Given his royal descent and his research interests in democracy, education and human rights, the career of Hicham Alaoui, a Moroccan scholar and academic, seems quite extraordinary. Before becoming a political scientist and a visiting professor at many prestigious international academic institutions, Alaoui held the title of prince as a cousin of Mohammed VI, king of Morocco.
His royal roots provided him with opportunities to study at major international universities. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University, a master’s degree from Stanford University, and a doctorate at the University of Oxford. However, his passion for research prompted him to give up his princely title and delve into the study of political and social issues.
He founded the Hicham Alaoui Foundation in 2009, a private, non-profit foundation that supports social science research in the Arab world.
“It is time to consider other research areas and issues that have important implications and are not directly overshadowed by politics,” Alaoui, who is currently a research associate at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, wrote in an email.
During his studies and work as a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Stanford University, Alaoui’s research interests focused on possible ways to promote democracy and human rights in Middle Eastern societies, and the obstacles to the existence of democratic governments.
“The experiences and events he was exposed to since his early years prompted him to think about such issues from a new perspective, and to propose democratic reforms as necessary.”George Joffe
A professor of international relations at the University of Cambridge
In his Ph.D. research at the University of Oxford, he discussed possible ways of persuading authoritarian regimes to engage in the democratization process, and possible means of integrating large masses sympathetic to political Islam currents in the democratization process.
George Joffe, a professor of international relations and a specialist in Middle Eastern and North African studies at the University of Cambridge and one of the supervisors of Alaoui’s doctoral study, believes that Alaoui’s early upbringing in Morocco’s royal family and his experiencing many of his country’s difficult political events played a major role in shaping his ideas.
“The experiences and events he was exposed to since his early years prompted him to think about such issues from a new perspective, and to propose democratic reforms as necessary,” Joffe said in an email interview.
In his doctoral thesis, Alaoui proposed to solve the crisis of authoritarianism in Arab societies through the adoption of principles like those that guided the democratization process that began in the 1970s in Latin America. That process allows authoritarian regimes to “steer” democratic transitions by making a set of concessions to social movements or political parties that do not touch the autocratic interests, which are gradually curtailed through a series of subtle changes that eventually lead to democratic governance.
Richard Falk, a professor of international law at Princeton University and one of Alaoui’s undergraduate teachers, said the former prince’s “general intelligence and balanced perspectives on difficult, complex and controversial issues were the hallmark of him as a student.”
As an undergraduate, Alaoui was “largely involved in international events that show a strong impulse to make his life useful in promoting peace and justice.”Richard Falk
A former professor of Alaoui’s and now a research colleague
He was also “largely involved in international events that show a strong impulse to make his life useful in promoting peace and justice,” Falk wrote in an email.
A decade ago, the consolidated relations and common research interests between Falk and Alaloui prompted them to collaborate in the establishment of a studies project, under the auspices of the Global Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Over the course of ten years, the research center devoted its efforts to discussing the broad social and political impacts of climate change on society, by touring different regions of the world such as India, Morocco and the United States. This resulted in publishing a series of research papers titled Reimagining Climate Justice.
In addition to research projects, Alaoui has funded the establishment of two permanent research centers, the Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia at Princeton University and the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University.
Alaoui explained that the main reason behind that move is the deep personal and decades-long ties that bind him to those two universities.
As for the limited role businessmen play in supporting higher-education institutions in the Arab world, compared to the magnitude of their contributions in Europe and the United States, Alaoui believes that the reason for such “imbalance” is the institutional aspect of the beneficiaries and the strategic interests of donors, as well as the burdensome political and bureaucratic constraints that prevent higher-education institutes in the Arab World from receiving external funding.
Reforming Arab Education
Alaoui tried to establish a research center in Morocco similar to what he had launched at Princeton University and supported the establishment of a new university. However, both attempts went unsuccessful.
“Democracy allows all stakeholders involved in the learning process, including students, educators and policy makers, to interact.Hicham Alaoui
“Both experiences have shown the difficulties you face to support higher education institutions in Morocco, which were difficult to overcome,” he said.
Alaoui believes that the main solution to improve the education system in his country and the Arab world is for governments to support universities with more financial resources and grant them more autonomy to make local decisions. (See two related articles: “Supportive Innovation: A Model for Change in Arab Higher Education” and “2 Books Explore the Tricky Issue of Reform in Arab Higher Education.”)
Universities succeed when they gain independence in setting their own priorities, such as hiring the right faculty, reconfiguring areas of specialization, and attracting the right students for those disciplines.
“That is to be flexible enough to accommodate new trends that respond to both local labor markets and the global knowledge-based economy,” he said.
Recently, Alaoui and a research team published a book titled “The Political Economy of Education in the Arab World,” in which he discussed the relationship between the structure of Arab countries’ economic and political systems and their educational systems, and how the absence of democracy contributes to the lack of quality of these systems. (See a related article, “Are U.S. Branch Campuses Paying Off for Gulf States? Study Says No.”)
“Democracy allows all stakeholders involved in the learning process, including students, educators and policy makers, to interact,” he said, stressing that educational changes under authoritarian regimes only occur when they are imposed from the top down, which ultimately leads to fragile, unsustainable reforms.
New Research Initiatives
Today, Alaoui is working with a research team on three new academic projects. The first is about governance and local development in the Middle East, with a special focus on human development in marginalized communities who live in rural fringes and their experience, which differs from how urban political centers are directed.
“The future situation of education will not necessarily be bleak. It may witness an improvement, even if minimal.”Hicham Alaoui
His second research project explores the unintended consequences of foreign and military aid that Western countries pay to Middle Eastern governments, and its impact on these societies.
His third project is an ongoing initiative on climate change in the Middle East and North Africa, which examines the climate emergency facing the region to identify the dangers, challenges and opportunities arising from these changes. It also includes the production of books by experts on the economic, social and cultural impacts of climate change in the Middle East and North Africa, and its impact on the quality of political life and the protection of human rights. (See the following related articles: “Syrian Researcher Focuses on Arab World Climate Change,” “Population Growth Compounds Climate Change,” and “New Data Show Water Scarcity Is Increasing in the Arab World, Stirring Discussion.”)
“Our current plan focuses on curating a series of individual books on topics as diverse as natural resource management, including soil, freshwater and biodiversity, climate refugees, and the health dimensions of climate change,” said Falk, who co-manages this project with Alaoui.
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In turn, Alaoui affirms his keenness to continue supporting his foundation in addition to his research projects in order to monitor social changes and contribute to the development of their societies. He believes that the socio-political demands will increase with time, and the educational system will be at the heart of these demands because education is the lever and the “social elevator.”
“The ruling authority’s response to education-related demands will not pose a direct threat to it, and may ease tension,” he said. “The future situation of education will not necessarily be bleak. It may witness an improvement, even if minimal.”