Ph.D. graduate teaches new course on Persian Gulf history

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This fall, nine undergraduates and five graduate students took a new Harvard history course called “The Modern Persian Gulf Region: Politics, Economy and Society.” Developed and taught by Arbella Bet-Shlimon, a recent graduate of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies’ joint Ph.D. program in history and Middle Eastern studies, the course is one of few Harvard history courses in recent memory to focus on the modern Persian Gulf region. Gulf history, says Bet-Shlimon, is not a common topic in Middle Eastern studies in the U.S., where Egypt and the Levant are usually seen as the core of the Arab world, receiving the most attention in scholarship and on syllabuses. The Gulf is often treated as a side topic. That’s a mistake, according to Bet-Shlimon: “It can’t be marginalized any more. I think the Gulf needs to be centered rather than marginalized within the broader Middle East.” When the region is studied, it tends to be from the perspective of political science and security studies. “Historical perspective,” Bet-Shlimon maintains, “is really needed to contextualize contemporary studies.” Her course’s unit on oil, for instance, which is titled “The Political Economy and Social Life of Oil,” considers oil not just as an economic force, but as a political force as well, and also explores the social effects of the presence of the oil industry in Gulf countries.