This reflection on American students’ perception of the Middle East is based on student participation in Model Arab League, a mock diplomatic debate program organized by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.
For students in the United States who are interested in the Middle East, there is a unique program available through a Washington, D.C.-based NGO called the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. For almost the past four decades, the National Council has organized and administered the Model Arab League Youth Leadership Development Program for secondary school and university students. Since its inception, over 55,000 American students have participated. While the program welcomes students from all academic disciplines, typically Model Arab League participants are found concentrating on political science, international relations, defense and security issues, or Arabic language study.
Model Arab League is a mock diplomatic debate simulation and leadership development program. It is designed to help students learn about the Arab region while they build critical leadership skills, from public speaking and writing to negotiation and compromise. Model Arab League is similar to the more widely known Model United Nations program, except it focuses only on the Arab region. The program invites American students to roleplay as Arab diplomats so that they can explore the Middle East with fresh eyes and perspectives.
The American students who participate in Model Arab League activities represent an interesting community. On many university campuses, countries from the Arab region are more often highlighted for scorn than for study or compliment. Students at American schools are likely to think about Saudi Arabia through a lens that is critical of its leadership for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi rather than through one of wonder at its five UNESCO World Heritage Sites or in appreciation of its central role in the Islamic faith. They are more likely to think of Qatar or the UAE in terms of their guest laborers rather than as emergent, dynamic global hubs. However, students who participate in the Model Arab League look beyond these stereotypes to appreciate the incredible people, cultures, and vibrancy of the Arab region.
This heightened perception and deepened understanding among students who participate in the Model Arab League can be attributed in part to three interwoven elements: empathy-driven research, acknowledgement of the region’s diversity and complexity, and learning outside of the classroom.
As students prepare for the Model Arab League, they are faced with the task of understanding the same foreign policy questions confronting their real-life diplomatic counterparts. By engaging with these issues from the perspective of a specific country’s policies – and especially a country that is not their own – students are able to see how high-level decision-making can have a personal impact. This human aspect to the activity achieves a deeper learning experience far greater than what one may gain from a textbook or lecture. Past participants of such debate programs have stressed the importance and power behind harnessing empathy, seeing things through other people’s perspectives, and understanding others’ values and policy choices.
When students research their assigned country, their personal beliefs are sometimes challenged, thereby giving them a greater opportunity to think critically. Students often cite their time participating in the Model Arab League as having made positive personal changes in how they approach different peoples, groups, and cultures. Empathetic critical thinking is more vital now than ever in order to confront the multifaceted range of challenges that humanity must address in the decades to come.
While discussing and debating present and future foreign policy questions, Model Arab League forces students to engage with the history of the Arab region. Empathetic research skills help young American students think about the Middle East with nuance rather than as a monolith. For example, they are much more likely to search out additional sources of information on specific issues rather than relying on traditional Western news sources, which research has shown tend to demonstrate significant anti-Arab bias.
Model Arab League students are also able to better contextualize relations between Arab states. For example, instead of seeing piecemeal data about Palestinians’ access to water sources, students in model debate programs might be challenged to view the issue through an Algerian, Jordanian, or Iraqi lens. Such an exercise broadens American students’ perspectives and allows them to identify trends and factors shaping the region that might not be readily apparent to outsiders.
Finally, students who have participated in extracurricular learning opportunities like Model Arab League are much more likely to search for additional avenues to study the region outside the classroom. The National Council helps facilitate this when possible, including through study abroad programs to the region that give students a chance to immerse themselves in a country and language that they have learned about at their home universities. Students also have the option to participate in National Council career development programs to explore ways to engage with the Middle East beyond their schooling. This allows Model Arab League participants to seek out opportunities where they can put their knowledge to good use.
Given the opportunity to explore with empathy and respect, American students who participate in Model Arab League (and other mock diplomatic simulations) have realized and acknowledged the immense complexity of the modern Middle East. They understand that the region is so much more than the shallow, negative depictions too often presented to news and entertainment consumers in the United States. As the world becomes more intertwined and interdependent, the power to see things through other people’s eyes – as learned though such educational experiences – becomes ever more so important.