Iran, Saudi Arabia vie for influence over Afghan HE

Two leading Islamic powers, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are building Islamic universities and higher education institutions in restive areas of Afghanistan in an attempt to use them as a proxy battleground and as soft power tools for expanding their ideological, cultural and political spheres of influence, according to experts on the region.

"In recent years, we have seen the two states becoming increasingly interested in the funding of universities, madrassas and Islamic schools beyond those states typically seen as arenas of proxy competition," said Simon Mabon, a lecturer in international relations and director of the Richardson Institute for Peace Studies at Lancaster University, United Kingdom.

“Funding schools and universities is an increasingly popular way of cultivating soft – cultural – power, with education seen as a way of empowering people and providing them with the means through which to improve their socio-economic positions within society,” said Mabon, who is author of the book Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft power rivalry in the Middle East.

The two countries’ backing of universities in Afghanistan was, on the face of it, “a goodwill gesture intended to improve quality of life for Afghan citizens. But looking at the bigger picture, however, it seems clear that there are also broader, realpolitik considerations at play," Mabon told University World News.

“This is not without consequence," Mabon cautioned. "Exporting religious values in search of increased soft or cultural power comes at a political price, with regional consequences and, potentially, increased tensions across the Muslim world.”

Emily Metzgar, a former US diplomat, now associate professor and director of the honours programme in the Media School at Indiana University in the United States, said that given long-term animosities between Iran and Saudi Arabia, these developments in Afghanistan also “set the stage for conflicts – ideological or otherwise – to play out on the ground in this third country".

Iran's universities in Afghanistan

Iran has been building links with Afghan universities, welcoming Afghan students to Iran and setting up scholarships for them, as well as building branch campuses of its own institutions in Afghanistan.

In March, Allameh Tabataba’i University, one of Iran’s largest public universities specialising in humanities and social sciences, announced that it would launch a Pashto faculty, focusing on the Afghan language and literature, collaborating with Kabul University.

Some 15,000 Afghan students already study at Iranian universities with plans announced by Afghan diplomats to increase the number, saying students were the best ambassadors between the two countries.

Iran's regional agenda is aimed at maintaining a leading position as the largest Shia-majority country of the region by becoming a key cultural, political and economic player that links the Middle East and Asia. According to the 2014 report Iran's Regional Policy: Interests, challenges and ambitions, Afghanistan is a special focus.

Iran’s Islamic Azad University set up a branch in the Afghan capital Kabul in 2010 and established the US$17 million Khatam al-Nabyeen Islamic University in western Kabul in 2006, to serve Shia Muslims.

Al-Mustafa International University, which disseminates the Iranian regime’s ideology in the Islamic world, also has a branch in Afghanistan, with 1,500 Afghans at its Kabul campus. Some 350 students graduate each year, according to a 2016 report.

In addition, Iran offers scholarships to Afghan students at Iranian universities, particularly for postgraduate study in the sciences and technology, and is establishing study centres for Persian language and Islamic issues in Afghan universities, such as Syed Jamaluddin Afghan University in Asadabad, capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province.

Plans to establish more branches of Iranian universities in Afghanistan have been unveiled. For example, the state-run Iranian Payame Noor University – specialising in distance education, with some 30 provincial centres and campuses in Iran – is establishing branches in Afghanistan.

Ferdowsi University of Mashhad – Iran’s third-largest public university and the largest research university in eastern Iran – is establishing a branch in the Afghan city of Herat to be called Khajeh Abdollah Ansari University.

Saudi universities in Afghanistan

Saudi Arabia is reportedly investing nearly US$500 million on a new Islamic university in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar, situated close to the border with Pakistan, and considered the stronghold region of ISIS (also known as Daesh or Islamic State).

The university will be built in an area of 160 acres in Ghazi Amanullah Khan Township in Rodat district of Nangarhar and is expected to be able to accommodate up to 10,000 students. The university will deliver all its religious lessons and classes in Arabic rather than Afghanistan’s national languages.

Khaama Press also indicated that the Saudi government had previously signed an agreement with a Saudi construction company in November 2014 to build another major university for Islamic studies in Kabul.

Politicisation of universities

"The provision of educational opportunities for communities that have traditionally been overlooked is a good thing for the country’s economic development. In this sense, Iran and Saudi Arabia's investments in the creation of universities in Afghanistan fits the more traditional mould of foreign aid,” former US diplomat Metzgar told University World News.

"However, it is also true that these investments have the potential to benefit their foreign sponsors over time, by exposing Afghan students to Iranian or Saudi views of the world and even promoting a sense of loyalty among students toward the nation that has made their education possible.”

Iranian Professor Muhammad Sahimi, a chemical engineer at the University of Southern California in the US, said: "In Iran, universities are highly politicised as they have always been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and defence of human rights.”

Students should be politically aware and even politically active, but "of course, this is different from a nation trying to use universities in other nations as a way of gaining cultural influence there. That would be tantamount to intervening in the internal affairs of another nation,” Sahimi said.

Mujib Rahman Ahmadzai, a lecturer in the faculty of environmental science at Kabul University, told University World News that the existence of political activities on Afghan campuses is not controversial in the country and pointed to the presence of the student wings of many political parties at colleges and universities.

"On ethical grounds, one might argue that higher education – especially in countries like Afghanistan which are still in their infancy for true socio-economic and political reforms – must remain above the politicisation of ‘soft cultural powers’,” David Rahni, an Iranian professor of chemistry at Pace University in New York, told University World News.

"And yet, due to a lack of sustained and robust independent NGOs and fact-driven think tanks, it is inevitable that certain professors, if not for anything else but for bolstering their accolades and sustenance, will engage in this venture."

William Rugh, another former US diplomat, now a professor of public diplomacy at Northeastern University in the US, and former president of AMIDEAST, a non-governmental organisation that works on educational and training projects throughout the Middle East, says: "Responsible Afghans should stand up for independent and fair education that serves the interests of Afghan society by providing objective and balanced learning free from political influence.

"Outsiders can be supportive, but I believe it is the Afghan people who have the primary responsibility for maintaining a useful educational system," Rugh said.

Mabon agreed. He said: "Educational establishments should be free from political agendas, particularly when these can be divisive, not only among students, but the wider local communities.

"As Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to spread their rivalry across the Islamic world, they should remember the price that exporting such views will have."