An initiative by one of Egypt’s top businessmen, Mohamed Shafik Gabr, is bridging gaps between the peoples of the Arab world and the West particularly the US, by fostering cultural exchanges between young emerging leaders on both sides, in entrepreneurship, science, the arts, engineering, the media, civil society and business.
Promoting greater East-West understanding, the initiative held its fifth round this year, allowing 19 young Egyptians and Americans to speak to top government officials, private sector leaders, intellectuals, politicians, economists and celebrities in both countries. This year, the Gabr fellows spent one week in Egypt followed by a further week in the US, building enduring connections through hands-on activities and rigorous discussions.
“I am totally convinced that we should support young people, so they can become enlightened leaders in the future,” Gabr told the Egyptian Mail. The top-notch businessman added that young people should gain their knowledge not only from reading books or taking study courses, “they should also travel abroad and talk to people, in order to enrich their experience”.
“The United States is the world’s number one superpower. It accounts for 30 per cent of the world’s economy. It is really important that Egyptian youth get to know their American counterparts so as to understand what the US is and to deal with it positively,” he noted.
Gabr also said that the Egyptian-US relationship is strategic and just as the US is the top power in the world Egypt is the top power in the Arab region. “Such an exchange would be very useful for boosting relations between the two countries,” he added.
“The East-West: The Art of Dialogue” programme, which has come to be known as “The Gabr Fellowship”, also seeks to enhance relations between the two countries by making room for cross-cultural dialogue and co-operation over projects. The Fellowship’s carefully selected participants work on these projects together, in order to promote the goal of the programme: building bridges.
The Fellowship has been running since 2013 and is made up of 20 to 24 fellows, half of them American and half Egyptian, with each side equally divided between men and women.
Sometimes, the Fellowship includes other nationalities, with one participant from the United Kingdom having been included in the 2015 programme, and a participant from Lebanon included in the 2016 programme.
This year, the fellows had the chance to meet top officials from organisations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the State Department, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the Congress, the National Security Council, Drew University and Morgan Stanley.
In Egypt, the fellows met senior officials from the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Arab League, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, among others.
Discussions covered the Egyptian-US relationship, the US-Middle East strategy, the role of storytelling and news media in the US, financial journalism in the US, promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships in art, science, business, culture, education and policy in the 21st Century, Egypt-US challenges and prospects and Egypt’s role in the Security Council and other key issues of interest.
Other topics included the World Bank’s role in tackling the regional infrastructure, climate change and public-private partnerships, brokering peace in the Middle East, the overall Middle East security strategy and the development of the US national security strategy, the term radical Islamic terrorism and its implications in relation to international co-operation, enhancing Egyptian-US investment opportunities and Egypt-US military relations under the current US administration.
“Eye-opening, inspiring and life-changing … that is how I describe my experience with the Gabr Fellowship,” said Neveen Saeed, one of the participants and the founder and programme manager of the Information Technology Institute’s Career Development Programme at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.
“After spending 18 days in Egypt and the US and meeting with decision-makers of both countries, I learnt a lot about the decision-making process complexities and their underlying perspectives. I also realised the cultural differences and the numerous similarities. I thought I knew a lot about the American culture, but my interactions with my friends proved that there are many cultural aspects that are hard to capture in a movie or read about in a book,” Saeed added.
Jessica Mulligan, another participant and a government relations manager at the US Global Leadership Coalition (USLC), said, “The Gabr Fellowship was an opportunity to hold far-reaching discussions about Egyptian culture and politics with incredibly smart, energetic young professionals living halfway across the world from me.”
The USLC is a broad-based network of more than 500 businesses and nonprofit organisations which support strong investments in development and diplomacy.
Mulligan, 25, told the Mail that the most important thing she had learnt from the fellowship was how to have tough conversations with people she disagrees with while remaining respectful and thoughtful.
For Reham Gamal, another participant and an assistant lecturer at the Department of Political Mass Media, the experience was special as well. “This experience added different dimensions to my life and exposed me to people from different backgrounds and cultures, with differing opinions which all enriched my skills and added to my knowledge of various matters,” Gamal said.
Gamal, 26, added that the fellowship had deepened her understanding of various political issues related to the Middle East as well as the US in a relatively short period of time.
“It was very helpful being on one side of the Atlantic, travelling to the other side, and gaining knowledge of the various perspectives of the US-Egyptian relationship from key players in both the US and Egypt,” said Michael Matthiesen, another participant and a senior academic and career adviser at the Miami Dade College.
“I have made some great friends and connections and have realized there are more opportunities out there for me professionally than I ever realised before. If nothing else, I have expanded my horizons and made some lifelong friends along the way,” he added.