A Middle Eastern perspective on the Middle EastWritten by Dan Johnson | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Living in Dubai for nearly three years has been a positive, life-changing experience. The United Arab Emirates — a crossroads to the East and West — has opened a new world that brings a different and broader perspective on Middle Eastern affairs, the Arab world, Islam and even U.S. foreign policy. Being here at this time in history, a time marked by major social and political changes, has been particularly informative and valuable. As we have said to the more than 30 friends and visitors from Toledo who have been here in recent months, “We wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
Living here, of course, does not make one an expert on Middle Eastern affairs any more than living in any place automatically makes one an expert on that region. What we “know” comes largely from the media — news from various websites, newspapers and television — with all the well-known limitations to which they are subject. But living here also has the added benefit of hearing the local interpretations of the news as well as having Emirati friends and Arab colleagues give you their take on what’s happening and why. These local interpretations are interesting and informative; in some respects, these interpretations are as important as the news itself.
Our major media sources are two local newspapers: The National and Gulf News; three television news channels: CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera; and online, The New York Times and other major U.S. newspapers. In addition, there are several major English-language television news channels sponsored by various nations including France, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, South Korea, Japan and others.
Based on these sources and relationships, it is possible to offer a few observations about the Middle East.
People in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are very news-conscious, especially at this time of rapid social and political change. The 180-plus nations making up the United Arab Emirates population each have their own perspective on world and regional events. It is truly a multicultural society with a wide variety and mix of perspectives. Members of each national group tend to stay in close touch with their family and friends back home and, almost daily, bring information and interpretations of events there to their workplaces here. It is not only very easy to get news reports of regional and world events from major news sources, it is also possible to find out how families and friends of our Syrian, Iraqi, Kuwaiti and other expatriate colleagues are being affected by it and, more importantly, how they feel about what is happening. It is a fascinating place where news, interpretations and impacts reflect the vast range of cultures, languages and nationalities living and working here.
The changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are much more complex than they might appear in many American news outlets. While it might be easy and tempting to lump the causes of unrest erupting across the region into a single sentence or paragraph, or attribute them all to various forms of democratic yearnings, the recent protests, demonstrations and changes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain and other nations vary widely as to their causes and character. A one-size-fits-all response from the West that ignores these important differences would run the risk of further distancing well-meaning Western nations from the citizens and populations of these very different and complex Arab nations.
Just as many Western nations are seeking to advance their understanding of Arab societies and nations, many of the nations of the Middle East and North Africa are searching their souls empowered by new technologies, social networks, global connections and a desire for social progress and social justice that has, in many places, evaded previous generations. An Egyptian friend in his 60s told me that his generation had failed to bring constructive change to his country, but he was very excited by the current youth movement and what it has accomplished. As one recent contributor to the Gulf News wrote, referring to the region-wide unrest in Arab societies, “ … a political revolution is not enough, for we need a social revolution … where there is a restructuring of the dominant values of society, in the way we live our lives, [and] the way we think.” (Fawaz Turki)
To our many friends in Toledo and elsewhere who have asked about our personal safety at this time of unrest and change in the Middle East, we are happy, healthy and safe. The United Arab Emirates is a stable nation, a good friend of the U.S., and a leader in the Gulf and the region. The leaders of the U.A.E. are working hard and, I think, wisely to bring about constructive change and are leading by example. Moreover, the leaders of this small but influential nation have embraced social progress and are working to bring, with even greater speed, the constructive changes that meet the needs and expectations of their people.
Where all these changes will lead is anyone’s guess. I think it is safe to say that there is a nervous excitement in the air; a nervousness born of uncertainty and an excitement that comes with new freedom. O
Dan Johnson is provost and COO of Zayed University, United Arab Emirates and president emeritus of UT.