A Conversation with Ken Dorph, Sag Harbor resident and authority on the Middle East and its economy, who will give a lecture “Seven Keys to Understanding the Arab Middle East” at the Rogers Memorial Library on July 6.
How did your interest in the Middle East develop? Where did it come from?
I was actually pre-med as an undergraduate and I had this wonderful Egyptian woman teaching my anthropology course, and I remember she was just amazing, her name was Safia Mohsen, and hearing about the Bedouins of Egypt, my imagination just took off. I was interested in anthropology and other cultures. Then I went on junior abroad program in Venice, Malta and Morocco. It was an incredible experience and I actually fell in love with Morocco. It was 1972, the image of Morocco was not very complex, but I just fell in love with it – the culture, the food, the music, the art, the tiles, everything about it, so I decided I would go back. I joined the Peace Corp., but Morocco was full, so they sent me to Tunisia. I ended up staying there for three years, two years on a little island that kind of reminded me of Sag Harbor. In fact, I say it prepared me for Sag Harbor because it was such a little island and I grew up this big city person. I was the high school English teacher and I loved my students and I learned French and Arabic simultaneously because my roommate was French and everyone else was speaking Tunisian Arabic. For two years I didn’t speak English, it was great … After that I studied Arabic in earnest at Michigan, which is the premiere school for Arabic in the United States because of the large Arabic population in Detroit. I went on a Fullbright to Damascus, which really solidified my Arabic because I had to study in the language. I was the first American student in Damascus since it became Syria – it was an incredible experience. We were there the year the embassy in Tehran was taken over, so it was a very intense time to be in Syria. But there I got to know the eastern Middle East and it helped to really make me comfortable in standard Arabic and one of the eastern dialects, because there are many dialects.
How did your first experiences with the language and culture translate into a career in international finance and business?
Then I got practical and realized Middle Eastern studies was not going to buy me a cup of coffee and I was too extroverted to be an academic so I went to business school and Wharton as great because Penn is one of the best Middle Eastern campuses and I did a double masters in international finance and Middle Eastern economics.
Obviously if I was going to work in the Middle East it was going to either be oil or money, and I chose finance and worked with Citibank in Cairo and after being seduced by Smith Barney I worked in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
I spent 11 years living in the Arab world and I have been exposed to all the major Arab groups because I lived in North Africa, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Iraq is, in fact, the only Arab country I have never visited.
Any plans to travel to Iraq?
I am going in July, which is both exciting and anxiety producing, but I think it is a very interesting project.
What kind of work will you do there?
My usual work is general financial sector stuff, either working with banks, investment companies; I do a lot of work with Islamic finance or with broader financial systems that are in crisis, financial sector restructuring.
Iraq, I have been invited to do a very interesting job. This is with the Americans and I almost never work with the Americans, in fact, this is the first time because of the change in administration. They have set up a new group called the Investment Council, which reports to the prime minister, so it is very high up and we will be working to try and make it so that domestic and international investment will come to Iraq to support its infrastructure. Before Saddam Hussein really had a socialist model – the minister of justice built the courts, the ministry of education built the schools – a very Communist model. Since the American invasion it has essentially been American crony capitalism where if it is a power plant it is built by an American company and the United States government pays for it. So it has been the worst of all worlds for us – the taxpayers are paying an enormous amount of money to rebuild Iraq. Since they have oil and since they have a viable economy they should be able to create a system where they have public finance – issuing bonds, getting investors, creating public-private partnerships like they do in Saudi Arabia, which has been quite successful at this. So I have been asked to come to help launch this process with a team of 10 people. It is very interesting and very timely because the Americans want to pull out and we cannot do that until they have an economy that is viable.
Why go to Iraq now?
The reason I decided to go, because I have been invited to Iraq a number of times, but I was so hostile to the invasion I wanted nothing to do with it. I knew it was a mistake and it would be a disaster. In fact, I wrote a letter to [New York State Senator] Hillary Clinton before the [Congressional] vote [on Iraq] explaining what would happen: that the country would fall a part into three different groups, that Iran would seek nuclear weapons. It all turned out to be true.
If the Americans had been thinking they would have realized that chopping off Saddam Hussein like [Josip Bronz] Tito in Yugoslavia would result in total chaos as they had to have something in place to replace him, which they did not. So it was predictable what happened and when things fell apart people reverted to their ancient tribal identities because that was the only protection they had. Obviously our administration didn’t want to listen to people who have lived in the Middle East, because it was so predictable and we will be paying for this terrible mistake for a generation. I really believe that.
Anyway, I just felt now we have this new administration in the United States I am no longer part of the invasion, I am part of the clean-up crew and as Colin Powell said, “You break it, you own it.”
For the first time, I feel we are really trying to play a more thoughtful role – just the moves [President Barack] Obama is making have been really impressive, so I just felt it was time.
What are some of the bigger misconceptions people have about the Middle East?
What was a revelation to me was a couple of weeks ago I was working in the Ukraine and I had never been to any part of the former Soviet Union before. I realized I had a vague dislike for the Russian language and Slovak culture and I realized it was based on my early fears as a child. Russia meant bombs would explode. I was of the generation where Russia was the culture to be feared, they were the enemy, they were going to kill us all. And I had never explored the prejudice and in Ukraine I was able to examine the prejudice, looking around me and seeing the people were charming, they were not going to kill me. I believe the generation after me, the Arab world has become the enemy. So it is not just the question of misconceptions, but rather the total definition of a people as the enemy … It is no longer politically correct to have the Russians or Germans as the bad guys. It was Germans for the generation before me, Russian for my generation and Arab for everyone after that – they are the enemy du jour. So for me going to the Arab world, it is like someone in the 1950s going to Russia and realizing, oh, these people are very nice. It’s nothing like I imagined.
I guess the biggest misconception is whenever I see anything about the Arab world it is almost always about violence and fanaticism, ignorance. Of course that has not been my experience in the Middle East. I have lived in small villages, I have lived in cities, I have many, many friends. I know Muslims of many stripes.
I have been all over the world, literally, and it is by far the most hospitable, welcoming culture I have ever been in. People are very kind, non-judgmental. I mean, I was an American in Damascus when the embassy in Tehran was taken over and I would sit with my Syrian friends and there would literally be demonstrations against the United States under our window and I never felt personally attacked. We would have arguments about diplomatic immunity, but people were kind because they felt I was a person.
The other thing is they know our culture, while we don’t know theirs. There are very few Arab films that come to our country, very few books. There is no Arab equivalent of Slumdog Millionaire. It’s sad we don’t have any vision of this huge chunk of the planet that is so very important.
How does the Arab-Israeli conflict play into this?
It’s so sensitive because we have since 1967 sided pretty much 100 percent with Israel. A third of our foreign aid goes to Israel, we are extremely tied to seeing Israel as the “us” in the Middle East. I think that trap has really cost us because it is so much more complex than that. In this conflict no one is wearing black hats and no one is wearing white hats – the Arabs are wearing grey hats and the Israelis are wearing grey hats. If we began to break that open, and I think Obama may try, we might start to get somewhere … To me the biggest thing is the settlements. I am pro-Arab, pro-Israeli – I don’t take sides. To me the side is peace and getting along, which has to happen although we have to start hearing all sides for that truly to happen … Obviously Israel needs to remain an ally of the United States, there is no question about that, but the incredible one-sidedness of this country, the fact that both Democrats and Republicans support the right wing in Israel has meant there has been no hope in us achieving a role as a responsible power broker or any sense of balance in the eyes of the Arab world. Of course the Arab-Israeli conflict is only one aspect of the Middle East – there is oil, Iran, Pakistan, there is the Sunni-Shiite conflict – so much going on, but for Americans it is the piece where we have the greatest amount of control.
What do you hope people take away from your lecture?
I hope people walk away with a sense of responsibility to do some homework. This is more complex than Fox News will let you know, or CNN for that matter. Either you should remove yourself from thinking about the Middle East, admit ignorance and prejudice, or they should do some homework, read a book, meet a Muslim, do something that challenges them and makes them realize they have not seen the full picture.
“Seven Keys to Understanding the Arab Middle East” will be held at the Rogers Memorial Library on Monday, July 6 at 7 p.m. in the Morris Meeting room. The lecture is free, but reservations are recommended by call 283-0774, ext. 523.