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Her name is Dubai. And she wants to challenge Arab stereotyping

25-year-old Emirati Rhodes scholar Dubai Abulhoul's think tank aims to change the Middle East narrative.

Her name is Dubai. And she wants to challenge Arab stereotyping
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Living up to the standards may be hard when you are named after a dynamic city. Dubai Abulhoul, 25, has reached eyebrow-raising new heights – and she’s only getting started. 

As the founder of The Fiker Institute, a UAE-based homegrown think tank, academically-inclined Abulhoul, alongside her team, is boldly moving the needle on the world’s most pressing issues.

“We are creating a genuine two-way dialogue and publishing research from all over the world,” she says. “What we are challenging is a rigid, binary view of sensationalist coverage towards the Middle East. Why can’t the Mideast have an opinion on climate change, gender equality, diplomacy, and European affairs? We want to build a homegrown think tank that shares our views on world issues.”

Some international legacy think tanks are over 100 years old and set in their policy, research, and advocacy approach. Abulhoul’s aim with Fiker Institute is to introduce a new way to analyze these topics from the region’s roots. Fiker Institute launched last September as an interdisciplinary think tank that addresses a gap in international dialogue and international affairs from the Mideast. 

“We want a balanced conversation,” she said. “It’s not just an academic focus; it’s also interdisciplinary. So when we talk about a country, we want to speak to artists, writers, photographers and ensure publications and programming keep in mind an interdisciplinary angle.”

SPANNING THE RIGHT AREAS

It focuses on six research areas. Three research programs are thematic: gender equality, climate change, diplomacy and global governance. 

For example, its Gender Equality program “seeks to explore the nuances behind the challenges women still face globally, contextualize their political, economic, and social participation, and decolonize narratives surrounding women in non-Western contexts.”

The remaining three programs are regional: North America, Europe, West Asia, and North Africa.

“West Asia refers to our Mideast program, but we wanted to challenge the colonial term ‘Middle East’ even in the title,” Abulhoul explained. “We aim to bring a nuanced approach to these six areas, avoiding a black and white standard.”

The world views the Middle East negatively, which Abulhoul believes can be traced back to Napoleon’s rule in the late 1790s when his army invaded Egypt. At the time, he commissioned artists to create work that portrayed a myopic view of Arabs — a perception that lingers in the West. Abulhoul aims to change the narrative with new research, showcasing bright minds from the region.

The institute doesn’t shy away from bold topics. Recent research published on the website includes an analysis of metaverse diplomacy and veto powers at the UN. In the Europe program, the institute seeks to explore the question of national sovereignty vs multilateral cooperation in Europe, and to study in more detail the underlying reasons behind the rise of populism, decline in gender equality, and re-emergence of religious extremism across the continent.

MOVING THE NEEDLE

Abulhoul is well-versed in tackling challenges and pushing the envelope. At 13, she became the first Emirati author to publish a fantasy novel. She studied literature and political sciences as an undergraduate at NYU Abu Dhabi, where her research focused on female participation in the UAE’s political sphere. She then continued her studies with a master’s in diplomacy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. 

Alongside a role in the foreign ministry, Abulhoul also published six children’s books to preserve Emirati folktales that were only passed down verbally from one generation to another. 

“Launching Fiker is a very significant moment for me,” she says. “It’s an attempt to try something new without a blueprint.”

A consistent publisher, all of the think tank’s thought leadership pieces are grounded in research. Many larger topics are often brought to life through monthly events with different authors, including Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an Emirati arts scholar who has lectured at Yale, Harvard, and Columbia. 

Fiker’s writing and publishing are close to Abulhoul’s heart. The organization’s initial buzz started after she wrote an opinion piece for a local newspaper on the reasons behind launching a local think tank — and it went viral. 

“I don’t view my milestones as successes. I hesitate to share advice because everyone is on their journey. If you have a big idea and see a gap, go for it,” Abulhoul says. “That’s what I see with Fiker. I can see 20 reasons not to launch such a big mission. It’s preceded by decades of one way of thinking about the Mideast, but I believe in our mission and ability to make a difference. Sometimes you need to be focused and determined, and you will find like-minded people as you go along.”

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