Professor Travels to Italy to Discuss Transnationalism in the Middle East
May 7, 2008
Jeannie Sowers, assistant professor of political science, received one of
the 2007-08 CIE Faculty International Travel grants funded by the VPAA and
traveled to Italy In March. An account of her trip follows.
With the assistance of a travel grant from the Center for International Education,
I was able to attend a European Union Institute-sponsored workshop in Montecatini
Terme, Italy, held March 12-15, 2008. The workshop brought together selected
scholars from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States around the topic
of “Transnationalism in the Middle East: Local Logics and Global Processes.”
Each year, the European Union Institute selects several such workshops to
host as part of a broader initiative to promote research and understanding
on the Mediterranean region.
One of the most common perceptions among US policymakers has been that the
Middle East is disconnected from processes of globalization, understood in
simplistic terms as the spread of market economies and electoral democracy.
The premise of the workshop, in contrast, was that Middle Eastern states and
economies are highly enmeshed in global economic and political processes, but
that these dynamics are understudied, sometimes misinterpreted, and generally
overlook the key influences of local territorial and national politics.
Under this rubric, workshop papers analyzed a diverse array of topics, ranging
from the geostrategic concerns underpinning the location and operation of free
trade zones in the Persian Gulf, to the effects of the transnational communities
of experts and publics involved in democracy promotion. My paper showed how
Middle Eastern water experts have been instrumental in creating global norms
of water management, but that domestic water projects continue to reflect long-standing
concerns with state-building and population distribution, goals often in tension
with emerging paradigms of resource management.
As befit the topic of the workshop, many of the participants were drawn from
transnational diasporas and communities. Their hyphenated identities illustrated
the limitations of thinking about the modern Middle East either in terms of
homogenizing processes of ‘globalization’ that ‘flatten the
world’ or in purely national terms. The workshop included participants
who identified themselves as Kurdish-German, Palestinian-American, Iranian-American,
Egyptian living permanently in Dubai, and Armenian-Turkish. Not surprisingly,
the workshop was distinguished by lively and informed discussion!
Following the workshop, it was decided to rework the contributions for publication
as a special issue of a journal, focusing on the transnational political economy
of the Middle East. I learned about a variety of new and emerging avenues of
inquiry that may be of interest to our master’s students and undergraduate
thesis writers and will inform my presentation of material in classes. The
workshop also introduced me to several scholars interested in future collaborations.
Since scholars from the Middle East face increasingly difficult obstacles
in gaining entry to the United States, venues such as the European Union Institute
in Italy become ever more important in sustaining transnational networks studying
the Middle East and North Africa. My sincere thanks to CIE, and to the Mediterranean
Programme at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, the European Union
Institute, whose financial and institutional commitment has sustained these
workshops for almost a decade. It was a wonderful experience to share several
days of intensive discussion with outstanding colleagues, surrounded by the
green of early spring in a small Italian town.