History of the Middle East Institute 1946 - 2011

Thu, Jan 12th 2012, 12:15PM

In 1946, inspired by his experiences in the region prior to World War II, George Camp Keiser established a center for the study of the Middle East. An architect by training and a student of Islamic architecture, Keiser called the organization the Middle East Institute, and brought together a group of individuals who shared his interest in the region and his conviction that its importance in world affairs would only increase as the century progressed.

The group he assembled included a number of the Washington’s most prominent scholars and statesmen: Christian A. Herter, a congressman from Massachusetts who would go on to become Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state and an advocate of the nascent concepts of global justice and the international rule of law; Ambassador George Allen; Harvey P. Hall, a former instructor at the American University of Beirut and Roberts College in Istanbul; and Halford L. Hoskins, an academic who directed what would eventually become the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Though their backgrounds varied, these men recognized how foreign policy was evolving, writing in a 1948 pamphlet that the very concepts of global strategy, security, and national interest would need “much reconsideration” in the post-war era. Nowhere, they said, were these lessons more important than in the Middle East.

Keiser and his colleagues envisioned a center of learning where leaders from disparate fields could converge and collaborate in order, in the words of the corporate charter, “to increase knowledge of the Middle East among citizens of the United States and to promote a better understanding between the peoples of these two areas.” This broad mandate was to be pursued through five specific means: a quarterly journal and other periodicals and books; a library dedicated exclusively to the Middle East and pertinent global issues; courses in the languages, history, cultures, religions, and politics of the region; research, writing, and publication by and for scholars in the emerging field of Middle East studies; and  conferences and public lectures that would provide a forum for discussion of the region. In all of these pursuits, the Institute would commit to a position of political neutrality and attempt to deal objectively with a region in which facts have often been difficult to distinguish from legend and propaganda.

In its early years, MEI was an informal organization, more akin to a club for like-minded individuals than a scholarly institution. Its members met from time to time to discuss their travels in the Middle East, and an annual conference was held at the Friends Meeting House on Florida Avenue. This would change dramatically in the first few years after 1946. The late 1940s and early 1950s were a period of rapid growth for the Institute and by 1955, less than a decade after its founding, MEI’s membership had grown to over 500. The monthly Newsletter, intended primarily for members and consisting largely of announcements regarding the Institute itself, evolved in 1953 into the Middle East Report, an illustrated magazine that appealed to much wider audience. MEI began to publish books under its own imprint, the library expanded, and soon the Institute outgrew its original home. From a small office at 1906 Florida Ave, Keiser moved the organization to a temporary location on 19th Street, and finally to two adjoining townhouses near Dupont Circle, its home to this day.

This rapid expansion of MEI’s programs outpaced the growth of its support base, and with the death of George Camp Keiser, the Institute lost not only its founding visionary but also its primary benefactor. Keiser’s death in 1956 left the Institute rudderless in the face of a mounting budget deficit. A series of part-time presidents, among them Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson Kermit, guided the institution through the ensuing 10-year crisis, struggling to keep Keiser’s vision alive. Despite their efforts, the budget crisis had a lasting impact on the organization. In 1961, the Board of Governors decided that MEI could not be sustained without significant downsizing. Its work force was cut in half, and for the next several years the Institute operated with a skeleton staff of only five full-time employees. Dedicated volunteers and the support of neighboring institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation and Georgetown University, which provided a free venue for the annual conference, kept the Institute afloat.

Acutely aware of the challenges facing the organization, MEI’s Board of Governors sought new leadership. They settled on Ambassador Raymond Hare, who in 1966 was elected the first full-time president since Keiser. In his three-year tenure, Hare aggressively pursued a new vision for the Institute, first by consolidating and restructuring the significantly smaller organization, and then by concentrating on fundraising and cutting operating costs. He recruited student volunteers, solicited donations from members to expand the library, and doubled the number of corporate contributors in order to put the Institute on more secure financial footing. By 1969, the Institute, now with over 1,000 members, was poised to enter a new phase of growth.

Ambassador Parker T. Hart, assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs (a title held at different times both by his successor, Lucius Battle, and by Ambassador Hare), was elected president in 1969. What Hare did for the Institute’s finances Hart did for its vision. In the wake of upheavals at home and abroad, Hart introduced a suite of innovative programs to help establish MEI’s role as a facilitator of dialogue and an educator of non-specialists. Among these programs were a weekend retreat for Israeli and Arab students, a reinvigorated language program, and a series of new publications aimed at the general reader. In 1971, the Institute held its first annual Economic Seminar, a gathering of businessmen and investors interested in working in the Middle East, and in the same year helped to organize a series of “Arab-Western Dialogues,” panel discussions held in cities around the world.

The new president also continued the work of his predecessor in securing MEI’s base of financial support. Hart hoped to build an endowment for the Institute and, while ultimately unsuccessful, his fundraising drive did effectively double the operating budget, enabling the Institute to continue expanding its activities. A reaffirmed commitment to non-partisanship accompanied this effort, as Hart and the Board of Governors saw political neutrality as a core element of MEI’s identity. Neutrality had been essential to the Institute since its inception – the corporate charter explicitly excludes “attempting to influence legislation” from the Institute’s activities – and would become still more so throughout the 1970s.

Fueled by the 1967 and 1973 wars and later by the revolution in Iran, American interest in the Middle East was at a high point. With the addition of burgeoning Arab oil wealth, this led to a proliferation of publications, think tanks, and organizations dedicated to the study of the region. Where once the Middle East Institute had been virtually the only institution of its kind, it now found itself in the company of numerous others. The American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, and Center for Strategic and International Studies all turned their attention to the Middle East; Georgetown University entered the field in 1975 with the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies; and the Middle East Journal was joined in 1970 by the International Journal of Middle East Studies.

In this new context, it was crucial for MEI to find a more clearly-defined niche. A Committee on Plans, organized by Hart and charged with laying out the course of the Institute’s future, identified MEI’s well-established neutrality on political questions as one of the qualities that could set it apart from its neighbors. The Committee also pointed out that the Keiser Library, as it had come to be known, was a peerless resource for scholars and students, and that the Journal was written for the educated layperson, whereas the IJMES was intended for specialists. MEI was therefore ideally placed to operate as a source of publications and research that would complement, rather than compete with, the work of universities and of the Library of Congress; as an open forum for debate; and as a center of information for both specialists and the general public.

The institutional identity framed by the Committee on Plans guided MEI through the following decade. During the brief tenure of Ambassador Lucius D. Battle, the Institute earned a reputation as a reliable source of information among those with commercial interests in the Middle East, and published a popular series of Middle East Problem Papers intended to inform the general reader on the nuances of  developments in the region. The Institute also enjoyed an increased media presence through the late 1970s and early 1980s —staff members were regularly featured on such popular outlets as The Today Show and various national news broadcasts, and published in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

In addition to raising MEI’s profile, this newfound visibility gave the Institute a platform for providing an American audience with accurate information and insight about the Middle East, a central element of the Institute’s mission. The increased focus on public outreach was largely the work of Dean Brown, who presided over the Institute from 1975-1986, and who saw government, business, and media, rather than academia, as the primary constituencies of the Institute. Under his leadership, MEI continued its Economic Seminars, Problem Papers, and business-oriented conferences, and initiated new programs, including art exhibits and film screenings intended to bring an encounter with Middle Eastern cultures to an American audience.

With public awareness of MEI at a high point, Brown saw an opportunity for a major fundraising initiative that would fulfill a longstanding wish of the organization. Since Keiser’s death, the buildings at 1761 N Street had been rented from his widow, Nancy. In 1981 she offered to sell the buildings to the Institute on favorable terms. Brown accepted Mrs. Keiser’s offer and raised enough money in just  five years so that the mortgage was paid off in full by 1986. Additional funds came from a group of Omani entrepreneurs, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between their country and the United States, who chose MEI as the best of many possible beneficiaries. Their gift enabled the Institute to renovate the dilapidated George Camp Keiser Library building, and was the seed money for the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Research Center, named for Oman’s ruling monarch, which in 2006 became the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center.

This period of growth, of course, could not last forever, and in the early 1990s, MEI confronted its second major budget crisis. Financial constraints forced the Institute to streamline its programs: a decline in interest coupled with rising costs led to the phasing out of many of the cultural outreach programs that had begun under Brown’s leadership; the first Director of Development was hired so that fundraising activities would be concentrated in one office rather than shared among the entirety of the staff; and MEI narrowed its focus to target policymakers and businesses. In the half-century since the Institute’s founding, the field of Middle East Studies had developed into a major area of study supported by colleges and universities worldwide, and demand for MEI’s scholarly programs had consequently diminished. While the Middle East Journal continued to be a fixture of the discipline—as the oldest and one of the most respected peer-reviewed journals on Middle East affairs—Brown and his immediate successors thought the academic community had less use for MEI than business and government communities, which were not as well-served by other institutions. Their focus on policy-relevant work helped to increase the Institute’s efficiency, as did their embrace of digital technology. A website was built, records digitized, and the library began the long process of replacing its card catalogue with a digital system.

The process of reorganization and updating through the 1990s enabled the Institute to emerge from its precarious financial situation, and by the year 2000 its budget was once again in the black. The budget surplus enabled a new expansion, and over the past decade, MEI’s language classes, the Journal, and the Annual Conference have become its core activities. From its humble beginnings, the conference has become a major gathering of key players in American and Middle East politics – since 2004, keynote speakers at the conference have included Madeleine Albright, Richard C. Clarke, PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erakat, and President Bill Clinton. The participation of such high-profile figures both evidences and helps to foster the Institute’s reputation as a forum for even-handed debate and dialogue. Attendance at the Annual Conference has more than doubled in the last six years alone. The conference, and MEI’s press briefings, roundtable discussions, and numerous other events, are covered by national news media and broadcast to a worldwide audience and, since 2006, have reached an even wider audience through MEI’s regular podcasts.

Recent years have seen an increased emphasis on MEI’s role as an academic institution, in both research and teaching. The Institute’s language department, which offers instruction or private tutoring in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Pashto, and Dari, gained national accreditation in 2005, a validation of the high quality of teaching offered under the Institute’s auspices. In 2009, two research centers, the Turkish Studies Center and Pakistan Center, opened at MEI, attracting scholars from around the world and providing a source of expertise and information for students and the media. Turkey and Pakistan, despite their critical geopolitical importance, have been somewhat overlooked by the scholarly community, and MEI, under the leadership of Wendy Chamberlin, former ambassador to Pakistan, sought to address this imbalance by opening the Centers.

The third pillar of MEI’s current activities is its publications, of which the flagship is the Middle East Journal. The Journal celebrated its 60th year in 2007, marking the event with a celebration co-sponsored by the Library of Congress, and became accessible through JSTOR in 2008. Each year, over a quarter of a million digital copies of Middle East Journal articles are downloaded from databases or through MEI’s digital subscription. In addition to the Journal and podcast, the Institute has added several online publications, such as Policy Briefs, Viewpoints, and Encounters, which reach an audience broader than Keiser and his cohort could have imagined. This audience, thanks to the efforts of the Institute’s current leadership, extends well beyond the immediate Washington community. MEI programs are recorded and distributed as a podcast, which is available through iTunes, and many are videotaped and posted to the Institute’s increasingly popular YouTube channel. As digital distribution becomes cost-effective for smaller organizations, students and citizens around the world increasingly turn to independent media, and MEI stands ready, as always, to meet the growing need for objective information and expert analysis.

Since 2001, as interest in the Middle East has skyrocketed and bigotry against its people has infected public discourse, the Middle East Institute’s mission has become more vital than ever. Mainstream media have neglected certain issues and perspectives, political polarization has led to a retreat of neutral voices, and the collective fates of the American people and those of the Middle East have become ever more intimately entwined. The field of Middle East studies has developed into a vibrant and highly policy-relevant academic discipline, and the Middle East Journal, as part of the backbone of that discipline,  has become an increasingly valuable resource for students and scholars. Finally, as the proliferation of Middle East research has necessitated a degree of specialization far beyond the expectations of the Institute’s founders, the Turkish Studies and Pakistan Centers have lent greater focus and precision to MEI’s scholarly efforts. A source of invaluable information, a space for dialogue among numerous diverse voices, an educator of the public, and a historic Washington institution, the Middle East Institute stands out as much today as it did 65 years ago. Keiser’s vision continues to inspire as the Institute adapts to the evolving challenges of the Middle East and the world.