“Energy, Society and the Middle East” is a 4-week online course that blends social sciences with technical concepts, providing technical students with a cultural context while exploring the future of the region. The course, taught by associate professor and Middle Eastern Studies program director Emran El-Badawi, has begun enrollment for the upcoming 2020 summer session II, amid the move to remote instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“When you try to study the Middle East, the same rules do not apply,” said El-Badawi. “You can’t take a solution that worked in Texas or in Norway and simply apply it in a place like Sinai or Libya. You have to know the culture, religion, and economic challenges in order to have good policies.”
The course examines the impact of the global energy sector on the social and cultural fabric of modern societies in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region. The class delves into the history and background of the “age of oil and gas” in the region and how it shaped modern religious institutions.
It also investigates the rapid development of a new “age of sustainability” focusing on renewable energy, women and youth empowerment, along with political and economic reforms. The course teaches students to think critically about the region, going beyond assumptions of the popular media in the U.S., challenging their own assumptions about the region.
The course bridges the gap between science and humanities, with many students coming from engineering backgrounds while others have a background in social sciences like Arabic Studies.
“I saw a huge gap between the humanities and technical students, those two areas are not talking to each other, especially in an area as critical as energy in the Middle East. We cannot be engineers or policymakers or educators and not actually bring these (two subjects) into the conversation,” El-Badawi said.
Nima Nayeri, an accounting and finance senior with a minor in energy and sustainability at C.T. Bauer College of Business says he found the class interesting because it intertwined culture and religion in the context of the energy industry in the Middle East.
"It definitely broadens your breath of knowledge about (oil) commodities and the energy industry and makes students well-rounded professionals,” said Nayeri.
Although initially Nayeri’s main draw for the course was that it was accepted for the energy and sustainability minor, he says he took from the course more than just another credit toward degree completion.
“It does a lot to personally develop yourself and your skills,” said Nayer. “The course being offered in summer is perfect because you can do the readings and writing assignments at your own pace.”
It’s an advantage that Amani Halawa, mathematical biology graduate with a minor in arab studies says was helpful for her as well when she took the course.
“I learned so much in those four weeks,” said Halawa. “The online format of the class lends itself to working on your own pace to complete the readings and writing assignments, while learning something new and interesting that affects a lot of important aspects of society.”
Halawa says she enjoyed the way the class was structured for interdisciplinary study, focusing on the political, technical, and social aspects of Middle Eastern society and the energy sector.
“If you really want to understand the huge role that oil plays in the world and how that has contributed to a lot of geopolitical relationships, this is the class you want to take to be an informed individual,” said Halawa.
The course provides students with the context they need to bridge in the gap of information from other sources such as the media and allows them to full immerse themselves in the topic.
El-Badawi, who founded the Arab Studies program at UH, has published in English and Arabic about bridging the divide between the west and those in Muslim majority countries. The summer course serves to offer students lessons from the past while helping them understand the impact of religion and politics on evolving energy sector.
“The Middle East is not only the home to where hydrocarbons flow back and forth,” said El-Badawi. “It’s geographically the center of the international trade and the Muslim majority in the world. It’s unique and increasingly fought over geostrategic location.”