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Six ambassadors to the United Nations and the U.S. from Arab Gulf countries gathered at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Hall for a conference on Nov. 18.
The conference was titled “Shaping the Arab World: Navigating Opportunities and Challenges” and included presentations and speaker events on four topics: sustainability, human development and education, women empowerment, and geopolitics. The speakers included ambassadors of Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.
The event was hosted by the Diwan, an HGSE student-run organization that aims to bring together academics, politicians, and students for discussions about Arab culture.
Dental School post-doctoral student Malak Al-Hadlaq, the president of the Harvard Saudi Students Association, said the conference provided an opportunity for her to share the experiences of Saudi Arabian women.
“It was nice to take the stage and explain to all the attendees that there has been so much social progress in the few recent years, especially for the women's movement,” Al-Hadlaq said. “It’s not only what you see on the news where women are now driving. That was just the beginning. Now we have women as university presidents, as ministers.”
Saad F. AlTami, president and founder of the Diwan and a student at HGSE, said he had concerns regarding the timing of the conference amid ongoing conflict in the Middle East following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
“We were actually worried that it’s sensitive timing, some people might actually be not feeling good. But it turned out to be a family atmosphere,” Altami said, adding that several attendees told him they wished the conference could last another day.
At the start of the conference, ambassador of Kuwait to the U.S. Sheikha Al-Zain Al-Sabah held a moment of silence to recognize the impacts of the Israel-Hamas conflict, according to Al-Hadlaq.
“It’s not the best time to have a conference talking about the success and the development in the Arab world while we are also facing this war and this challenge,” Al-Hadlaq said. “It was nice to acknowledge that in the beginning, and then also to just have open dialogue about everything that’s going on without people being hurt, or offended, or emotional.”
Several ambassadors did not attend due to the ongoing conflict, according to AlTami, though conference planning had begun weeks before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
“Initially, we were planning to bring 11 ambassadors — but sadly, after the recent events, ambassadors got very busy,” AlTami said.
Al-Hadlaq reiterated that the event was planned before Oct. 7 and that the conference was not intended to be political.
“Given the context of what happened, especially also what happened with the students at Harvard University, I think there was just a little bit of reluctance to join the conference and perhaps be put in a position where they might need to make any statement. And that’s understandable,” Al-Hadlaq said.
Still, AlTami said he was happy with the conference and said he hopes to make it an annual tradition. But AlTami said the short length of HGSE degree programs — most of which last only one year — presents a challenge for continuity in student organizations, adding that he hopes to expand the organization to include schools across the University.
Farah Kaddah, a Harvard Kennedy School researcher who presented at the “women empowerment” section of the conference, said the event “confirmed the fact that I think the Arab world is in a tough spot at the moment.”
“In general it has highlighted and confirmed the fact that a lot of Arab countries are either fragile, or in conflict, others are suffering economically very deeply and that’s something we cannot ignore,” Kaddah said.
“It was acknowledged a lot needs to be done — and basically now, not yesterday,” she added.
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