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Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS)

Professor George Joffé Obituary


George Joffé, who died on 28 May 2022 at the age of 81, taught for many years at Cambridge, first in the Centre of International Studies and then in POLIS after the Centre merged with the Department of Politics. As an Affiliate Lecturer, he taught a course on the politics of the Middle East and North Africa in the MPhil in International Relations (lately the MPhil in Politics and International Studies). This was both popular and very highly regarded. It gave students the opportunity to hear him deliver compelling and balanced lectures while also allowing them the opportunity to discuss the region’s many complex and sensitive issues with one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject. 

When George arrived at the Centre of International Studies in 2000, he was already recognised as a leading global expert on North Africa and international politics of the Mediterranean. He had been deputy director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), where he ran the influential research programme on the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership known then as the ‘Barcelona Process’. The project had led to two books which George edited or co-edited, Perspectives on Development: The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (Taylor & Francis, 1999) and The Barcelona Process: Building a Euro-Mediterranean Community (Frank Cass, 2000). This work in turn had evolved out of his earlier experience of research on Morocco, and particularly Moroccan relations with Europe, which had been the focus of his graduate studies at SOAS under Michael Brett.

George was therefore given the Mediterranean teaching brief at the Centre, with his first years spent teaching a course on North Africa and the Southern Mediterranean. He had broader interests though, particularly in the politics of Iraq and the Gulf states. George’s time at Chatham House also involved an extensive media presence for him, and he had become a frequent and much sought after commentator on matters of international security involving the Middle East. He widened his teaching at the Centre to cover the rest of the Middle East from 2003. He also started to accumulate a large number of PhD students, many of whom cited in their applications George’s reputation and evident acuity as their primary reason for applying to Cambridge.

George was not only heavily in demand from Masters and PhD students but was also always available to colleagues who, lacking his deep knowledge of and sympathy for the Arab world, might seek his help in order to make sense of a particular conflict or issue. George was a key part of a tight-knit group of colleagues which kept the MPhil going in the Centre days when resources were tight – notably Philip Towle, Charles Jones and the Sheehy Professor, James Mayall. Later on he came to work on some joint projects on the Gulf States with Geoffrey Edwards, with whom he also shared interests in Mediterranean issues and in Euro-Mediterranean policy. He came to work closely with Roxane Farmanfarmaian, with whom he initially shared wide-ranging academic interests, and later more: the two were married in 2010.

He retained many significant commitments elsewhere. The longest lasting was the Journal of North African Studies, of which he was the founding editor, and the basis of quite a few of the volumes that came out under his editorship, most notably Islamist Radicalisation in North Africa (Routledge, 2011) and North Africa’s Arab Spring (Routledge, 2013). The Journal was associated with the Centre of North Africa Studies, which George led, and was initially based at King’s College London. When George moved to Cambridge, he brought the Centre too, and amalgamated into the new Centre for the International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa. George also held a professorial fellowship at the Global Policy Institute in London Metropolitan University, and was a Visiting Professor at King’s College London. He was a visiting fellow of the Centre for Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford (2007-10), and a senior member of St Antony’s College Oxford. He lectured frequently at the NATO Defence College in Rome, at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, and at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London, and served as a consultant of leading policy bodies in Europe and the US.

When George retired from his MPhil course teaching in 2016 – though, characteristically, retaining PhD students and Masters dissertation supervisees – POLIS marked the event by creating the Joffé Award for the best MPhil dissertation on the politics and international relations of the Middle East and North Africa. It has been awarded annually since then. A copy of the winning dissertation was always sent to George, who unsurprisingly often sent back his own detailed comments on the winning dissertation.

This tribute was written by Professor Chris Hill and Dr Glen Rangwala, with assistance from Dr Roxane Farmanfarmaian.  

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George's students are welcome to submit tributes to him.  If you have something you would like to share please email and we will be happy to post it on this page.

Raphaël Lefèvre says: 

"George was a mentor in the true sense of the word, providing his supervisees with general guidance and feedback on their writing whilst investing faith in their work and complete intellectual freedom. His mentorship allowed me to thrive intellectually, at Cambridge and beyond - he gave me the confidence I needed to do the research I really wanted."

Adam Yousef says: 

"I first met Professor Joffé in person back in 2009, before I started my PhD at Cambridge. I had heard of him prior to that given his eminent reputation as an academic, especially when it comes to the politics and economics of North Africa, the European Union, and the oil industry. When we first met, I was still undecided regarding the field of research I'd be interested in pursuing over the next few years, or the methodology I'd end up adopting. It took me only 10 minutes to realise that Professor Joffé is the one professor I'd be honoured to have as a supervisor, and that studying the economics of EU-North African relations is a topic of paramount importance and interest.

In all candour, throughout the course of my PhD, I ended up having the best 3 years of my life, and Professor Joffé is the primary reason for that. His ability to provide instruction, guidance and supervision to his students is self-evident given his impressive tenure as an academic. However, what impressed me the most about him is his wonderful and effervescent personality: the ability to combine academic renown and reputation with the modesty, kindness and extroversion that very few individuals possess. I would visit his home on a weekly basis and we'd spend hours debating all manners of topics related to the EU, North Africa, economics, and other topics. These moments will always linger in my memory as I've learnt so much from him throughout these exchanges. He never rushed me or expressed impatience or anything of the sort, which is impressive knowing how persistent and impassioned I can get when it comes to debating issues of political economy!

Thanks to Professor Joffé first and foremost, I ended up having a PhD topic that I fell in love with and that took me to Brussels and Casablanca. I met an impressive array of bureaucrats from the European Commission as well as senior officials in the Moroccan government. His flexibility meant that I was able to innovate methodologically and draft a thesis that played to my quantitative strengths as well as combined the qualitative methods that he advanced. Thanks to his guidance, I was able to develop a remarkable piece of research within the 3 years and successfully defend my work.

Thanks to him, I continue to retain a passion for all things EU (from politics to economics) as well as North Africa, and as my career is taking me to new heights in the realm of economic policy-making, I can honestly say that Professor Joffé's spirit (his thoughts, perspectives, and ideas) continue to shape my work as I advise ministers on economic policies that influence millions of lives on a regular basis.

I have known of Professor Joffé's poor health for several years, but the news of his passing hit me very hard. As I struggle to contain my emotions writing this, I just hope that the University of Cambridge and the Department of POLIS pay the tribute that this intellectual titan and wonderful person merits. I'm glad that our work during my PhD has inspired a publication that can be found in the libraries of the world's preeminent universities. However, even this achievement doesn't do justice to his kindness, modesty and honourable nature.

Thank you, Professor Joffé, for serving as my supervisor, for the many hours of intellectual and interesting debates we had, and for forming an important part of my journey. Rest in peace, my dear mentor, and one day we'll hopefully get to debate the political economy of EU-North African relations again."

Neil Misra says:

Professor Joffe was my MPhil dissertation supervisor and one my lecturers at POLIS. I had read several of his works through the course of my undergraduate degree, so it was an immense delight and pleasure to be taught by him in-person. He was one of the most captivating and insightful educators I had encountered in the entirety of my academic career — a veritable “ocean of knowledge” in Middle Eastern affairs! His thoughtful and empathetic guidance through the often arduous dissertation research process was greatly appreciated. Though he was clearly one of the most formidable minds in his field, he was always "down-to-earth” and amiable in his interactions with his students. Professor Joffe had a profound impact in molding my thinking, and I will fondly remember the engaging supervisions we had at his lovely home. I thank him for all the support he has given me and for the wisdom he imparted.