With the twin goals of student development and promoting knowledge and understanding vis- à-vis the Arab world, the Model Arab League (MAL) draws around 2,000 American students to 14 annual conferences nationwide. Megan Geissler, the MAL Programme Coordinator who engineers these conferences, says the effort is worth it: “We’re giving future ambassadors and business executives the experience of being in the shoes of someone they might not ever understand otherwise.”
The MAL is based on the League of Arab States, the oldest regional organisation in existence, predating the United Nations by six months. Each student spends several months researching the Arab world, focusing on one of the 22 Arab League member countries. Their task is to take on the role of diplomat working with other “diplomats” in the conference to address major concerns facing the Arab world today.
The largest MAL conference in the United States, the National University MAL, was held this March at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, bringing together over 300 students from 26 colleges and universities.
Participants at the conference considered it one of the most competitive – and realistic – MAL aggregations, with attendees tackling a host of burning issues ranging from the American occupation in Iraq to human rights, personal freedoms, unemployment and, of course, the ever-critical question of Palestine.
“One of the most interesting aspects of the MAL is to see the students in character as diplomats. American students from the suburbs use language like ‘my Arab brethren’ and Jewish Americans represent Palestine, while students from Texas, Michigan and South Carolina form a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) voting bloc. Students tend to get very passionate and involved in the debates,” said Chelsey Boggs, a MAL alumnae and staff member with the National Council on US-Arab Relations (NCUSAR), the non-profit organisation in Washington, DC that organises the MAL conferences.
It is with this passion that the students involved in the MAL formulate and propose new ideas and solutions to chronic problems in the Arab world. Although the students strive to remain true to the policies and ideologies of the governments they represent, the MAL has a certain amount of latitude to propose solutions not often discussed in real-world politics.
Dr. Hussein Hassouna, the Arab League Ambassador to the United States and a huge proponent of the MAL, reads the resolutions ultimately passed by the students at the National University MAL each year. Hassouna’s speech at this year’s opening ceremonies sparked a round of chuckles after he joked that if the students were to run the real Arab League, its challenges might be solved much sooner.
This year’s committees had bold solutions for the problems they were assigned to tackle. A common trend was for students representing Arab Gulf nations to offer funding for everything from improving healthcare for the world’s refugees to educating girls to bringing the Olympics or World Cup to the Arab world.
However, not all committees were able to work together to propose forward-looking solutions. The Council on Palestinian Affairs was one such committee whose delegates could not seem to find common ground. An article in the NUMAL Daily News, the publication created by students in the MAL Press Corps, went as far as to satirically call for a new committee to “address the humanitarian crisis that is the Palestinian Affairs committee itself.”
“A lot of the debates and resolutions this year were really good, and a few were struggling to define the problem. But I suppose that is exactly how the real Arab League works,” said the acting Secretary General, Petra Alsoofy from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, about the challenges shared by both Arab diplomats and their student counterparts. Alsoofy had the unique honor and challenge of portraying Amr Moussa, the popular current Secretary General of the League of Arab States.
Students like Alsoofy demonstrate that interest in the Middle East and the Arab world is increasing among American students. As this interest grows, NCUSAR expects MAL programmes to expand as well.
* Josh Hilbrand is Programme Assistant for the National Council on US-Arab Relations. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).