précis Interview: MENA/MIT

  • Fall 2023 ∕  Winter 2024
précis Interview: MENA/MIT

As the faculty director of the new Middle East and North Africa/MIT (MENA/MIT) at the Center for International Studies (CIS), Richard Nielsen leads efforts to connect activities and initiatives across MIT related to the Middle East and North Africa. David Dolev, the co-lead of MENA/MIT, ideates and builds interdisciplinary and international collaborations. Additionally, he leads educational outreach related to the MENA region within the MIT community and beyond. They recently issued an MENA/MIT newsletter where you can learn about related activities and ways to connect with this community. They also invite you to take this survey to help guide their efforts.

FALL23/WINTER 24 :: précis Interview :: MENA/MIT
Richard Nielsen and David Dolev
February 13, 2024

In this article, Richard Nielsen and David Dolev discuss MENA/MIT’s engagement with the MIT community, its contributions to the Institute's educational and research objectives, and their goals for 2024.

MENA/MIT is one of several new region-focused initiatives at CIS. We invite you to learn about our global activities, ranging from student internships, to faculty funding, to the knowledge of our scholars. 

Can you introduce us to MENA/MIT and its core purpose?
RN: MENA/MIT is a new regional program at the Center for International Studies that houses and connects activities and initiatives across MIT related to the Middle East and North Africa region. There is a lot of great research and teaching about, and engagement with this vibrant region at MIT, and we want to amplify and connect that work, while facilitating more where we can. As violent conflict in the region is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, I think it’s more important than ever to foster connections and understanding, within MIT and globally.

How does MENA/MIT engage with the broader MIT community and how does it contribute to the educational and research missions of the institute?
RN: Our very first effort has been to host a mini-course on the Israel-Hamas war, taught by Peter Krause PhD ’11 who is an affiliate of the Center’s Security Studies Program. Peter is an expert on the Zionist and Palestinian national movements and is a professor of political science at Boston College. He designed something really informative that has already reached over 500 MIT community members who attended via zoom, and we hope can reach thousands more now that we’ve just released the recordings of those sessions on the CIS YouTube channel. You can request to watch the course here.

On a research front, MENA/MIT is co-sponsor of the MENA social science workshop–a joint initiative with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. The forum is for scholars in the local area to present their work and get critical feedback. It also provides a great opportunity for our PhD students to workshop dissertation ideas and hone their talks for the academic interview process.

What inspired the establishment of MENA/MIT as a region-specific group within CIS? What are its primary objectives?
RN: MENA/MIT is really about connections: connecting MENA-related research, teaching, and initiatives across MIT, and connecting researchers and practitioners. It’s an academic unit, so one of our primary goals is to promote academic research, but we also aim to foster economic opportunity, stability, mutual understanding, and peace. These are lofty goals in light of the challenges in the region right now, but MIT is a place where we can tackle big challenges.

MENA/MIT is really about connections: connecting MENA-related research, teaching, and initiatives across MIT, and connecting researchers and practitioners.

One of the early conversations David Dolev and I had about this was around “missed connections.”  He had mentioned an interest in a particular speaker’s work, and it turned out I had just hosted this person on campus.  The talk was only advertised within the Department of Political Science so he was unaware that it even happened. We’re hoping that MENA/MIT can serve as a sort of clearing-house where those at MIT with interests in the region can find out about events, programs, and funding with the goal of decreasing missed connections, hopefully.

The region itself can be broadly defined, and its ties to the rest of Africa, Asia, and Europe are increasing through flows of trade, aid, and people. Because of these ties, I envision that MENA/MIT will have connections with other newly formed regional programs at CIS. A lot of the issues that can seem MENA-specific are really interconnected to other parts of the world, so we will explore these connections.

DD: I have been managing MIT programs in the Middle East for the past fifteen years. This includes student opportunities and faculty collaborations. Navigating between the different countries and the different entities at MIT, I have always felt that there is so much potential for synergies. I believe that MIT can continue to amplify its already impactful role and make a difference in the lives of individuals and of communities by bringing together academics and practitioners and work together to find solutions to major regional challenges, build a bridge between communities in conflict, and train the regional leaders of tomorrow. My hope is that by working together with stakeholders across MIT and the region, we can develop programming in this spirit. We aim to be a partner on issues of regional and global importance, while offering MIT students and faculty important opportunities to learn and engage with the region.

Could you elaborate on the various programs and activities that fall under the MENA/MIT initiative?
RN: The biggest programs at CIS related to the MENA region are MISTI for student internships and the Center’s Global Seed Funds for faculty research.  There are great opportunities for students and faculty in a number of places in the region, with potentially more in the works.  The long-standing Emile Bustani Seminar is also housed at CIS, with a line-up of interesting speakers and topics each semester. There are also public talks through the Starr Forum and the Security Studies Program (SSP). And, of course, there the scholarship coming out of CIS and SSP through our affiliated faculty, fellows, and students.

Reflecting on 2023, what were some of the significant milestones and achievements of MENA/MIT, including new projects, events, or advancements within ongoing programs?
RN: Speaking honestly, 2023 has been a heartbreaking year. It’s hard to talk about milestones and achievements when the war between Israel and Hamas has impacted so many of our friends and colleagues in the region, and outside of it too. I think a lot of us whose research relates in some way are working on the ways we can to bring about some kind of resolution to the conflict and to support each other through hard times. I’m really proud of Peter Krause’s mini-course that the program sponsored, and I’m hoping we can do more of that kind of programming to collectively learn how the conflict got to this point and where it might be headed. 

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for MENA/MIT in 2024?
RN: More and better, but hopefully with some continuity.  Almost everything that's under the MENA/MIT umbrella has gotten more difficult, so finding ways to keep doing what we do well is already a challenge. Folks are doing excellent work to keep programs going. Where our energy goes in 2024 will depend in part on which direction the challenges in the region take.  

I see this initiative as a way to reach out across ... MIT and to partners in the region, asking: How can we bring value to you? What will motivate you to join us on this path of impact?

I’m really hoping to make more connections across MIT. We're continuing Peter Krause's minicourse with additional sessions, we've just made the initial sessions available more publicly, and we have some other programming related to the Israel-Hamas war in the works. The MENA Social Science Workshop just kicked off a new semester with a very full calendar of research presentations, so that intellectual energy is exciting.  And I'm always thinking about the possibility of new initiatives

DD: My hope is that we can leverage MIT’s “hands and mind” ethos, our commitment to work together as a community, and our capacity to make a positive impact. We aim to develop a hub that can bring together academics, practitioners, students, faculty, staff, and MIT alumni—to learn with and from one another. This hub will help support regional leadership and will nurture MIT's regionally-focused programs. I want to find ways to amplify those voices, support them, and bring together researchers and practitioners across disciplines, countries, and cultures to collaborate. Some of the ideas we are currently discussing include podcasts, fellowships, regional projects, working groups, and events.

I see this initiative as a way to reach out across the five schools of MIT and to partners in the region, asking: How can we bring value to you? What will motivate you to join us on this path of impact?