August 30, 2020

The Right Place, the Right Time: U.S. Diplomat Bob Silverman Teaches New Course on the Gulf States at Shalem

For Bob Silverman, former president of the American Foreign Service Association, former political counselor to the United States Embassy in Israel, and current Shalem lecturer on the Gulf states, the timing of the historic announcement of normalized ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates couldn’t have been better. Not only, he explains, because it’s an excellent move forward for both the Jewish state and the Middle East. In addition, he explains, the timing coincided perfectly with the deadline for his students’ final papers.

“I had offered students the option of writing, as a final paper, a hypothetical memorandum to government ministry officials recommending a new initiative between Israel and one of the Gulf states,” Silverman says, going on to explain that many students chose this option, illustrating the “obvious mutual benefits” of normalized ties between the second- and third-largest economies and the two most innovative countries in the region. “What was so impressive, however, was just how creative and well-conceived the student papers were in suggesting new ways of building toward normalization.”

Such as?

“There were calls for a joint Israel-UAE space program and for cinematic collaborations. There was even,” he smiles broadly, “a plan for developing ties between chefs and food critics, as part of a vision for a new Middle Eastern culinary culture. Students combined incredible creativity with really serious research, and that – alongside the news of the peace deal—was the best possible finale for this course.”

The course in question is “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States,” currently the only undergraduate course in Israel focused exclusively on the Gulf states. A seminar for third and fourth-year students in the Middle East and Islamic Studies major, the course is an exploration of the different cultures, economies, demographics, and political traditions that characterize the six states in the Gulf Cooperation Council—with an emphasis, Silverman is quick to point out, on “different”: “Many people think of these states as largely homogeneous. But there are important differences among them,” says Silverman, who himself studied under the preeminent Middle East historian Bernard Lewis during his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Princeton before embarking on a three decades’ long career in the U.S. State Department.

When asked what accounts for misconceptions in Israel about the Gulf,  Silverman explains that Israelis have traditionally, and understandably, focused on the so-called “frontline states,” with whom they share a border, or else those countries such as Iraq or Morocco that once played host to thriving Jewish communities. “You have this situation in which some of the world’s leading scholars of Egypt, for example, are Israeli. Like Sasson Somech, the Israeli writer and translator who became the foremost scholar of the Egyptian novelist Naghib Mafouz’s work. But when it comes to the Gulf states, there’s a real gap in the scholarship here. The Israel-UAE peace deal will almost certainly result in a shift of focus, or at least a widening of focus, in Israel’s Middle Eastern Studies departments. This course, which I had the privilege of designing especially for Shalem, will undoubtedly become part of that larger movement.”

With its inclusion of Arab voices from the Gulf states, Silverman’s course also has implications beyond academia. While the first half of the semester was dedicated to lectures, readings, and discussions about the six countries, the second was given over to direct encounters—by videoconferencing, of course—with guest speakers from each. “We heard from activists, academics, and officials in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and the UAE about topics such as the ‘oil and natural-gas curse’ and ‘dilemmas in human rights.’ The issue of migrant workers,” continues Silverman, “is one that Israel shares in common with all of the Gulf states, which led to some interesting conversations. The benefit of these kinds of unmediated, give-and-take discussions is that they provide an opportunity for connections around shared areas of interest or concern. And of course,’ he concludes, “they bring these states alive.”

Bob Silverman, former president of the American Foreign Service Association, former political counselor to the United States Embassy in Israel, and current Shalem lecturer on the Gulf states.

Silverman has always been a believer in a bringing the subtlety of the Arab world to the fore, whether of the scholarly, the public, or the diplomatic consciousness. He’s certainly comfortable in the role of cultural mediator: He translated into English a book by the popular Egyptian humorist Ali Salem, who traveled throughout Israel during the Oslo period. “Sometimes,” he says, “the most illumination can be found in the smallest observations, whether about other cultures or our own.” In addition, alongside his current role at Shalem, Silverman also serves as the president of IJMA – The Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance, an American nonprofit that brings together leading members of Jewish and Muslim civil society to advocate for common public-policy goals.

Through his various roles in the U.S. State Department, including as economic counselor of the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia and director of the Iraq Reconstruction Office in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, he spent time in numerous Middle Eastern countries, including the UAE, Azerbaijan, and Turkey—the last the subject for a new, and similarly innovative, course he plans to teach at Shalem this fall. “If not for Covid-19, I was determined to lead a student delegation to Istanbul,” Silverman smiles. “And since Shalem emphasizes out-of-the-classroom educational experiences, I knew that this would be the college that would help make it happen. Maybe next year.”

Most of all, however, his experience in these countries “showed me that cooperation in the region is not only possible, but entirely doable, and the benefits to all parties are enormous.” As an example, he points to the Middle Eastern Desalination Research Center, a transboundary project established in 1996 as part of the Middle East Peace Process to find solutions to fresh-water scarcity. “I had the privilege of leading the U.S. delegation to MEDRC in Oman in past years, and of watching as Israeli desalination technology was introduced to Arab states through a project funded by Qatar and the UAE. This kind of cooperation is so important, and the normalization of ties with the UAE can give it a huge boost.

“And Shalem students in the Middle East and Islamic Studies Department,” Silverman insists, “with their deep knowledge of Arab language, history, and culture, and their equally deep commitment to advancing their country’s security, prosperity, and prospects for peace, can play a key role in making it happen.”

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