Leadership for Public Wellbeing in the Middle East: Transcending Boundaries of Identity and Action

From February 14-16, 2010, RCLA and the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute convened 24 eminent scholars and practitioners committed to illuminating and nurturing leadership for public well-being in the Middle East and beyond. Whether working for youth and women's empowerment, engendering corporate citizenship, or organizing communities in conflict-ridden areas, they discussed leadership that transcends sectors, transforms ordinary citizens into agents of change, and opens up new public spaces for deliberation and engagement.

The participants were as diverse in experience as they were in their institutional affiliations and geographic locations, representing United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Tunisia, Oman, Iran, and the US.  Members of the group highlighted the plurality of groups to which they belong and rejected the notions of a monolithic identity, stressing that they, as individuals work in multiple contexts. They are at once embedded in institutions, communities, countries, and the world.  At the same time, the region itself has varied geo-political designations — Arab, Middle East, North Africa, Muslim-majority, Mediterranean and so on. 

This diversity of the group and the multiple contexts in which each works directly relate to the kind of social and public issues they address.  From youth and women empowerment to community organizing in conflict-ridden spaces, the kinds of problems workshop participants tackle are precisely those that transcend the interests of a small group or the boundaries of a narrow locale. They are public, complex and global in nature.  They are problems demanding inter-disciplinary and cross-sector approaches — themes that emerged and re-emerged throughout the three-day convening.

The bringing together of practitioners and scholars reflects RCLA’s commitment to bridging theory and practice. Practitioners in the group run leadership programs that equip and support citizens from all walks of life in exercising their leadership for the collective benefit of their societies.  The scholars in the group both teach and study leadership that transcends sectors, transforms ordinary citizens into active agents of change, and opens up new public spaces for deliberation and engagement.


Practices of boundary spanning were seen as fundamental to leadership for public wellbeing.  “Boundary spanning” was really an umbrella term for various practices - enabling collaboration between government, civil society and business; blending and mixing various methodologies in tackling public issues; and drawing on the historical well of leadership and cultural practices in advancing leadership while challenging and modernizing tradition. 

The sharing of various experiences with leadership for public wellbeing generated practical implications for furthering its practice in the region. The group discussed actionable ideas for the study of leadership, teaching leadership in higher education settings and leadership development/training programs.  Amidst the range of these ideas a common need was expressed for collaborative and supportive peer networks for scholars and practitioners advancing leadership on the ground.

The convening culminated in a public event when three participants brought a cross-sector perspective on the topic of leadership for a new global era marked by increasing interconnectedness, complexity and uncertainty. Fadi Ghandour, Founder and CEO of Aramex International; Barbara Ibrahim, Founding Director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo; and Asya Al Lamki, Cultural Attaché of the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman in Washington, DC engaged in a lively conversation moderated by NYU Abu Dhabi Provost Mariët Westermann.

The panelists discussed their own experience as leaders of public wellbeing leveraging their own spheres of influence to address collective challenges.  These included building the field of philanthropy to have a more systemic and institutionalized approach, furthering women’s rights in an endogenous way,  advancing corporate governance and citizenship to enhance the wellbeing  of impoverished communities, and promoting cross-cultural understanding by building on the opportunities presented by an increasingly interconnected world. 

These experiences converged in the understanding that such collective undertakings require a more dispersed form of leadership where authority is distributed throughout multiple levels of a system.  The panelists discussed that what often inhibits action is the understanding of leadership as a lofty and distant concept reserved for those at the apex of organizations. A more ‘humble’ form of leadership is needed that is about taking action on the front lines — one which ordinary citizens can relate to and exercise.

Workshop Reports


Workshop Presentations