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Middle East Small Grants

The Middle East Small Grants (MESG) program, supported by the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment/Global Issues Initiative, provided seed money for Middle East-related research within Virginia Tech.  Funded projects were typically inter- or cross-disciplinary collaborations that contributed to scholarly and policy knowledge on the Middle East and built capacity for Middle East studies. 

This program is no longer active.

Middle East Small Grant Projects

Social Networking and Job Search for Saudi Youth

Saudi youth suffer from high rates of unemployment and spend a long time between graduation and finding their first job. The fact that the country imports plenty of labor challenges the conventional wisdom in the reasons for their high unemployment and long job search. The Saudi government has implemented several policies to assist the integration of youth into the private labor market, mainly relying on financial incentives that have failed to make a difference (EPoD 2015).

The broad idea behind our proposal is that behavioral incentives, such as peer effects, can be more effective than financial incentives (J-PAL 2013, Sacerdote 2011). These effects provide incentives for youth to supply effort in schools and can also be effective in job search after graduation, which is currently unstructured and takes place within family networks rather than a network of peers. Positive peer effects can help youth overcome the unavoidable frustrations in looking for a job in the Saudi private labor market, which is dominated by expatriate workers. Peer networks provide emotional support, access to new information and experiences, and help change youth mindset that defines government jobs as appropriate careers.

In order design policies that take advantage of peer effects, it is important to know how youth use existing online networks, in particular the Twitter and WhatsApp platforms on which they are very active. This project explores the extent to which Saudi youth use online social networks to search for jobs. The principal activity of the project is to map the communication activities and characteristics of the online social networks. This project takes advantage of the archiving facility (Hadoop cluster) and trained computer science students associated with Prof. Ed Fox’s Digital Library Research Lab.

Impact of Displacement on Child and Family Development of Syrian Refugees: A Longitudinal Pilot Study


Syrian refugee crisis is referred to as one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies of our generation. As of March 2016, 4.8 million Syrians are refugees and 6.6 million are displaced within Syria (UNHCR, 2016). Half of them are vulnerable children who are at heightened risk for malnutrition, diseases, social and emotional problems, discontinuation of education, abuse, trafficking, and child marriage. Equally vulnerable are these children’s parents who have experienced mass violence, displacement, and deaths of and separations from family members. The uncertainty, hardship, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorders that many Syrian refugee parents experience appear to make it enormously challenging for them to provide affectionate, effective, and nurturing care to their children (e.g., Leventhal & Kim, 2014). Wartime parenting even results in violence, conflict, and emotional neglect (Wadsworth, 2010). Yet, parents play a critical role in helping children cope with the trauma, adversity, experience of war, and displacement.

The primary purpose of the project is to chart out risk and resilience processes in Syrian refugee families. A growing number of studies have identified multiple problems and resources that this special population needs. Sparsely documented is about important roles that strong family ties, religious beliefs, and hospitality and collectivism commonly shared within the rich Arabic cultures might play in buffering some of the most devastating impacts of displacement on Syrian refugee families. Much sparser is a longitudinal study that helps us to get a better understanding of vulnerability and invincibility at individual and family level of change over time. Longitudinal designs will help establish sequences of events and subsequent developmental outcomes (e.g., Kim, 2012). Carefully considering attrition problems often reported in longitudinal studies (Kim, 2007) and a minimum number of data points needed for statistical analysis of individual and family level of change (Kim, 2004), the current project proposes to follow a panel of 200 refugee families at three different points in time, with a six-month time interval between two data points.

Environmental Change and Conflict in the Middle East

The purpose of this project is to conduct interviews and field research in Israel and Jordan. Research activities include meetings with government officials and NGOs in Jerusalem and Amman dealing with issues of water scarcity, hydrology, and its impact on human ecology. He will also examine hydrological facilities on the Jordan River and in the Dead Sea region and meet with leaders of desert related-research to discuss measures meant to lessen ecological harm caused by pollution, drought and other environmental and climate factors.

This project is part of his ongoing research on environmental security in the Middle East. Ahram is producing a White Paper on these issues as part of the Minerva Research Initiative. This initiative, which is administered by the Office of Basic Research and the Office of Policy at the U.S. Department of Defense, supports social science research aimed at improving basic understanding of global security issues. He also plans to begin working with a new team based in the Department of Human Ecology at UC Irvine on riparian water management, focusing on large rivers, including the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates. 

Breaking the Impasse: Beyond the Two-State Solution - An Evaluation of the Political Viability of a Range of Solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Twenty-four years on since the signing of the Oslo agreement in September 1993, the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) has effectively ground to a halt.  Successive diplomatic initiatives have all failed to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.  With the passing of time, Israelis and Palestinians are rapidly losing faith in the prospect of a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.      
At present, there appears to be little appetite from the international community to re-engage in any sustained diplomatic efforts to revive peace process, in spite of the recent rhetoric emanating from the White House and the remarks made by President Trump’s Administration during his visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel.  With the increasing focus on domestic policy challenges, combined with the emergence of new challenges in the Middle East, most notably the civil war in Syria and the threat presented by the rise of ISIS, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has slid down the international policy agenda.   International strategies towards the conflict have moved from conflict resolution to ones of conflict management and conflict containment. Yet, ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or hoping that the status quo will remain stable is not a viable long-term strategy.  The international community cannot afford the mistake of prioritizing one regional issue in the Middle East over another without appreciating the connectivity between them.  The influence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is also being felt in the IsraelPalestine conflict. Drawing younger generations towards a violent ideology, the rising influence of violent extremism presents a problem for both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli State as it draws people away from a peaceful outcome. The spread of violent extremism in the region also presents an imperative on the silent moderate minority to make progress on the peace process. The current lack of international attention given to Israeli-Palestinian relations could lend itself to the spread of ISIS, and the influence of other radical Islamist movements in the region.  
Given these circumstances, the need to establish a better relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is imperative.  But moving beyond the current political stalemate requires more than the international community (re)investing significant diplomatic capital in this issue.  It also demands the introduction of fresh thinking, new ideas and the inclusion of new actors and different approaches.  Without such innovative thinking, future international initiatives are likely to tread the same path as past efforts, with similar results.
This research project aims to contribute to that endeavor.  The project will not be constrained by the trajectory of the peace process to date, or the demand of the immediate resumption of political negotiations. Rather, it will critically evaluate the various ideas that have been presented as potential alternatives to the two-state solution and assess their political efficacy.  It will also review the experiences of past attempts at peace-making, assessing both the failings and successes of those efforts over the past twenty-five years.  The ultimate aim will be to develop alternative strategies for restoring confidence of Israelis and Palestinians in the peace process, and, in particular, the potential contribution of civil society initiatives in that effort.
This research project forms part of a larger collaborative project on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, directed by the Middle East program at Chatham House in London. This research project feeds into the Chatham House project by producing a background research paper which will address the issues raised above.