Arab uprisings that started in 2010 will continue to reshape the region, even if political reform does not come quickly, a University of Maryland researcher said April 25, 2014, at the Emerging Markets Forum in Washington, D.C. The fourth annual event, hosted by the Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, featured panelists and speakers with expertise on a range of Middle East topics.
“What’s new about these Arab uprising is something more profound than an episodic change,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. “It is the empowerment of the individual in the Arab world on a scale we have not seen before.”
Telhami’s book, The World Through Arab Eyes (Basic Books, 2013), traces the roots of the uprisings from Tunisia to Syria using more than a decade of polling data and analysis. Although his research shows a shift in the balance of power toward everyday Arabs, he said protesters still must grapple with many competing interests — including their own divisions.
“The fact that you have an empowered public does not mean you have a unified one,” Telhami said. “Having an empowered public never means that every person has equal say in determining policy.”
Even in the United States, he said, major campaign donors and lobbyists wield unequal political influence. Other power sources in the Middle East include the militaries, which have altered many outcomes since 2010.
“We have a multitude of forces, but the public is a new force,” Telhami said. “People want their voices heard.”
One way Arab activists have rallied to make their voices heard is through social media channels such as Facebook. Edward Walker, former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, spoke after Telhami about social media challenges for Middle East dictators who previously controlled public discourse through state-owned television.
University of Maryland psychology Professor Michelle Gelfand also added insights about navigating tight and loose cultures, a common source of misunderstandings between Arab and Western people.
Tight cultures, more common across the Middle East, tend to show little tolerance for deviance from social norms. People in these cultures value predictability and order above spontaneity and self-expression. Loose cultures, more common in the west, are less structured and allow for a broader range of permissible behaviors.
Gelfand said the conflicting mindsets often lead to a clash of moralities. Muslims in the Arab world often perceive Americans as decadent and irreverent, while Americans often perceive Muslims in the Arab world as rigid and closed-minded.
Gelfand said neither side is right or wrong. Her research shows valid historical and environmental reasons for the emergence of both types of cultures. She said knowing these reasons helps build cross-cultural understanding.
“Rules make sense in different contexts,” she said. “You defuse ethnocentric attitudes when you understand reasons why attitudes develop.”
In addition to the three keynote speakers, six other experts provided insight into a range of issues pertaining to emerging markets and the Islamic world. Panelists included Lobna Ismail, Connecting Cultures; Peter Mandaville, George Mason University; Gerald McDermott, University of South Carolina; Carlo Pietrobelli, Inter-American Development Bank and University of Rome; Patricia Sloane-White, University of Delaware; and Paul Vaaler, University of Minnesota.
Smith faculty members Hassan Ibrahim and Bennet Zelner moderated the two panels.
Overall, about 100 participants attended the daylong forum, which included welcome remarks by Joyce E. A. Russell, vice dean at the Smith School, and Kislaya Prasad, CIBER director at the Smith School.