Leading for Tomorrow: A Middle East & North Africa Conference at Harvard

Over 1,300 came to Harvard to discuss leadership in the private, social, and public sectors in the Arab World.

From Thursday, November 18 through Sunday November 21, the largest Middle East & North Africa (MENA) event in the US took place on the Harvard campus. At 5:00 pm that Thursday, crowds of students and young professionals lined up outside Burden Auditorium at Harvard Business School. The guest of honor was Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan who delivered the opening keynote address of the Harvard Arab Weekend, a four-day Harvard-wide conference organized by the MENA student groups across the Harvard schools and the Harvard Arab Alumni Association. In attendance was Harvard President Drew Faust who gave the welcoming remarks on behalf of the university.

The Harvard Arab Weekend was one of the most significant efforts this year to bring the best and brightest of the Middle East to Harvard and open channels of dialogue amongst leaders in entrepreneurship, business, government, technology, healthcare, education, and design. The conference drew over 1,300 attendees from across North America including professionals and students of top graduate schools from as far as Stanford in California or McGill in Canada.

The weekend’s theme was leadership in the private, social, and public sectors, with a special emphasis on inspiring the next generation of leaders to lead MENA towards a brighter future. A team of 35 students from 8 Harvard schools worked tirelessly for 6 months to create a setting for discussion and debate on what it takes to tap into the region’s opportunities through leveraging endemic strengths and addressing shortcomings openly.

On Friday, the conference featured a public address by Prince Turki Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former head of intelligence and Ambassador to the US, followed by a political economy panel that offered perspectives on the effects of globalization on the Middle East.

During the medicine & public health portion of the conference on Saturday, Jordan’s former health minister, Said Darwazah, emphasized the role of the private sector in improving public health conditions. Ensuing panels on education and architecture witnessed rooms packed with practitioners, academics, and executives debating the way to the future.

Sunday was dedicated for business in MENA. Hundreds flocked to the HBS campus at 8:30 am to listen to Naguib Sawiris, a business icon who transformed his company Orascom Telecom into a leading player in emerging markets. Sawiris, long a media magnet, inspired the audience to take risks and challenge the status quo, without waiting for change to come from government. Without any prepared remarks, his candidness and charisma carried the day.

Six fully packed panels featured a wide range of distinguished speakers. Perhaps most remarkably, the Media Panel, entitled “Working Hard or Hardly Working?” witnessed a heated debate between an outspoken reform-minded journalist seeking to use traditional and new media to drive social change in Middle Eastern society and a prominent TV executive at MBC, a pan-Arab news and entertainment broadcaster.

Other speakers included the Governor of Iraq’s Central Bank, Dr. Sinan Al-Shabibi, who joined the Iraq Panel to discuss the country’s next decade, as well as the Chairwoman of a leading investment house, Maha Al-Ghunaim, who continues to make it to Forbes Magazine’s annual listing of “The 100 Most Powerful Women in the World”. Al-Ghunaim featured on the Finance Panel discussed the outlook for finance in MENA, and how it is shaped by the region’s own challenges.

Perhaps the highlight of the day was Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa’s mid-day keynote address. Mutawa talked about THE 99, a comic book series, which Forbes identified as ‘One of the Top 20 Trends Sweeping the Globe’. Addressing a packed Spangler Auditorium, Mutawa, a psychologist-turned-social entrepreneur who was recently praised by President Obama for creating the first group of superheroes born of an Islamic archetype, discussed his journey as an entrepreneur and the concept behind his work. His presentation was filled with puns and witty jokes, frequently causing the audience to break into laughter.

The conference concluded with a leadership roundtable followed by a career fair.  The roundtable explored the paths of select leaders and the lessons they learned on their ongoing journeys. Attendees aspiring to leave their mark in MENA were inspired by the narratives of the speakers, who included an inspirational Palestinian-American businessman and entrepreneur and a leading female journalist and political columnist. Each, from their own vantage point shared insights and advice on the course ahead.

As the weekend came to an end, conference attendees left the HBS campus with feelings of optimism and hope vis-à-vis a region ripe with talent and opportunity. Many Middle Eastern students also felt that the conference was a call for steadfast and visionary leadership amidst the various challenges and uncertainty in their home countries. With 65% of their region’s population under the age of 30, they knew that the time had come to rise to the occasion and determine MENA’s destiny.

Authors’ Biography:

Toufic Khoueiry (OD) is currently a second year MBA student at HBS. Before coming to HBS, Toufic was a Senior Consultant with Booz & Company in the Middle East. Toufic has a Bachelor of Engineering with a minor in Business Administration from the American University of Beirut and a Masters in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Maurice Obeid (NG) is a joint degree graduate student at HBS and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Before coming to Harvard, Maurice worked as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company in New York. Originally from Lebanon, Maurice received his undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he studied Chemical-Biological Engineering and Economics.