MENAS aims to provide undergraduate and graduate students with a well-rounded interdisciplinary education emphasizing linguistic proficiency and exploring the complexities of culture, history and politics in the region in preparation for careers in government service, international business, journalism, NGOs, military and advanced academic study.
In 1965, the Oriental Studies Department of the University of Arizona received federal funding to hire an Arabic language specialist, marking the beginning of Middle Eastern Studies at the University. In 1967, specialists in Arabic, Persian and history were added to the department, which also housed researchers on East Asian and African Studies. A position in Arabic language and linguistics was added in 1969, and two partial positions covering Persian, Sufism and Urdu were added in 1972.
In 1975 in anticipation of obtaining federal support for a Near Eastern Center, the University administration added four full-time positions, two in Judaic Studies, one in Arabic language and literature and one in Near Eastern archaeology. Federal funding subsequently allowed the creation of three more positions - in Persian language and literature, in Near Eastern economic geography and in Turkish language and literature.
Federal Title VI funding for what is today the Center for Middle Eastern Studies would continue uninterrupted until the present day. By the late 1970s an outreach program from the Near Eastern Center took vans containing mobile displays "typifying Middle Eastern culture" to 19 elementary schools in the Tucson Unified School District. The Library's Oriental Studies Collection at this point in the 70's had acquired 40,000 volumes in English, 15,000 in Arabic, 1000 in Persian, 271 in Turkish, 4772 in Urdu and 3600 in Hebrew and subscribed to 280 periodicals from the Middle East and subcontinent.
In 1989 the Department of Middle Eastern and North African Studies replaced the Department of Oriental Studies. Throughout the early 1990s Middle Eastern and North African Studies was best known for its Biblical Archaeology program under Dr. William Dever. Judaic Studies became an independent program during this time.
In the mid 1990s the Middle Eastern and North African Studies department was led by Dr. Charles Smith, Dr. Mark Tessler and Dr. Michael Bonine, each of whom focused on the contemporary Islamic world, reorienting the department to Islamic studies, modern history and contemporary politics and culture.
Taken together these subunits comprise one of the most comprehensive communities of Middle East scholarship in the United States with some of the most innovative graduate programs available, and the Arizona Board of Regents approved the consolidation of these academic and national units into the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies in the spring of 2011.