On November 2-4 2016, the Middle East Studies Forum at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship & Globalisation hosted the Future of the Middle East conference, with sponsorship from the US Consulate General in Melbourne.
This event brought together a diverse range of scholars, researchers, officials and observers with an interest in the Middle East from across Australia and beyond for a series of thought-provoking sessions and lively discussions, amid many opportunities for networking, socialising and animated discussion.
The conference proper began on November 3 after opening remarks from Professor Fethi Mansouri, Director of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Sue Ismiel, Chair of the Council for Australia-Arab Relation, and Frankie Reed, US Consul General in Melbourne.
Two plenary sessions kicked off the conference, setting the tone for the programme to follow. These sessions offered insightful and thought-provoking analysis of the Middle East, its current predicament and its future outlook. Keynote speaker, Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, from the Baker Institute, Rice University, first offered his in-depth knowledge of the politics of economic reform in the Gulf. Following this, Anthony Bubalo, from the Lowy Institute, and Deakin University’s own Professor Ihsan Yilmaz examined the broad dynamics of the region, focusing on disruptions and resilience in the Arabic-speaking world and the trajectory of Turkey’s political culture, respectively.
Day two of the conference, on November 4, also began with a well-attended plenary session, this one presented by Dr Ben MacQueen from Monash University and Deakin’s Associate Professor Ben Isakhan. Focusing on the impacts of refugee populations within and outside Syria and issues of heritage destruction in Iraq, these presentations brought the spotlight upon topics of pivotal importance for the Middle East and their global implications. After lunch on day two, delegates gathered for a further plenary session in which Dr Sarah Phillips, from Sydney University, presented on state dynamics in Yemen and Professor Joseph Camilleri, from La Trobe University, discussed the Saudi Arabia-Iran divide.
Interspersed between plenary sessions on both days, the conference included panel presentations focusing on a range of topics. These extended across conflict in Syria, the dialectic between democratic impulses and authoritarian resilience, Iran’s political and social tensions, social movements, the impact of the Arab Spring on the idea of the Arab state, women’s movements in the Middle East, the Kurdish question and changes within the Arabian Peninsula.
In total, with three plenaries and eight panel sessions, delegates presented 37 papers, cutting across disciplines, theoretical frameworks, geographies, viewpoints and perspectives. The diversity of subject matter, analytical approaches, research methodologies and regional expertise that conference audiences enjoyed is evidence of the vitality and diversity of Islamic and Middle East studies in the Australian academic fraternity and the important and timely nature of much research being done in these fields by Australian academics.
Conference delegates also had the opportunity to gather informally for dinner at the Point Restaurant at the close of day one to continue discussions prompted by conference papers and to enjoy a night of convivial banter, while listening to the Anatolian and eastern Mediterranean tunes of Doğa.
In a closing session, Professor Akbarzadeh, Associate Professor Isakhan and Dr Sarah Phillips offered their thoughts on the predicament of the Middle East region, its implications for those undertaking research and reasons why research into the region, its politics, societies, international relations and people at the everyday level is so important.
The conference also included a series of workshops for higher-degree research students on November 2. Highlighting aspects of the research process, career planning and post-degree initiatives such as seeking publication for one’s thesis and how to formulate plans for winning grants, these sessions were of vital interest to postgraduate researchers. Experienced academics Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Professor Larbi Sadiki and Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh offered their insights and expertise in areas of critical interest to upcoming scholars. There were also special panels on how to prepare a PhD thesis for publication, by Palgrave MacMillan, and the hows and whys of working in the Middle East with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Papers delivered by three higher-degree research students completed the programme for the day and demonstrated the outstanding level of research into the Middle East being conducted by post-graduate students across Australia.
This event proved to be a lively forum for interaction, the sharing of ideas and collegial debate for a community of scholars with a diversity of interests but a shared passion for the disciplines of Islamic and Middle East studies. The conference organisers and Deakin staff alike received positive feedback and enthusiastic thanks from delegates, who appreciated the value of an initiative that brought together so many in an atmosphere of engagement and discussion.
View the conference program here