ARAB MINDS SOLV­ING ARAB PROB­LEMS

Af­ter sev­eral years of work­ing as a jour­nal­ist, colum­nist and fel­low at var­i­ous prom­i­nent think tanks, Raghida Dergham de­cided that the Arab re­gion needed its own in­dige­nous brain trust. Thus Beirut In­sti­tute was founded.

Qatar Today - - INSIDE THIS ISSUE - By Ayswarya Murthy

Af­ter sev­eral years of work­ing as a jour­nal­ist, colum­nist and a fel­low at var­i­ous prom­i­nent think tanks, Raghida Dergham de­cided that the Arab re­gion needed its own in­dige­nous brain trust. Thus Beirut In­sti­tute was founded.

Jour­nal­ism, think tanks, the gov­ern­ment – there is a re­volv­ing door be­tween these dis­ci­plines, with peo­ple shift­ing to and fro be­tween these roles with rel­a­tive ease. So Raghida Dergham agrees that, yes, her work now as the Founder of Beirut In­sti­tute could be con­sid­ered a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of her par­al­lel life as a colum­nist and Se­nior Diplo­matic Cor­re­spon­dent/ New York Bureau Chief for Al Hayat. “I will still con­tinue to deal with is­sues that mat­ter to so­ci­ety, just like a jour­nal­ist, but in­stead of re­port­ing and com­ment­ing on them, in a think tank I will be in con­nected-think­ing mode, brain­storm­ing with oth­ers and hop­ing to come out with pol­icy op­tions which are then put for­ward to pol­icy mak­ers,” she ex­plains. “Like any other think tank, I hope Beirut In­sti­tute will ex­pand the process of bring­ing demo­cratic think­ing to those in power; give them op­tions so that they are not con­fined to ad­vice of those in their im­me­di­ate cir­cle. Think tanks are a very healthy part of the so­ci­ety and I pray that the in­sti­tute will con­trib­ute to progress in the Arab world.”

Dergham had al­ways felt the need for more in­tel­li­gent, en­gaged and lo­cal voices to shape public pol­icy in the re­gion; it was like a nag­ging voice in her head, grow­ing in re­sponse to the ubiq­ui­tous res­ig­na­tion she wit­nessed among the youth, both in

“When the Arab Spring erupted, I re­alised how an or­gan­i­sa­tion that can pro­vide di­rec­tion and col­lec­tive anal­y­sis was even more nec­es­sary now.”

RAGHIDA DERGHAM Founder Beirut In­sti­tute

the Arab world and those of Arab-ori­gin liv­ing out­side it, in their abil­ity to im­pact the re­gion's fu­ture. Their sub­mis­sive­ness trou­bled her. But what came next made the need for what she had in mind even more clear and ur­gent. “Though it wasn't a com­plete sur­prise, when the Arab Spring erupted, I re­alised how an or­gan­i­sa­tion that can pro­vide di­rec­tion and col­lec­tive anal­y­sis was even more nec­es­sary now. There was a need for the peo­ple, from those in power to those on the ground, to un­der­stand their op­tions in shap­ing their present and fu­ture and not let the process be con­fis­cated, which it un­for­tu­nately was in many cases.”

From the very be­gin­ning, Dergham was sure and proud of the iden­tity of the in­sti­tute she was putting to­gether. Their voice would be that of the mod­er­ates and mod­ernists. This begs the ques­tion whether such a de­clared stance doesn't au­to­mat­i­cally counter the in­sti­tute's claim to be non-par­ti­san, in this part of the world es­pe­cially, where mod­er­ate voices are regularly muz­zled, ac­cused of be­ing aligned with Western in­ter­ests and, con­se­quently, seem out­num­bered. “Well, I don't think of it that way but if be­ing mod­er­ate can be cat­e­go­rized as par­ti­san, so be it,” Dergham says. “For me, it's very im­por­tant that we are dis­tinct from those who fight and shout for their point of view to be heard. Of course the Arab so­ci­ety is di­vided, not just in op­pos­ing di­rec­tions but into di­ver­gent fac­tions; there are de­struc­tion­ists and ex­trem­ists; there are those with hawk­ish and re­li­gious iden­ti­ties; they are welcome to their ide­olo­gies. But in a re­gion which is, un­for­tu­nately, wit­ness­ing a lot of de­struc­tion, we want to be con­struc­tive. Beirut In­sti­tute will be a place of de­bate and log­i­cal think­ing. Our fel­lows and board mem­bers might not al­ways be on the same page all the time but the fi­nal anal­y­sis and rec­om­men­da­tions will al­ways be geared to­wards build­ing up the so­ci­ety.”

Dergham has been work­ing full-time to­wards start­ing up Beirut In­sti­tute since 2010. “I thought it would be much eas­ier but this proved to be a novel con­cept in this part of the world. I au­to­mat­i­cally as­sumed I would get the sup­port I needed be­cause in­flu­en­tial Arabs I met in other gath­er­ings world­wide fully en­cour­aged me, say­ing that if I built it, they would come. Well, they didn't.” Nev­er­the­less, the ex­cel­lent con­tacts she had de­vel­oped in the course of her years of ex­pe­ri­ence in the space came through for her, and Beirut In­sti­tute is get­ting ready to host its first in­ter­na­tional sum­mit in Abu Dhabi this Oc­to­ber.

For Dergham, it was im­por­tant to give Beirut its right­ful place as a bas­tion of lib­eral think­ing. “Beirut de­serves that. Although I had lived in New York, I was born in Beirut. To me, it is beau­ti­ful, all the more be­cause of its history of be­ing the re­cep­ta­cle of peo­ple from across the re­gion who wanted to think and speak freely. One of our board mem­bers told me once that Beirut is the “lungs of the Arab world” and our in­sti­tute should be the oxy­gen in those lungs. It is a tes­ta­ment to the faith our mem­bers have in us and the work we are do­ing.” While the think tank is reg­is­tered in Beirut, it seeks to serve the en­tire re­gion. “We celebrate the di­ver­sity in this re­gion, be it eth­nic or re­li­gious. Our board mem­bers and the ad­vi­sory board com­prise prom­i­nent thinkers from Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt, Ye­men, Le­banon, Jor­dan, Palestine, Kur­dis­tan, Bahrain... It rep­re­sents a fan­tas­tic med­ley of young peo­ple from var­i­ous back­grounds - fi­nance, gov­ern­ment, civil so­ci­ety, busi­ness, for­eign re­la­tions – who are all look­ing for­ward to con­tribut­ing to the fu­ture of the Arab world,” she says.

But Beirut In­sti­tute's reach and am­bi­tion ex­tend be­yond the re­gion. “We have been as­so­ci­ated with the United Na­tions and through a se­ries of off-the-record lunches we hosted, we put mem­bers of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in touch with an­a­lysts from the re­gion, whose in­puts and points of view have been ex­tremely ben­e­fi­cial in the Coun­cil's de­lib­er­a­tions.” Dergham also points to their pol­icy pa­per on the im­pact of refugees from Syria on Le­banon which was very well re­ceived. “We are the con­vener of minds who brain­storm to­gether and sum­marise the re­sults into pol­icy op­tions which are de­liv­ered to pol­icy mak­ers.” And while there are sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions in the re­gion work­ing on the same, Dergham still be­lieves that since over­all as a re­gion, the MENA ac­counts for only 5% of the global dis­tri­bu­tion of think tanks, the more the bet­ter. She hopes or­gan­i­sa­tions like hers will be in step with the big for­eign­based think tanks based in the re­gion, like Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­ter and Brook­ings Doha Cen­ter, in mak­ing pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tions to the so­ci­ety.

The more we lis­ten to Dergham's story, the more Beirut In­sti­tute sounds like a Sil­i­con Val­ley story – an am­bi­tious startup with plans to change the world for the bet­ter. “The in­sti­tute is be­ing en­tirely fi­nanced by in­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions and never by any gov­ern­ment. Even in the case of the sum­mit, the Gov­ern­ment of Abu Dhabi is cov­er­ing part of the costs of the event and not con­tribut­ing to the in­sti­tute as such. We have some won­der­ful part­ners who are sup­port­ing us with pro bono brand­ing, le­gal and other kinds of work for us. I my­self haven't drawn a salary since I founded the in­sti­tute,” she says. But for all this, Dergham ex­pects to make a big splash in Abu Dhabi.

To be held be­tween Oc­to­ber 10 and 11 in St Regis Abu Dhabi, this global con­fer­ence will bring to­gether po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, se­nior pol­icy mak­ers, prom­i­nent thinkers, ma­jor CEOs, and civil so­ci­ety lead­ers to re­flect on “re­con­fig­ur­ing the Arab re­gion and its global space be­yond po­lit­i­cal econ­omy and se­cu­rity threats” through dif­fer­ent sum­mit tracks and a se­ries of on- and off-the-record pol­icy meet­ings. “The cal­i­bre of the peo­ple who are par­tic­i­pat­ing is amaz­ing,” Dergham says. She hopes to take the re­sults ar­rived at through these con­ver­sa­tions and de­liver them through­out the world, and “help to open the eyes and minds of peo­ple to what col­lec­tive think­ing pro­duces”.

While there is value to off-the-record gath­er­ings, think tanks are also in­creas­ingly more open and feel the need to en­gage the public, through con­fer­ences like these and the media. “In the public part of the sum­mit we will dis­cuss a mag­nif­i­cent ar­ray of is­sues be­yond geopol­i­tics and the eco­nomic im­pact of re­con­fig­ur­ing the re­gion. Tech­nol­o­gists, re­gional in­no­va­tors and film di­rec­tors will be part of the con­ver­sa­tions, re­flect­ing on is­sues re­lated to sex­ism, re­li­gious strife and other is­sues that deeply af­fect the re­gion.” For Dergham, the con­fer­ence is only the be­gin­ning. The con­ver­sa­tion needs to con­tinue. It is the only vi­able al­ter­na­tive to the guns and bomb-driven di­a­logue, which has be­come the norm to­day

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