Course closures and falling student numbers in area studies are threatening UK national interests around the world, according to Sir Harold Walker, chairman of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs and a former UK ambassador to Iraq.
Economic pressures on universities to rationalise course provision and dwindling student demand for degrees involving languages were hitting area studies departments particularly hard, he said.
Some departments, such as Durham University's department of East Asian studies, have closed, while other units are being subsumed into larger schools as part of university restructuring.
Sir Harold said that last year's higher education white paper, in encouraging universities to play to their strengths, would lead to a further whittling away of area studies departments.
Speaking at a conference, "Understanding the World", organised by six subject centres in London last week, Sir Harold said: "In the light of events in Afghanistan and Iraq, the question of why we need area studies scarcely merits posing.
"The UK has been shown up because it has not got enough people who understand the countries or know the languages.
"The shortage of Arabists in Iraq has led the army to seek out graduates.
Therefore there is a strong reason for area studies - the national interest."
Sir Harold said that about 300 undergraduates had studied Arabic in 2002, but there were only 45 graduates in Middle Eastern studies.
"This is not enough to create the next generation of academics, never mind specialists for the armed forces and security services," he said.
Most of the postgraduates studying the Middle East are from overseas. Sir Harold said: "It's an unhealthy state of affairs, whatever the bread-and-butter reasons."