Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Towards a New Leadership in the Middle East

By Peter Weinberg
The Times (UK)
September 16, 2007

It’s dawn at the Allenby Bridge, the river crossing that connects Jericho and the West Bank to Jordan. The temporary community of Bedouins, truck drivers and UN peacekeepers warily watches the heavily armed Israeli border guards. The guards tell us to stand back; they won’t be opening the border any time soon. Everyone avoids eye contact. The tension is palpable.
As an investment banker from New York, I’m a long way outside my comfort zone. I’m here to attend the opening of a new school in Jordan – an initiative that may plant some small shoot of hope in this troubled region.

King’s academy is in Madaba, which lies in a fertile valley at the base of Mount Nebo, the biblical perch from which Moses looked out over the promised land. The school is the inspiration of King Abdullah II, who wanted to create a top-quality boarding school for talented teenage boys and girls from across the Middle East. Last week, the first 106 teenagers arrived to join the first classes.

You don’t need to be wealthy to attend King’s academy. In fact, the school has raised over $60m (£30m) to pay for buildings and land, and for scholarships for those who can’t afford tuition.

Last weekend, one student showed up in a limousine with more suitcases and boxes than could possibly fit in a dormitory. Contrastingly, another arrived by bus and walked through the front gate alone with just a small satchel of belongings. The students share potential and opportunity, not privilege.

Freshly cut grass and young olive trees decorate the walled campus. The library is rapidly filling with books; art supplies and lab equipment are unpacked and ready for use. The buzz of student conversations, both in Arabic and English, bring the campus to life. In some ways, this campus resembles any number of others around the world. But it’s different here.

The students are the cream of the intellectual crop from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, Palestine, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There are even a few from America and Taiwan. Ultimately all Middle Eastern countries will be represented, including Israel. But even more striking, particularly in this region of “haves and have nots”, is the economic diversity of the students.

The model for King’s academy is Deerfield academy in Massachusetts, one of the top boarding schools in the US. King Abdullah attended Deerfield in the 1980s and often identifies his days there as among the best of his life. As a former Deerfield student myself, I can echo the quality of the experience and its long-lasting impact.

The two schools do not look alike: Deerfield is the archetypical leafy, New England campus familiar to millions from movies such as Dead Poets Society; King’s is in the Levant style of stucco, wood and tile.

But the schools share a common DNA, marked by intelligence, tradition, and an environment that encourages students to engage and provoke. To shape and embody this culture, King Abdullah has recruited the legendary Deerfield headmaster, Eric Widmer, and his charismatic wife Meera Viswanathan.

At the opening ceremony last weekend, five students stepped forward to deliver a nervous premiere of the school song. As the sun set behind the campus buildings, King Abdullah welcomed the students and faculty and reiterated his dream.

Nobody can predict where these courageous students will attend university. One can say that they will have the option to attend the finest establishments in the world: Oxford or Cambridge, Yale or Harvard. I am hopeful that they will choose that route and ultimately return to the region when their academic training is completed. What could be more important in the Middle East than educating open-minded future leaders?

Last week I was strolling through the campus and I heard the sound of Deep Purple’s 1973 hit Smoke on the Water coming from one of the boy’s dormitories. In the US or Europe, such a sound would be unremarkable. But at this school, in this place, at this time, this very normality is extraordinary.