Can Arab Preppies Save the Middle East?

A New England-style Boarding School Opens in Jordan

In the popular imagination, New England boarding schools are a cloistered world where the blond-haired children of America’s blue bloods pick up the arch manners and the strange affinity for boat shoes that will mark them forever as a class apart. But not if you are a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad and scion of the Hashemite dynasty, the erstwhile princes of Mecca who rule the Kingdom of Jordan. For Abdullah Ibn Hussein, now known as His Majesty King Abdullah II, the carefree years he spent at Deerfield Academy in western Massachusetts (class of 1980) were formative. Deerfield introduced Abdullah to a much broader range of friends than is normally available to young Arab princes; and the character-building crucible of dormitory life taught him Yankee egalitarianism, self-reliance and how to clear dishes from the dinner table.

So, after he ascended to the throne in 1999, the king began to replicate the experience for some of his own subjects, planning an elite boarding school for Jordan. In 2006, he lured Deerfield’s then headmaster Eric Widmer and several other Deerfield teachers from the green hills of New England to his semi-desert realm with a heady challenge: Create a new generation of Middle Eastern leaders from all backgrounds and faiths whose commitment to global citizenship would help transform the region. King’s Academy opened this fall with about 100 students — the first co-educational boarding school in the Middle East. (Victoria College, a boys boarding school founded by the British in Alexandra in 1902, was nationalized and effectively gutted by the Egyptian government in 1956.) Though the students now hail mainly from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab Middle East, King’s hopes to eventually attract students from Israel and the West as well.

A complete campus designed for an eventual enrollment of around 600 students has sprouted, as if from dragon teeth, on the edge of Madaba, a farming town about 30 miles south of Amman, Jordan’s capital. King’s copied many ingredients of the New England boarding school recipe: family-style meals at round tables, school-wide assemblies, blue blazers and khaki pants. More importantly, it has adopted the belief shared by Deerfield and others that the classroom should be an intimate place that fosters discussion and critical thinking rather than rote memorization, which is the default teaching method in much of the region. But most importantly, the environment created by Widmer and his colleagues emphasizes learning and leadership outside of the classroom, through athletics, community service and honor codes.

But if the school’s newly turfed lawns appear to have more grass than all of the rest of Jordan, its Levantine-style white stone buildings — and the tight security at its main gate — remind visitors that they’re not in Massachusetts anymore. The founders of King’s Academy quickly grasped that building an exact replica of Deerfield in the Middle East was neither possible nor desirable; they wanted an institution that combined the best of East and West. Arabic language classes are mandatory, and humanities courses taught in English draw on the canonical works of many civilizations. Anticipating the difficulty of convincing parents in this conservative society to send their children away to school, King’s set strict rules governing relations between boys and girls: no kissing, no holding hands, and no visiting each other’s dorms.

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing King’s is beyond the control of even the most committed faculty or enlightened royal patron: the ever-turbulent Middle East. As King Abdullah likes to say, Jordan is a country caught between “Iraq and a hard place” — i.e., Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Is an elite academy sustainable in a country that is flooded with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees? What will happen to King’s if turmoil in Iraq or tensions between the U.S. and Iran plunge the region into a new war? Safwan Masri, the Jordanian chairman of the academy’s board of trustees and a professor at Columbia Business School, is unfazed. “The one thing that almost everyone in the Middle East respects is American education,” he said. “The fact that this is a troubled region makes the case for this kind of school even stronger.”

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