A League of Their Own
April 12, 2017
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Last Thursday, as people across the country started their day, they heard the alarming news that President Donald Trump had ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles toward Shayrat Airbase in Syria. The strike was in response to a toxic gas attack by Syrian government forces two days earlier on the town of Khan Shaykhun, which killed at least 74 people.
In today’s ultra interconnected world, crises like this create nightmare scenarios for the government officials, ambassadors and delegates who represent many countries, not just those directly involved in the fighting. In an effort to better ensure the safety and stability in the lives of their citizens, they must work together in intergovernmental organizations like the Arab League or United Nations in an attempt to reach some sort of agreement so they can provide needed support for each other.
With diplomacy being of such crucial importance in a world with nuclear weapons, A&M-Commerce has hosted the Southwest Model Arab League (MAL) for the past six years. Model Arab League is an intercollegiate competition that simulates the relationship dynamics between the 22 member states of the real Arab League, with the aim of giving students a deeper understanding of the workings of diplomacy. For the most recent Southwest Model Arab League, which took place last week from Wednesday to Saturday, students from the 15 participating institutions “role played” as different Arab League member countries, all working to pass resolutions that work in “their country’s” favor.
“Plato once described the practice of philosophy as serious play,” Dr. Jeffrey Herndon, head of the Department of Political Science, said at the opening assembly. “One of the things that always strikes me about academics [as in professors] is that sometimes they tend to be too serious all the time, and I’m a firm believer that when Plato talks about serious play, the idea is that you can do serious things but you can still have fun doing them.”
This year, members of the A&M-Commerce MAL team performed the roles of Egyptian and Yemeni delegates on six different councils: the Joint Defense Council, the Council on Palestinian Affairs, the Council on Political Affairs, the Council of Arab Social Affairs, the Council of Arab Economic Affairs, and the Special Council on Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. On each of these councils, the students represented the needs, concerns, interests and foreign policy objectives of a government other than their own.
“We had to look at it from a non-Western perspective,” Elsa Castro, a sophomore who acted as head Yemeni delegate, said. “When you research your country, you couldn’t go into it saying, ‘OK. Is the U.S. this country’s ally?’ because, although that might be important, they have a lot of other allies that are, honestly, a lot more important to them. So, just making sure that, as a U.S. citizen, my beliefs about democracy don’t carry into my policy, because the Yemeni government simply doesn’t hold a lot of those views, so I think one was taking away the Western influence.”
Sophomore Brian Stephens, who served as head Egyptian delegate, also emphasized the importance of context when participating in a simulated multinational political organization.
“In the case of the Special Council on Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, we [Egypt] have a very, very rough record with refugees and IDPs,” Stephens said. “We wanted to make sure that, while staying in character, you had to play the country very intricately. While you have allies that you work with, they’re not gonna be your allies in every circumstance, and that was something we had to consider as we were preparing.”
That attention to context and commitment to representing the nations of Egypt and Yemen as faithfully as they could paid off when four A&M-Commerce students, John Frick, Ingrid Alcocer, Brian Stephens and Elsa Castro, were recognized as Distinguished Delegates. In addition to those accolades, Michael Faz and Roberto Vargas (who served as chairpersons on the Councils on Political Affairs and Joint Defense, respectively) both received recognition as Outstanding Chairs.
The advisor for the organization on campus, Dr. David Oualaalou, attributed the team’s success to the weekly mock debates they held and “preparing teams to learn rather than win—to learn about a new culture and operate in an interconnected world.” Castro echoed a lot of Dr. Oualaalou’s sentiments, but reflected on what the experience means to her.
“Growth is not measured in the amount of resolutions we pass, but in growth of the individual students,” Castro said. “My heart behind this is coming from just a real burden for my generation. My generation doesn’t know what they believe and they don’t know why, and it’s a huge issue. I think that this conference allows them to be put in the shoes of someone else to further examine what they believe. It’s also just a way to hone their public speaking skills, which is such a basic thing that this generation desperately needs.”
Stephens also had many kind words to say about the cultural eye-opening experience.
“For me, this was probably the most enjoyable experience I’ve had in the university so far, as far as participating in an academic event,” Stephens said. “The only similarly exciting thing in my entire college life was, probably, getting to hear Cornel West speak. But, as far as actually participating in something, this had been the most fun, most educational, most joyous experience I’ve had in the four semesters I’ve been here. I would encourage anybody even vaguely interested in international relations, to at least take a look at this class and see what it can offer to them.”
Anyone interested in learning more about or how to participate in the Model Arab League can do so by visiting the political science office, located on the first floor of the Ferguson Social Sciences Building, or by contacting the head of the Department of Political Science Dr. Jeffrey Herndon at [email protected] or the advisor for Model Arab League, Dr. David Oualaalou at [email protected]