The specter of Charles Darwin hovered over the Harvard Arab Alumni Association’s fourth annual Arab World Conference, held in Cairo on May 28, and with good reason. At the formal dinner, HAAA Achievement Award winner Zaid Al-Rifa’i ’57, the former prime minister and current senate president of Jordan, touched upon the notion of adaptability in a changing world and quoted the famous scientist: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
The possibility of the Middle East’s adapting to a changing world was the theme of this year’s conference, titled “The Arab World: Shaping the Future.” It focused on recent economic, educational, financial, and media trends under way in the region; four panels, chaired by Harvard-affiliated guests and alumni, provided a platform for discussion. Panelists touched upon steps that may be taken by private institutions and local governments to ensure a long-term regional recovery, such as increasing investment in tourism for countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, which rely heavily on that industry; the role of private versus public education and its ability to shape a local workforce; the financial strategies of businesses focusing primarily on high-end Middle East consumers; and the problem of censorship within regional media. Speakers included Jorge Domínguez, vice provost for international affairs at Harvard; Tarik Yousef ’97, dean of the Dubai School of Government; Hashem Montasser ’97, M.B.A. ’03, a managing director of EFG-Hermes; and Lara Setrakian ’04, the Dubai correspondent for ABC News. Egypt’s minister of finance, Youssef Boutros-Ghali, delivered the opening address, in which he discussed strengthening the ties between the Arab world and institutions of higher education such as Harvard and his own alma mater, MIT.
Beyond its educational agenda, the conference, which attracted more than a hundred attendees from some dozen countries, also highlighted the growing presence of alumni who are returning to their homelands. Traditionally, western-educated Arabs have stayed in the West, focusing their intellectual and financial capital abroad. But the HAAA’s yearly gatherings now indicate that more Arab alumni are reversing this “brain drain,” fostering new trends of local development and investment.
Perhaps the best example is the Dubai School of Government, launched in 2006 as a joint initiative with the Harvard Kennedy School, with the aim of creating a world-class public-policy institute in the Arab world. Researchers such as May Al-Dabbagh ’99, who has been with the school since its inception, represent the intellectual force behind progressive institutions that are attempting local transformations, offering increasing opportunities for a new generation—a timely trend in an area where half the population is younger than 25.
HAAA president Sameh El-Saharty, M.P.H. ’91, speaking of the difficulty and necessity of creating such opportunities within the region, noted: “As we value the intellectual power that exists at Harvard, we would like to mobilize its academic and research resources in order to contribute to the development of our nation in whatever small increments we can. In this regard, we are realistically ambitious.” Saharty, a physician who is now a senior health-policy specialist focused on the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., envisioned a brighter future. Addressing the opening session, he noted: “I am here reminded of the words of the great Arab poet and writer Gibran Khalil Gibran, who said, ‘Progress lies not only in improving what is, but also in advancing toward what will be.’”