The Levant and Beyond: My Journey as a 2016 Ibrahim Fellow
I am a grateful participant with the 2016 Ibrahim Student Leadership & Dialogue Middle East Fellowship program. It was a tremendous opportunity to be selected by a nationally recognized fellowship program to act as a future ambassador to the Middle East and North African (MENA) nations throughout my prospective military career. The Ibrahim Fellowship program empowers students to become scholars of the highest caliber. More importantly, the program is structured to challenge contemporary political viewpoints of the individual participants. This involves questioning the narratives that have intellectually fermented within every one of us, which is only a natural part of the human experience. Following the extensive meetings with government officials, start-ups, and NGOs, there has been no more fulfilling sense of accomplishment than knowing that my cultural exchanges unfolding now will aid in crafting an informed public opinion of American foreign policy.
The highlight of the Ibrahim Fellowship program is that it aims to bread one thing, stronger leaders. Thus, incentivizing a sense of collective civic duty to honor our commitments not only as an Ibrahim Fellow, but also compelling us as students activists to selflessly serve these communities with a sense of morale responsibility that is only paired with self-enlightenment. The Ibrahim Fellowship program has provided an avenue for young professionals to engage in critical thinking and dedicate themselves to the restructuring of the Middle East using evidence-based policies to influence ethical decision making.
My responsibility as an Ibrahim Fellow is to bridge the gaps between Western intelligence missteps concerning the Arab world and try to make sense of the modern unraveling of the Levant as we know it. Returning to campus this fall, I am charged with creating a public dialogue concerning these conflicts (robust civil institutions, rule of law, western influence, a lost Arab identity) while pushing them to the forefront of America’s academic discussions.
Participated with a dynamic cohort of fifteen brilliant students from select universities all across the American countryside.
Studies focused on three pillars: Conflict Resolution, Cultural/Religious Understanding and Social Entrepreneurship.
Traveled to four countries: 1.) Oman – Muscat and Jabel Akder “the green mountain” 2.) United Arab Emirates – Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi 3.) Jordan – Amman, Feynan, Petra and Wadi Rum 4.) Israel and The West Bank – Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Gush Etzion, Kitbbutz Hatzor, Efrat, Rawabi and Jalazone
We spent two days in New York City getting debriefed by UN officials and independent third party advisers on the status quo of the Middle East in preparation for our departure to Oman. The first memory I have was when we landed at the airport. Interestingly enough, just to reach the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula any traveler abroad must schedule a connecting flight from Istanbul, Turkey (which I did not know). Additionally, as we exit baggage claim at one in the morning there was a line of foreigners that extended from the security choke-point all the way back to the airport entrance. These Expats were waiting in line to receive work visas. It made me wonder about the Omani job markets and the thread of stability the country hinged on.
That night there was no chance of sleep, I was too busy taking in everything around me. I figure it is only natural if I introduce you to some of the amazing people I now have the privilege of calling my friends. This is Ahmet, he is a characteristic Turk who hails from St. Louis and speaks far better Arabic than I do. He was my first roommate in Oman and was the only one of the 14 other fellows I could convince to wake up at six in the morning to join me for a swim in the Arabian Gulf.
The environment is one I will never forget. Only in Oman, at seven in the morning, does the temperature reach 120 degrees. As soon as you step outside, if you are wearing glasses….GAME OVER. The humidity engulfs any lens and takes you back to being in a sauna. Even if you step outside for just 20-30 minutes, you can expect to come back with a sunburn (I am guilty of this many times over, should have definitely packed more sun screen!). If you are not in the water by nine in the morning you miss your chance to enjoy leisurely activities. By that time the seawater feels as if it is a boiling spring, where the water temperature is hotter then the air itself. It really is a test of courage to see how long you can last out in the water.
Oman for me was the most intriguing country to visit and one that I hope to return to and finish exploring in the near future because I am certainly not done. There is a lot to unpack; the country is labeled a Monarchy by the U.S. State Department. There is a record of human rights abuses related to migrant workers and deep-rooted issues with freedom of expression and the press. Yet, its citizens are willing to swallow these grave injustices because the government every so often will remind the public of what is unfolding in war-torn territories such as Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Iraq. It is not so much a threat but more so of a reminder for the people to do their job and stay in their lane, basically the people have it good, do not complain and nothing will change. Again, this is all tolerable because the Omani people have never truly been hit hard financially, economics wise, the people are dependent upon (His Majesty, His Excellency, May God Bless His Soul and May He Live Ever Prosperously) Sultan Qaboos.
The Sultan is most concerned with the loyalty of the state, and the people are driven by the fairy-tailed belief that “God will provide.” Under the rule of the Sultan, people do not pay taxes. So here is a summation of the current political thinking; no taxation without representation, therefore, if the Omani people are never taxed, then they will not have an inherent right to demand transparent political representation. As of right now, Omanis are not putting up a fight, at the ripe age of 23 the government provides them with parcels of land, only reinvigorating national unity and loyalty to the state. It is these perks that the Sultan has been capable of ruling for 46 years uncontested.
Most disheartening is the acceptance of violating individual liberty in replace for a more comfortable way of life. Our days were jam packed with meetings, one in particular stood out to me. The Cultural Affairs Minister of Oman, Sheikh Abdullah, who greeted us with warm welcomes. His assistants pampered us with endless cups of tea, plates of decadent baklava, and free copies of newly published Omani history books to forcefully over emphasize the true grandeur of the Omani identity as one of graciousness and a society home to boundless resources. I was thankful for his efforts to accommodate the interests of American college students yet, I was saddened by his remarks, “you cannot yell blasphemy, you cannot curse God in the streets, you will be hurt. Who gave you the right to speak however you want, who gives you the right to question the authority of a judge, a sheikh, a president?” This statement touches upon the taboo subject matters such as the practice of atheism, political provocateurs, freedom of the press-where editorial pieces are monitored and approved for publication only after a review from the Minister of Information. The words spoken from the mouth of an Omani must reflect the government’s viewpoint.
I left Oman with a feeling that my work is not done here just yet. There is much up for debate with the next leader of Oman to be undetermined and a civilization yet to be liberated.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
It is amazing to think thirty years ago, there was nothing but sand; now, Dubai is the one of the largest trading hubs in the world. Personally, my impression of Dubai is not a good one, for three reasons.
First off, It seems like a very advanced city (technologically and architecture wise), however, it lacks the natural landscape of Construction Projects through Environmental Design (CPTED). It seems as though many urban industrialized parts of UAE represent a ghost city town like in China, where urban designs and planning are constructed, outpacing the need of housing occupancy or demand. Sometimes it is done on purpose, A, to showcase the vast real estate ownership in the country and B, to manipulate the aesthetics of vacant, half-finished apartment buildings and pass these off as a sign of strength to outsiders.
As you are driving down the highway if you look to the left side of the road you will gaze your eyes upon multi-million dollar companies and extravagant real estate where 25% of the world’s cranes are currently located, working around the clock. No really, there is almost nowhere in Dubai where a crane is not within one’s eyesight! To my surprise, when I arrived in Dubai I learned that Dubai actually has no oil, Abu Dhabi (another one of the seven Emirates) has the cash-flow from oil and feeds that liquid capitol to fulfill Dubai’s lifeline of foreign-direct investment to build on land development projects. Without this, Dubai’s ritzy cover story will soon come to an end unless the country capitalizes on tourism revenue, modern transportation advancements, and bulk manufacturing to stabilize its fragile economy.
Then, if you look to the right side of the highway, you will see small mom-and-pop shop businesses. Obviously in Dubai, these small entrepreneurs are outfitted with much more eye-catching resources to draw in customers then back in the States. Nevertheless, most of these entrepreneurs are not born and bred Emiraties. Emiraties make up only 10% of the population, while Expat workers make up the other 90%. This has created a class system of royalty division between the citizens of the Emirates and foreign workers, who even if they live, attend university, and work in the country they are not granted citizenship until after they have completed at least 40 years of consistent work which can be documented. If one stays longer than six months without obtaining permanent work status they are filed for deportation. This sounds absolutely ridiculous, and I am very unsure of the image Dubai is attempting to project. What makes a great metropolitan area like New York City are the CPTED principals which blend the opulence of the city with the culture of the city’s identity.
I’ll never forget the statement one of the policy advisers made, “Democracy is America’s largest export.” I laughed to myself, thinking, “what better way to carry out that mission then literally sitting on top of the world?” Which leads to my second point, the UAE is grappling for social and political legitimacy, and the migrant workers play a large role in this conflict. The expats make up a majority of the population, leaving the UAE with a national identity crisis. The Gulf states have feared for many years now the upward trend of adapting to and adopting Western traditions, values, and customs. This is directly linked to foreign-direct-investments which I spoke of earlier, the UAE is under tremendous pressure to bring in large business retailers from the West which offer a selection of goods and services not found elsewhere.
This lucrative business decision comes at a very steep cost. Not only does it mean that Western companies must have fair access to market shares and be provided with advertising space, but in the eyes of pious Muslims this is not just a sales transaction, purchasing items from a Western business is viewed as a sacrilegious endorsement. Ultimately, the thinking is that over the last three decades this immoral practice has contributed to the lack of a withering Arab identity. One where the prevalence of the English language is rising and native Arabic speakers by the numbers are dwindling. Western conceptions of tackling taboo subject matters dealing with gender, traditional marriage vs. gay marriage, women’s rights and other issues somewhat considered now as “social norms,” have compounded to the point where moderate Muslims may abandon distinct practices and beliefs that once defined the Arab world. Some suggest that Expats have robbed Emaraties of their identity, yet the Emaraties created their own hell in exchange for the rude of all evil….money.
But there is one thing Dubai got right. That was the food!
There was not a day spent in Jordan that I was not exploring the world around me.
Every free moment of time that was made available I took full advantage of. We spent all day exploring the Wadi Rum desert which was by far my favorite part of the trip. The raw beauty was captivating, my friend Yoni and I slept under the stars that night. We rode camels, we went off-roading, I tried Camel for the first time (do not try eating, you will regret it, this is a WARNING).
Jordan itself is a stable country, a neighbor surrounded by chaos, where the largest political objective is to prevent conflict spillover. Interestingly enough, from walking down the streets of Amman, the people of Jordan consider themselves a Palestinian first, who just lives in Jordan. The people are proud of their culture, I saw more Jordanian flags dancing in the wind than any other country I visited, they just do not identify as Jordanian. Leaving a question to be asked, who are the Jordanian people, what are they about? They believe they are a people of one, divided by borders. Many Palestinians emigrated to Jordan early on. To this day if you ask a Jordan citizen about the foreseeable future they will answer, if and when Palestine is created as a state recognized by the international community, these Jordanian citizens will return to their homeland.
Jordan’s infrastructure is inundated with addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, the plan over the next four years is to adopt one million settlers. To carry out this plan Jordan must work closely with the UN over the next few years to reverse the lack of water supplies in order to be flexible enough to accept the number of people. The Israel/Palestine conflict has led to many of the problems Jordan faces now, and it is in their best interest to keep the prospect of the two state solution alive.
Most people we met with in Jordan subscribed to the “you break it you buy it” mentality with regard to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Most people believe the U.S. owes the Middle East, and until the damage is fixed there can be no credible representation of opposition in diplomacy talks between states. Jordan is shouldering a major portion of the refugees, almost around 2/3, this is not sustainable unless something changes. The country itself seemed very well put together.
ISRAEL & THE WEST BANK
While some fellows decided to nap after a long day of meetings, I was working out at a public park in Tel Aviv. While some fellows surfed the internet in their hotel room, I was revisiting the Western Wall 2, 3, 4 times. In short, Israel was awesome, it felt like I was back in the states. The first thing I noticed unique to Israeli culture is the sense of service to the public good. With the law of performing national service whether it be in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), working with a non-profit, volunteering , it really cultivates a binding thread of survival, amongst a people that were marked for extinction. These premiere institutions represent a nation of sons and daughters, really a “people’s army,” a citizen soldier, an dedicated servant to the livelihood of Israel, that is something America does not have.
This national service spirit was first felt right off the bus in Tel Aviv, where as a group we stopped at a local cafe for lunch. Every single worker present was under the age of 20, you would almost never see that in America, yet the sense of personal responsibility for professional development seemed to be very strong in Israel.
There are many more memories and details to extrapolate on, and I am sure that there will be another opportunity to dive in-depth about the circumstances revolving around the Israeli/Palestine conflict and my experiences.
Elijah Villapiano is a a member of the 2016 Ibrahim cohort. Read his original blog post: My Journey as a 2016 Ibrahim Fellow