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UCLA travels to Qatar for conference

Leaders from more than 80 countries convene to discuss Middle East’s future

By NAHEED RAJWANI Originally Published in the Daily Bruin May 20, 2011 in News

UCLA professors, students and administrators traveled to the Middle East to discuss the economic future of the region with a number of renowned dignitaries last week.

The sixth annual Enriching the Middle East’s Economic Future Conference was held in Qatar, a coastal country bordering Saudi Arabia. Those in attendance discussed innovative ideas for economic progress in the Middle East in fields like franchising, film, media, energy and green economy.
The privately funded conference was organized in large part by UCLA political science Professor Steven Spiegel, who directs the university’s Center for Middle East Development. The center worked with Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring about 600 people from more than 80 countries to the conference.

“No one else has a program like this that involves members of every country in the region,” Spiegel said. “I think this enhances the attractiveness of UCLA.”

Several workshops at the conference highlighted the relationship between the recent string of Arab revolutions and the economic future of the Middle East. Spiegel also led a workshop about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“I sat down with an Israeli, an Egyptian and a Palestinian and moderated their discussion on the peace process,” he said.

These kinds of meetings are critical for facilitating conflict resolution, political reform and economic development, Spiegel added.

Chancellor Gene Block attended as one of about 100 people who spoke at the conference. The list also included Haitian musician and politician Wyclef Jean and civil rights activist Reverend Jesse L. Jackson.

Block lectured about UCLA’s role as an American research university in fostering economic development and international partnerships, according to a written statement from his office.

Political science graduate student Nathan Gonzalez and alumna Megan West attended the conference with Spiegel and took notes to write a report for the Center for Middle East Development. Gonzalez attended sessions about the Arab Spring and the future of franchising.

“It was fascinating to see that the (American) model that built McDonald’s and all these other franchises is being exported to the rest of the world,” he said.

West, who graduated from the undergraduate political science program at UCLA last quarter, took notes on sessions about resource scarcity and job creation.

West also said she spoke to a scholar from Russia who was the first Russian to visit Qatar after it became an independent state.

Gonzalez said a highlight of the conference was when a former revolutionary shared a poem about personal accounts in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of this year’s Egyptian revolution.

“You could hear through the translator’s voice on the headphones that the young lady doing the translation was getting emotional and was really involved with the emotional magnitude of the revolution,” he said.

While both Gonzalez and West said their work at the conference was overwhelming, they also said the conference helped them relate economics to unconventional topics such as arts and culture.

“(The conference) really sparked a lot of academic creativity for me and enabled me to perceive issues like resource scarcity in ways that I hadn’t usually perceived them,” West said.

Though West was familiar with the topics presented, Gonzalez did not have any exposure to the economic aspect of the Middle East.

“You come in (to the conference) with an open agenda ... and you come out of it a few days later with concrete actionable items that can be presented to governments,” he said. “I saw the importance of people coming together to talk about these issues not via the Internet or on TV, but in person.”