Arabists

Since the Second World War, the U.S. Foreign Service has benefited from the extraordinary area expertise and professionalism of a cadre of officers, often referred to as “Arabists,” serving in the countries of the Near East within the region of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA).  Informed by deep knowledge of the history, politics and culture of the Arab world and often highly fluent in the Arabic language, their insights and cross-cultural skills have served as a rich resource for American diplomacy. 

Valuable though their reports from the field have been, the Arabists as a group have also been charged with “clientitis” – being too sympathetic to the views of their subjects – especially when their interlocutors represent despotic regimes, espouse extreme versions of Islam or express virulent anti-American or anti-Israel views.  Like the FSO “China hands” of World War II who described the growing strength of the Chinese Communists, the Arabists, while seeking to promote the national interests of the United States, have on occasion fallen prey to U.S. domestic political forces beyond their control – tainted by their reporting of unwelcome messages, by a popular image of elitist fascination with exotic and dangerous cultures, and by favoring policies out of favor in Washington.

Who Are the Arabists?

The term “Arabist” has been applied to two different groups of Foreign Service Officers: the wide group of FSOs very familiar with the Arab world because of previous service in the region and the narrower cohort within that group made up of true Arab world specialists, usually with a strong command of Arabic.  Whichever definition is applied, one can argue that FSO Arabists generally have a nuanced understanding of the worldview, motivations and concerns of the Arabs (“Arabs” being defined as those peoples whose mother tongue is Arabic).  In addition, Arabists have a notably strong recognition of the economic, strategic and political benefits of good U.S.-Arab relations.      

Although “Arabist” essentially refers to a person knowledgeable about Arabs, at times it has taken on a pejorative cast.  Former Assistant Secretary of State for NEA Richard Murphy once said that, to many people, the term was taken to mean “he who intellectually sleeps with Arabs” (quoted in Kaplan, The Arabists, p. 7).  Some use it in an accusatory sense, to imply that the person, if not actually anti-Jewish or anti-Israel, is prone to take “the Arab side” on contentious Middle East issues involving Israel. 

Some of the prominent Arabists grew up in the Middle East, born into families associated with the American University of Beirut or the American University in Cairo.  Others became fascinated with the region and gained language skills early in their academic and professional lives.  A few have taken a deep scholarly interest in the arts and literature of the Arab world, or in the various forms of Islam, especially Sufism.  Most have concentrated their attention on the languages, history and politics of the region.  Quite a number of Arabists are also proficient in the languages of other Muslim-majority countries of the region, such as Turkish, Farsi, Dari and Urdu, and not a few are as equally at home in Hebrew as in Arabic.

Like the China hands, many of whom also had missionary parents, the Arabists have over the decades tended to look for ways to improve U.S. ties with countries in the Arab world.  They have been at the forefront of efforts to use diplomatic, foreign assistance and other U.S. assets to promote economic cooperation, establish and strengthen bilateral exchanges of all kinds, and encourage publication of scholarly books and articles on the region.  Many of the Arabists have been frequent contributors to the Foreign Service Journal and other publications over the years.

Arabists generally have enjoyed the intellectual and professional rewards of working in a region where political and other challenges to U.S. interests are often intense and many people see the world differently from the Western view.  But Arabists have often been stigmatized in the United States for alleged bias, a charge they resent and reject.  Also, in recent years they have had to face the greater security concerns affecting all Americans who live and travel in that region.

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pdfCurtis F. Jones, “The Education of an Arabist,” Foreign Service Journal, December 1982

bookKaplan, Robert.  The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite.  New York: The Free Press, 1993.

bookRugh, William A.  American Encounters with Arabs: The "Soft Power" of U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2005.

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