Nine UCLA political science students recently returned from Kuwait, where they learned first-hand about life in Kuwait and some of the issues facing its citizens.
It’s hard for fourth-year psychology and political science student Daniel Schonhaut to believe that just two weeks ago, he and eight other UCLA political science students were on a dhow-style boat some 8,000 miles from campus watching the sun set on Kuwait City.
The evening on the Persian Gulf was a time for the group to reflect on their eight-day excursion, during which they visited the U.S. Embassy, several Kuwaiti research centers, the University of Kuwait, government ministries, and oil and financial companies; and spoke with academics, business leaders, journalists, bureaucrats and Kuwaiti citizens. “It is interesting to see where their perspectives about life and politics in Kuwait are similar and where they differ,” says Schonhaut, who had studied the Middle East in classes and done some additional research on the area, but had never been to the region. “Many people were very upfront about the problems Kuwait faces.”
The all-expense paid trip, which ran Sept. 8 to 17, was sponsored by Kuwait’s Ministry of Information, in conjunction with the UCLA Center for Middle East Development.
Honest dialogue was something that PhD 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 says. “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 for a variety of reasons, says Leary, who has also been to Qatar, Argentina, Haiti, Slovakia, India and nearly a dozen other countries. “My travel experiences have shaped my worldview, the way that I interact with people from different background and the way that I approach my studies. 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.”
Understanding other cultures and social and political structures through first-hand experience is something that PhD candidate Matthew Gottfried deems necessary for a well-rounded education.
His interest in Middle Eastern politics began as an undergrad. The events of 9/11 happened just months after he’d arrived on campus, and Gottfried says he found himself unsatisfied with how the media was telling the story behind the causes of the conflict. He knew there has to be another side, and decided to learn as much about the region as he could. So far, this has involved extensive studies—including 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,” says Gottfried, whose research is focused on public reactions to terrorism and the political coerciveness of terrorism through public opinion. “You can’t understand something without studying it or making yourself informed. There’s a lack of understanding in America about the Middle East, and it’s unfortunate.”
These lessons and discussions are exactly why the UCLA Center for Middle Eastern Development supports initiatives such as this, says 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. 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.”