A collection of men at a TV station, looking at the various equipment.
A collection of men at a TV station, looking at the various equipment. ©

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Main photo credit: Image © Terry Moore

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has always been an area of importance for the British Council.

Some of our earliest scholarships were awarded in the region, and our first ever overseas office opened in Cairo in 1938. 

The strategic importance of the area led to the rapid development of a network of offices and institutes across the region during the Second World War. 

Our years of activity have coincided with times of massive change, conflict and rapid development. Throughout this we have sought to build, strengthen and develop relationships and trust. 

An Early Focus of Activity

During the Second World War the region was a major focus for our operations, in which we quickly established many institutes and libraries, and supported a number of schools and colleges. 

As communications with London were difficult, activities across the region were managed from our office in Cairo during the war.

Following the war we endured severe budget cuts. This lead to dramatic reductions in our activities, and the closure of many premises.

However, in 1956 a special budget of £150,000 (equal to about £3.5 million today) was provided for expansion in the Middle East. This was the result of Government reviews into our activities, reinforcing the importance of the region to future British interests, and our unique role in developing relationships between the UK and countries in the region.

This grant allowed us to reopen in Libya and Morocco, and also enter into the Gulf States for the first time. 

English Teaching

During the Second World War we taught English directly to students and Allied serviceman. Although we usually used our own institutes, at times we had to be more flexible. When teaching in refugee camps we conducted lessons in the open air, using petrol tins for chairs, a door for a blackboard and limestone for chalk. 

Teaching activities were reduced after the war. We began to focus on teacher training as well, which allowed us to reach a wider number of students with limited resources.

The budget expansion of 1956 led to an increase in both our own teaching staff and school subsidies, whilst allowing us to arrange teaching training courses in the UK.

Funding from the Overseas Development Ministry (now DfID) and from charitable foundations allowed us to expand our work in the poorer nations in the region. We delivered a range of cooperative and educational aid projects, such as English training in technical subjects. 

We were able to run similar projects in wealthy nations by establishing ‘Paid Educational Services’, in which the national government would pay us to run educational projects. One of the first was the establishment of the English Learning Centre at King Abdul-Aziz University in 1975.

Building Relationships

Events like the Suez Crisis of 1956, or the Aden Emergency in the late 1960s put pressure on our activities, described by some as ‘culturally imperialist’. 

Sometimes it has taken us time to earn the trust of local governments. Our first office in what is now the United Arab Emirates was in Dubai, which offended the federal government of Abu Dhabi. By responding to the needs of the federal states, for example by teaching Arabic to the expatriate community, we were eventually able to extend operations throughout the area. 

The security situation in the Middle East and North Africa means that work there is sometimes challenging, but we have maintained a consistent presence through difficult times. When necessary, we have temporarily left a country – from Egypt and Syria in 1956, Iraq in 1967, and Libya in 1973. Despite this, we subsequently returned to all, allowing us to build trust, create opportunities and form stronger relations between the UK and the region as a whole.