It’s hard for Daniel Schonhaut to believe that just two weeks ago, he and eight other UCLA political science students were on a dhow-style boat watching the sun set on Kuwait City, some 8,000 miles from Westwood.
Matthew Gottfried meets an official at the Kuwait Ministry of Information.
That evening on the Persian Gulf was a time for the group to reflect on eight days spent speaking with academics, business leaders, journalists, bureaucrats and Kuwaiti citizens during visits to the U.S. Embassy, several Kuwaiti research centers, the University of Kuwait, government ministries, and oil and financial companies.
"It is interesting to see where their perspectives about life and politics in Kuwait are similar and where they differ," said Schonhaut, a fourth-year psychology and political science student who had studied the Middle East in classes and done additional research but had never been to the region. "Many people were very upfront about the problems Kuwait faces."
The Sept. 8-17 trip was sponsored by Kuwait’s Ministry of Information in conjunction with the UCLA Center for Middle East Development.
Honest dialogue was something that Ph.D. candidate Sarah Leary also appreciated. "One of the recurring themes in our meetings was a concern about the future of the Kuwaiti economy if oil falters as the country's main source of income," she said. "Many of the people we talked with spoke of the need for Kuwait to diversify its economy, but acknowledged that diversification is particularly politically challenging in a time when oil is so prosperous. It was eye-opening to hear about the politics of oil from the perspective of oil producers."
Seeing the world is important for students, said Leary, who has been to Qatar, Argentina, Haiti, Slovakia, India and nearly a dozen other countries. "My travel experiences have shaped my world view, the way that I interact with people from different backgrounds and the way that I approach my studies," she said. "An experience like this is a valuable opportunity for students — who will be future policy makers and business leaders — to expand their understanding of a country that is not widely visited and to challenge their views of the Middle East."
A private tour of the Kuwaiti Grand Mosque.
Matthew Gottfried, also working toward his Ph.D. in political science, said his interest in Middle Eastern politics began as a UCLA undergraduate. When the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred just a few months after he’d arrived on campus, he found himself unsatisfied with how the media were describing the causes behind the conflict. He knew there had to be another side to the story, he recalled, so he decided to learn as much about the region as he could. His extensive studies since have included Arabic language classes and research that has taken him to Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.
"It’s important to understand other cultures and not be fearful of what we don’t understand," said Gottfried, whose research focuses on public reaction to terrorism and the political coerciveness of terrorism through public opinion. "You can’t understand something without studying it or making yourself informed," he said, adding, "There’s a lack of understanding in America about the Middle East, and it’s unfortunate."
Introducing students to new perspectives is exactly why the UCLA Center for Middle Eastern Development supports initiatives like this, said Mani Jad, the center’s assistant director. "One of our missions is to expose students to the Middle East through travel, seminars, research and dialogue," she said. "We had an amazing opportunity to send our students to Kuwait and expose them to the country, its culture and people. We hope to continue sending students to Kuwait and other countries in the Middle East.
"Exposure of each other’s culture is the only way to bridge the unfamiliar."