A Saudi-funded cultural centre has enrolled hundreds of people in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to study Arabic, many hoping to cater to Gulf investors.
“Being able to speak Arabic today means having a way to earn money,” Muamer Hadzihamdo, secretary of the King Fahd Cultural Centre, told BIRN.
Hadzihamdo said interest in learning Arabic was growing in Bosnia, which he said was “reasonable, since investments by Arab countries in Bosnia and Herzegovina have increased”.
The King Fahd website lists 20 blocs of Arabic classes for adult students, some stretching late into the evening, with 528 registered.
The Saudi-funded centre is situated in Alipasino Polje, a suburb close to Ilidza to which – attracted by low prices and a familiar Muslim culture – Arabs have flocked in recent years to take holidays and buy real estate.
The influx, dubbed a “Gulf frenzy” by some media, has seen signs appearing in Arabic in the streets of Ilidza advertising property sales and other services.
Bosnia’s statistics agency counted a sharp increase in overnight stays in Bosnia by Kuwaitis from 29,060 in 2014 to 37,039 in 2015.
Meanwhile, overnight stays by tourists from Saudi Arabia leapt from 11,494 in 2014 to 21,946 in 2015, and 29,362 in the first eight months of this year alone.
The numbers are expected to rise further, as the Dubai-based company Buroj is planning a tourist development for Trnovo, 30 kilometres from Sarajevo, that will feature hotels, villas, pools, medical centres and a cable car.
Buroj expects to create thousands of new jobs and ride the tourism wave from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
“Most of the people who want to learn Arabic are motivated by the need to find a job. They hope to find employment in tourism, or complement their existing knowledge so they can enter business,” Hadzihamdo said, adding that most students were aged between 20 and 25.
The study of Arabic can also be culturally rewarding, according to one teacher of the language.
“At first, Arabic seems exotic and a pleasant language to listen to, which attracts people to study it and try to learn Arabic alphabet and language basics,” Mirnes Duranovic, a professor who used to teach at King Fahd, said.
However, not all parts of the city are seeing a boom in Arabic studies.
Alma Imamovic, director of the Centre of Hispanic Studies, CEH, in the centre of Sarajevo, said that while the CEH had held Arabic classes at one point, it had taken a break for now – although it might revive classes soon.
Demand seemed higher for languages such as German, Imamovic said. She thought Arabic might be more popular in certain suburbs because of the amount of Gulf-based investments in them.
Well before Gulf investments boomed in Bosnia, many Bosnian Muslim children studied Arabic, although this was based around learning the Koran.
Despite King Fahd’s own thriving schedule of classes, some colleges still find it hard to recruit pupils for classes that are not oriented around religious study.
The Nahla Centre for Education and Research, an NGO, offers a program called Arabic Language Through the Koran.
Although 35 women attend that course, the centre has had to drop less popular programs aimed at broader linguistic studies, according to the NGO’s education coordinator, Amela Zunic-Melkic.
“We included a conversational Arabic course in our offer on several occasions – in 2008, 2009 and 2014 – but interest was very low,” she recalled.
Zunic-Melkic also points out that Arabic is a difficult language to learn. “According to my estimates, you need two years of intensive learning in order to achieve even a mid-level knowledge of Arabic,” she said.
Duranovic agreed. “We are not in a position to get familiar with Arabic by watching TV and other media on a daily basis, which makes the process of learning even more difficult,” he said.