, and we recruit them." When the institute opened 18 months ago, it had a prayer room.
Still, Mohammed Al Yousuf said, the United States offers one lure that Australia can't quite match: road trips.
"To be honest, after I went to the U.S. in June, I felt that life was better and nicer there, maybe," Mohammed said. "I just like the idea of having a car and going from state to state, these kinds of things. I'm thinking of doing my master's there."