Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

When I first came to work in Washington in 2000, there was only a small number of think-tanks or cultural institutions with programmes dedicated to understanding the Middle East. After the 9/11 attacks, far more think-tanks, universities and other institutions committed resources to studying the region, which was a big improvement, but most of those activities were one-way: people from Washington studying the Middle East, and primarily through a geopolitical lens that prioritised US interests. A few Middle Eastern voices made it into the Washington policy conversation, and some Middle Eastern governments began to engage in serious lobbying efforts. However, the interaction remained largely dominated by one-way, government-focused communications.

In the last few years, there has been a positive new development in Washington-Middle East non-governmental interactions, as several new initiatives have increasingly tried to bring new Middle Eastern voices into the Washington discussion. Furthermore, a few are trying to foster two-way relationships, in which Washington and Middle Eastern communities interact in a more equitable and mutually beneficial way. Combined, these efforts extend a geopolitical and governmental focus to a broader approach that also includes cultural, business and fundamentally human issues.

I recently spoke with senior members of three different organisations: the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington; Sada, a publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and the Emerge85 Lab. Together, they represent recently established initiatives working at different levels — from the Arab Gulf to the broader Middle East to the wider emerging world — to enrich communication with Washington. Somewhat coincidentally, their Washington offices are all located within a few blocks of each other. The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington was established in 2014, with the stated goal of “increasing the understanding and appreciation of the social, economic, and political diversity of the Arab Gulf states”. By 2014, there were a number of think-tanks focused partly or solely on the Middle East but few focused on the Gulf states, and when they did, it was primarily through the lens of terrorism and counterterrorism, relations with Iran and energy.

“The story of the institute is that it’s trying to really fill a gap in research about the Gulf states,” said Raymond Karam, Director of Programme Outreach and Communication. “The GCC countries are rising — gaining influence in the region and beyond. So when you look at who are the leaders of the Arab world, the Gulf countries are really at the top. That’s a new development — it happened in the last five to ten years. It needs more focus and understanding in Washington. That relationship is very important now for the United States.”

Platform for intellectuals

The institute produces research through its in-house scholars — including American scholars focused on the Gulf region and visiting scholars from the Middle East — as well as outside contributors. They also host expert panel discussions and cultural outreach events. “On every panel that we have, we always try to have at least one person from the region. We’re a platform for intellectuals from the Gulf to come and explain what’s happening there to a Washington audience,” said Karam.

Most of the events are in Washington, but the institute is working to also bring American experts directly to the Gulf to interact with people there too. In February, the institute, in partnership with Raytheon Corporation, hosted its first UAE Security Forum in Abu Dhabi, focused on fostering and recruiting talent in the cybersecurity field.

Going forward, the institute hopes to continue this work and also do more cultural events. Programming on arts and culture “is a way for people to see similarities between each other regardless of the political culture that we’re in”. It builds “people-to-people exchange, because [government] administrations come and go — real relations are built at the people-to-people level”, concluded Karam.

While the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington focuses on the Gulf, Sada, a publication produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, focuses on the broader Middle East region. Sada’s stated goal is to offer “original, bilingual analysis of political change and reform trends in the Arab world from leading thinkers and new voices in the region”. Housed in a well-known think tank with a long lineage, Sada has the benefits of the endowment’s credibility and can draw on the think-tank’s scholars, while also actively recruiting writers and scholars from the Middle East and bringing their voices into the heart of Washington policy discussions.

In 2003, the endowment created the Arab Reform Bulletin. Like Sada, it was published in both English and Arabic, reflecting Carnegie’s growing efforts to reach beyond Washington to a global audience. As the events of 2011 were unfolding in the Middle East, “it was very clear that more perspectives and voices across the region needed to be heard. For young Middle Eastern writers and scholars, there were limited opportunities to reach a Western audience. You didn’t hear much from actual youth voices”, said Intissar Fakir, Sada’s Editor-in-Chief. The Arab Reform Bulletin evolved into Sada, with a more explicit goal of highlighting emerging Middle Eastern voices.

Contributors to Sada do not come only from the Middle East, nor are they all young. “We really consider each submission on the merit of the idea, not so much on whether someone has a famous name or has written a lot. But we also seek out young authors,” said Fakir. Writers can submit directly to Sada through its website, but Sada also tries to recruit people to ensure it collects a diverse array of voices. For example, in 2013, the Carnegie Middle East Centre, based in Beirut, sponsored three different Youth Network Initiative meetings in Cairo, Beirut and Istanbul, which provided opportunities for Sada to identify new writers. “When I go out to the region, I’m always struck by how enthusiastic young writers are. I think this reflects the bigger thing that people in the Middle East are really aware of the gaps here in policy discussions about the region, but they often don’t know how to help change that,” said Fakir. Sada is providing one avenue for doing that.

The Emerge85 Lab is different in that it examines global rather region-specific issues, but with co-headquarters located in Abu Dhabi and Washington, it is physically linked with the Gulf and takes the concept of equitable, two-way interaction between Washington and the Middle East to a new level. Launched in October, it is a partnership between the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington and the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi. “I didn’t want this to be seen as someone from Washington telling the rest of the world what’s happening in their world. We have an intellectual content partnership in which both parties are driving the intellectual content of the Emerge85 Lab. It will be richer as a result,” said Afshin Molavi, the Lab’s Washington-based co-director.

The Emerge85 Lab notes that 85 per cent of the world’s population lives outside of the traditional centres of power in North America and Europe, and this 85 per cent of the world is emerging, in terms of its markets, societies, cultures and geopolitical power. Its mission is to explore this “85” world. “The world and the global system has been primarily designed by the West, and that is changing as others want their own voices in that,” said Mishaal Al Gergawi, the Lab’s Abu Dhabi-based co-director. “I’m really curious about the 85 world and how these people are going to participate in the global order in their own way.”

Regional or topical specialities

The Lab is especially interested in connections within the emerging world and between it and North America and Europe. “When we look at the world today, we see dramatic and unprecedented physical and technological connectivity,” said Molavi. The Emerge85 Lab aims to move beyond traditional academic and policy categories based on regional (such as the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa) or topical (such as energy or security) specialities, which often make it difficult for researchers and political and business actors to see the many interlinkages between regions, issues and communities. “Our sense is that there’s a need to kind of collapse all of these silos and look at this world in a very interdisciplinary way. We’re absolutely committed to making things as comprehensive as possible,” said Al Gergawi.

They are also trying to ensure that their featured experts and their audiences are eclectic, thus encouraging interactions between communities of business people, academics, policymakers, artists and others that normally have little opportunity to meet. “Many people in the 85 world feel that Washington sees them only as geopolitical actors, not commercial ones, not of people with hopes. I’d like us to be a lab/think-tank with a soul. I want us to write about and think about things like aspiration and what is means in 21st century places. And love and the concept of how people love each other might change. These are the big human questions to think about. We’re not only an emerging markets lab; we’re about markets, societies, connections. This is very important to us. That’s why we want to include artists as much as economists,” Molavi said.

Like the world it studies, the Lab is also trying to be innovative in how it presents research and reaches audiences. Its website says it will “produce original analysis through a variety of media, including digital stories, visualisations, multi-city pop-up talks, roundtables, and more traditional events”. In keeping with the idea of co-partnership, it also works to hold events in Washington, Abu Dhabi and potentially other locations.

Deep expertise

While the Lab’s focus is global, Molavi and Al Gergawi have worked on Middle East issues and are clearly inspired by the global crossroads of the Gulf, particularly the UAE. “Pretty much everyone from around the world passes through the UAE. From our perspective, we have the front seat on these issues,” said Al Gergawi. Molavi’s first job out of college was working for Arab News in Saudi Arabia, where he observed the country’s commercial relations around the world. He saw Dubai’s connections with Asia and Africa even before Dubai became known as a global hub. “Those who look at the Middle East too often ghettoise the region and miss the links with other places. One of the things we’ll do within the Emerge85 Lab is showing the interconnectivity of regions, and the Middle East is one of those,” said Molavi. They hope to draw on the deep expertise of international issues available at SAIS and the Delma Institute’s “front seat” view of global interconnectivity.

The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Sada and the Emerge85 Lab are each unique but are not alone in trying to increase and enhance understanding between Washington and the Middle East and the world. In recent years, some other think-tanks and universities have expanded their links with the Gulf region and the broader Middle East, including opening branch offices and campuses in the region. Some Middle Eastern actors have increased their outreach to Washington, some through direct government lobbying but others with a goal to reach a broader audience. For example, the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Centre in Washington has a goal of promoting “mutual respect and understanding” between Oman and the US through cultural events, Arabic classes and research fellowships. Through traditional and innovative means and regional and global approaches, all of these initiatives will be increasingly important as the Gulf region evolves and as US politics and culture shift.

Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant.