On Wednesday, Sept. 7, the Crown Center for Middle East Studies hosted their annual kickoff event, titled “Beyond the Headlines: Overlooked Trends in the Middle East.” While mainstream media tends to focus on conflict in the region, the academic panel and Q&A session aimed at showcasing research from Middle Eastern scholars on underappreciated topics. 

After Crown Family Director Gary Samore gave the opening remarks, moderator David Siddhartha Patel, a senior fellow at the Crown Center, began facilitating discussion between the four panelists: Prof. Nader Habibi, Henry J. Leir Professor of the Economics of the Middle East (ECON); Goldman Faculty Leave Fellow Raihan Ismail, and junior research fellows Mona Kareem and Mohammad Ataie. 

The issues addressed during the panel can be separated into three main categories: social media, literature, and international cooperation and alliances. Ismail delved into howWestern-based social media influencers affect perceptions of the region through their online content of their travels to the Middle East. The flattering view influencers display contrasts with news outlets’ general focus on tension in the area. While social media influencers provide a change in perspective on the region, their actions also present an ethical dilemma. 

Some influencers are solicited by regimes known to commit serious human rights violations to improve the country’s image. For example, in 2019, Saudi Arabia brought social media influencers to the country on all-expenses paid trips to repair their image after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Ismail used the term “reputation laundering” to refer to the use of social media influencers to build a more positive reputation for countries with poor human rights records. While more research is required to assess the impact of social media influencers, some research already suggests that social media influencers have more influence than traditional celebrities because people see them as more authentic and are able to relate to them more. 

Next, Kareem covered the topic of literature, discussing her research on how people can “put Arabic literature and all kinds of artistic expressions from the region in conversation with ones made by migrants, stateless people, African descendant people, [and] displaced people who have come to the region for centuries.” She argued that literature can be utilized to reimagine the Gulf against the official narrative. There is a lack of representation of immigrants in the national culture, and portrayal of immigrants tends to be flat. Kareem explained how one barrier to entering the national narrative is language because immigrants are discouraged from assimilating. 

Habibi and Ataie then examined international relationships. Habibi described how the discovery of natural gas in the Mediterranean region of the Middle East had the potential to increase cooperation so everyone could economically benefit. The discovery of gas is one of the reasons relations between Turkey and Israel are improving. Profiting from gas is an incentive for both Israel and Turkey to ameliorate relationships, since Israel could send its gas to Europe through Turkey. Furthermore, because of the war in Ukraine, European countries are seeking alternative sources of gas, and thus are looking toward the Mediterranean region as an option. Foreign officials are trying to resolve disputes so natural gas can be developed and exported.

Ataie mentioned how the media tends to explain developments in the Middle East in sectarian terms. He used post-revolution Iran and Syria as an example of an alliance seen as sectarian; mainstream media stated that the Shia identity of Iran and the Alawite identity of the ruling regime in Syria was the cause of the alliance, but Ataie argued that this view ignores the historical conflicts behind the alliance. 

Ataie also went into detail on the origins of Iran’s Axis of Resistance and its effectiveness as a coalition. While it is commonly accepted that Iran developed this network primarily after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq and after the 2010-11 Arab uprisings, Ataie dates the roots to a much earlier period. The network’s beginning can be traced back to the rule of the Shah in the 1950s. Moreover, there were two events key in forming the partnership between Syria and Iran: the 1980 invasion of Iran by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel. Iran and Syria wanted to counter the expansionist policies of Israel and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Over time, the axis included other actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. The ouster of Saddam Hussein allowed Iran to project its influence into Iraq and become a major player in Iraq. While Iran succeeded in fighting off enemies, Ataie argued that it was less successful in statebuilding and governance. 

The Crown Center’s kickoff panel allowed students and faculty to engage in a diverse array of subjects that moved away from mainstream topics, reflecting the intellectual spirit of the center.