Up-and-Coming Community Projects in the Middle East

By | June 6, 2012

With my recent professional reset, I’ve been thinking a lot about online and offline socially-focused community building here in Saudi or in other areas of the Middle East. I see a huge opportunity at the intersection of online/offline community building, digital media, and social benefit in the region.

I have also come up with one main barrier: In my experience, “Social Media” and “Community Building” have negative connotations in the middle east. Disappointingly, many people immediately assume you’re talking about revolution and the Arab Spring. I believe think that pigeon-holing these topics into such a narrow definition is short-sighted and I hope that together we can find a way to demonstrate the value of these tools and tactics outside of the high-profile events of the last two years.

I’ve been doing some research about small community-centric projects operating the region and I wanted to share two of them with you:

Middle East Jams

I recently had the pleasure to meet with Shilpa Jain, the Executive Director of Yes!, a small but global organization focused on connecting, inspiring, and collaborating with young changemakers. Shilpa told me about Jams that the organization facilitates around the world.

Each YES! Jam brings together approximately thirty outstanding young changemakers for a week of networking, skills sharing and community building. YES! Jams create transformative fields of shared inquiry in which young leaders deepen the root system behind the commitments, prayers and actions that move through their lives. Our alumni support one another and collaborate together on-goingly long after the Jam, sustaining themselves for a lifetime of service to the world.”

What I like about the Jams is that they are all about building community, capacity, understanding, and impact. They are also very interested in bringing a diverse audience. The events are part structured and part open-format which gives participants the opportunity to create their own reality from the event. I think an event like this can be a really strong catalysts for both ideation and self-improvement – and for meeting and talking with people you might never otherwise have the opportunity to meet.

The next Middle East Jam is in Wadi Rum, Jordan (an amazingly beautiful area) this fall. I believe the application is already closed, but if you’re interested, I’m sure it’s worth a shot to get in touch with them!

The organization also supports smaller, shorter events… I’m kind-of playing with the idea of trying to host one at KAUST. If anyone at KAUST is reading this and is interested in co-facilitating this with me, get in touch!

Yes! is doing great work all over the world, and I see a huge opportunity for projects like this to create benefit for diverse audiences of young people all around the arab world.

I want to send a big shout out to my friend Aysegul Guzel for introducing me to Shilpa. Thanks!


Virtual Dinner Guest

Virtual Dinner Guest is a project which aims to provide a facilitated connection point for people that are highly unlikely to otherwise meet due to social or philosophical barriers. Using video conferencing and trained conflict negotiators, the events encourage mutual learning and understanding.

I spoke with the founder Eric Maddox about the young and growing project. He spoke about several events he’s already hosted — most notably, one which connected Tunisians and Egyptians in a series of Virtual Dinners aimed at promoting grass roots collaboration and an intra-regional discourse. Here’s a news story about the event.

Quick side-story: I once got off an airplane in America and somehow ended up in a conversation with the man next to me waiting for luggage. He was from Iran, and I told him I was living in Saudi. He immediately said that we should hate eachother. I was so sad that one’s nationality or residence could govern love or hate for another individual and that moment has always stuck with me.

I love Eric’s Virtual Dinner idea because it is all about conflict resolution and finding ways for people who may *think* they hate eachother to find common-ground and mutual understanding. It’s not about making them agree or love, but more about understanding how and why the other side believes what they believe. Really powerful stuff.

And, another shout-out is due here too. Thanks to Negin Sobhani for introducing me to Eric!


What else?

Do you know of any other socially-focused, community-focused, and/or digital projects that are operating in Saudi or around the region? What projects are inspiring you right now? I’d love to connect with the people involved  (Intros welcome!)!