Until the eruption of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, constructive Arab thinking in the mind of many observers appeared stifled and chained to the point of ineffectuality. This state of forced tutelage, it seems, was unbearable not only to the peoples on the often-quoted ‘Arab street’ — epitomized in Cairo’s Tahrir Square — but also for academic institutions such as the American University of Beirut (AUB) and business leaders such as Ayman Asfari, the main shareholder and chief executive of Petrofac, a rising corporation operating in the global oil services arena. AUB and the Asfari Foundation have teamed up in establishing the region’s first university-based center for civil rights and citizenship, the Asfari Institute.
For gauging the scope and breadth of what the Asfari Institute might aspire to achieve it is a good starting point to note that for AUB President Peter Dorman, independent thinking may currently be emerging in new forms in countries of the Middle East. He talked about this rise in a conversation with Executive, offering his view on Arab protests for dignity and opportunity, but also by pointing out initiatives where states in the region have chosen, and very deliberately so, to adopt models of higher education that lead to independent thinking.
Dorman attributed the region’s process of upheaval and transition to “yearning on the part of millions of people to achieve societies that provide equal access to resources, personal dignity, freedom to pursue their own goals, transparency in their governments and the kind of openness and transparency that we find in the West.” Yet, he also emphasized that the change in the Arab world will not be resolved by carbon copy models of Western of democracy or civil society, such as uniformly prescribing separation of state and religion.
“What is happening now is a very open ferment of ideas that will challenge individuals to think about society in the context of the culture they have and the Islamic framework is very strong here,” he said. “It is thus very important for us to include those notional concepts of citizenship that may evolve in the context of Islamic society. In much of the West there is separation of state and religion. Whether that works in the Middle East is really for the countries here to decide for themselves.”
The mission of researching the civil societies as they are forming in the Middle East over the coming years is the primary task as Dorman sees it for the Asfari Institute. The institute’s networking with civil society organizations but also with academic, religious and state-defined stakeholders is to be driven by the Asfari Foundation’s vision for an “educated, open and just society, based on the rule of law, which promotes development and progress through knowledge, tolerance and integrity.”
If these lofty visions and well-chosen words, in combination with AUB skills and some real financial donor power, create a fertile patch in Beirut, the proposition is that we may universally learn some new tricks in determining our individual identities and building citizenship standards in the context of societal forward evolution toward moral truth.
The academic stakeholder
AUB is reputed as the top-ranked academic institution of tertiary education in the whole Middle East and North Africa region and more importantly, it has produced crop after crop of graduates, many of whom have been engaged as diplomats, business leaders, scientists, academics and people who run the countries of the region. As President Dorman affirmed to Executive, the university is cognizant of the many intricate traps that come with the role, beginning from being perceived as bearers of a “liberal American values” virus, to having to preserve academic freedoms, to keeping the best brains, to being in an inevitable position of interacting with state powers — any of which will have an agenda. In discussing the potential advocacy angle of the Asfari Institute, Dorman was careful to point out that advocacy will not be the domain of AUB, but of the civil society organizations in the different countries that would be the institute’s partners. AUB is already in preparations for its 150th anniversary in 2016 and the process will include new fundraising campaigns to fund institutes and activities for sailing the university to new horizons. One of the first fruits of this forward thinking and appeal to donors is the Asfari Institute.
The socioeconomic stakeholder
The Asfari Foundation, President Dorman confirmed, is a family foundation whose trustees are four family members. It reflects the philanthropic zeal of Ayman Asfari, who according to his website is the son of a Syrian diplomat and naturalized citizen of the United Kingdom. His extraordinary business acumen has been demonstrated in the rise of Petrofac, an oil services company that was recently named one of the UK’s 10 most admired companies — up from 68th position in only one year. Jersey Islands-registered and London Stock Exchange-traded Petrofac has also been highly recommended to investors and was recently reported to target 15 percent profit growth in 2012. In a December 4 announcement, the company said that it had inked a deal worth $1.4 billion in new engineering, procurement and construction packages for Saudi Aramco’s Jazan Refinery and Terminal project. The Asfari Foundation was established in 2006 and until now, the public visibility of the foundation and Ayman Asfari has been limited.
The challenge and synergy
According to Dorman, the Lebanese environment provides a democratically themed, multi-religious, multi-lingual and complex civilization that enjoys a premium in freedom of speech versus other countries in the region. As such, he sees it as an apt stage in the region for exercising and developing the talents of individual and independent thinking, assessing one’s identity and locating it within the frame-of-reference choices of nation, family, clan, community and religion.
The challenge in this as experienced by AUB was the culture engrained in its students in their early stages of personal development, where they internalized concepts of the Lebanese framework including such things as you “don’t get anywhere without wasta” or that your sectarian belonging is what primarily defines you and your chances in life.
The art required for changing this viewpoint in future decision makers to one of more independent thinking lies in creating, on one hand, a student body where local and international identities can come together in a diverse environment, and in developing an overriding culture that models different behaviors. In Dorman’s analysis of the synergy between AUB and the new center for civil society and citizenship, what the Asfari Institute is trying to create on levels of society or public policy framework is exactly what AUB has been trying to foster on an individual level for its students: “to become individuals of integrity, responsibility, transparency and accountability in everything they do.”
Inside the university space, this culture of fostering individual integrity could be developed from administrative and faculty angles. In civil society and non-governmental organizations, the tasks of researching, imagining and building the pillars for an authentic and regional culture of organization are likely to present researchers, NGO thinkers and academic innovators with very new and complex requirements.