The road to Texas A&M University via Dubai
Dubai. The mere mention of the city conjures images of expensive cars, gleaming glass towers and indoor ski slopes. Although Dubai's economy was originally built on oil, the spectacular growth witnessed in recent years reflects the emergence of a post-oil economy. According to Dr. Michael Ewers, assistant professor of geography, Dubai's post-oil aspirations are being emulated in various forms throughout the Arab Gulf States of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While many are first drawn to the region's construction frenzy, fueled by a post-1998 oil boom, Dr. Ewers is instead drawn to what he says is an equally dynamic human landscape.
Ewers' research studies how the United Arab Emirates—of which Dubai is a part—and the other Gulf States have used their oil wealth to import the labor and knowledge needed to diversify their economies beyond oil. Today, the region is known as a key destination for international workers ranging from low-skill laborers from South Asia to high-paid Western engineers. Ewers says this trend is not new; it follows a pattern that began in the 1960s when the Gulf States became the world's dominant oil supplier. Ewers says that the ability to access global labor markets is both a great strength and a great weakness for the region. On one hand, the Gulf is able to use its oil money to attract the labor and knowledge it needs to meet its development goals. But on the other hand, the region has very young, fast-growing populations of local citizens with high levels of unemployment. Ewers questions the sustainability of these two trends. He claims that the key challenge for Gulf governments is to ensure that foreign knowledge being imported for economic development is transferred to local citizens.
Ewers was introduced to the Middle East when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps immediately after graduating high school. "I had initially wanted to go into the infantry, but the Marine Corps had other plans," Ewers says. "They gave me some tests and ended up sending me to the Defense Language Institute to train to become an Arabic linguist." After two years learning Arabic, which included intelligence training at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas, Ewers went on to Camp Lejeune, where he deployed with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the USS Nassau to the Mediterranean and Adriatic. After leaving the Marines, Ewers went for his undergraduate degree in Arabic at Ohio State University.
Ewers soon realized that he wanted to focus on more than just Arabic and decided to use his language skills as a tool to research real-world issues facing the region. Ewers says specializing in human geography taught him how to approach the Middle East in new ways, such as identifying phenomena common to the area, appreciating social and economic variation and recognizing regional aspects that were connected to global trends. "Geography can present a very powerful research framework in that regard," he says.
In 2008, Ewers traveled to the United Arab Emirates for a year as part of a Fulbright–Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad grant to conduct a survey and key-informant interviews with local and foreign corporations taking part in the Gulf's post-oil economic growth. He was in for a bit of a surprise, however. "I showed up there in the summer of 2008 when world oil prices reached record highs," Ewers says. But prices soon dropped from their July record of $140 a barrel to under $40 a barrel just five months later. "I witnessed an oil bust before my eyes right when I was there," he says. "I had to completely reevaluate the assumptions I held when I initially arrived in the region." The issue is what happens when there's another oil bust, Ewers says. "Are they really creating something new?" Even though the government has made investments, most of the region's local labor works in public sector bureaucracies, and much of the knowledge driving Gulf development is still held outside the region. Time will tell, Ewers says. "Long-term investments in education might take a long time to pay off."
One of the great things about the Fulbright–Hays grant, Ewers says, is that he could bring his family with him, which was a positive in the family-oriented Emirati culture. "I got to interact a lot more than I would have otherwise because I didn't look like just another worker from the US trying to get a piece of the pie in the Gulf," Ewers says. "It opened a lot of doors. There is so much hospitality in the Middle East, and the culture is incredibly family-focused."
His interests in economic geography and in the Middle East are what brought Ewers to Texas A&M. The fact that A&M has a campus in Qatar was one of the largest factors in his decision. Having offices and people from the university in the Middle East is better than having to start from scratch, Ewers says. The connections between Texas and the Arab Gulf States is another reason for choosing A&M. Companies from Texas have represented a major source of industrial knowledge for the Gulf States over the past four decades, and Ewers says A&M is a world center for oil and engineering expertise.
Ewers is currently writing papers from his dissertation research as well as embarking on his next research agenda. He says that teaching his undergraduate class on economic geography (Geog 304) is a good way to merge his research as an economic geographer with teaching. In the spring, he will add "The Geography of the Middle East" (Geog 320) to his repertoire. Ewers is still settling into his new surroundings. "It takes time to learn how things work at a new university, but the faculty and students here make that learning experience easy," he says.
Story by George Hale '99