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IMES Visiting Researcher Spotlight

GW Visiting Researcher Spotlights: Ali Hamdan and Scott Williamson


Ali Hamdan is in his first year as a Post-Doctoral Researcher with GW’s Mount Vernon Society of Fellows, as well as an instructor in the Department of Geography. He received his PhD in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and his Bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College. Much of his effort goes toward increasing the contributions of geographers to the study of the Middle East, as well as exposing scholars of the region to research and theory from Geography relevant to the study of borders, war, and geopolitics.


His research investigates the relationship between war, forced migration, and transnational politics, focusing in particular on the ongoing conflict in Syria. During 2015-17, he conducted ethnographic research investigating political mobilization among Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey. The work aims to both theorize exile as a spatial category of analysis, while also shedding light on some of the fraught relations between pro-opposition Syrian refugees and their American “allies.” His ongoing work further pursues this topic, but instead drawing on archival materials from the U.S. State Department, with the goal of explicating the role of private contracting firms in implementing US foreign policy with respect to Syria’s conflict.


What brought you to GW? 

GW is uniquely close to Washington DC's foreign policy establishment, in particular the U.S. State Department. It is my hope to continue my research on this "side" of the network that connects the United States to war in Syria.


What trends do you see in scholarly research on the Middle East? 

One of the most fruitful trends in the last decade has been the explosion of global/transnational history in MENA studies. This has brought to light a lot of important (and oft-neglected) processes that shaped state-formation, capital accumulation, and meaning-making in the region, without necessarily being confined to nation-states -- or even to the region itself. This has opened up exciting new opportunities for cross-disciplinary scholarship on topics like migration, borders, race, and infrastructure, in ways that engage both historians and social scientists.


What advice do you have for students thinking about going on to a PhD program? 

I think the gap between "academic" and "policy-relevant" knowledge is overstated at times. A PhD is great for pushing yourself to find the practical implications of a lot of new, challenging ideas. In very few other settings does one have such an opportunity to truly think “outside the box.”

Scott Williamson is a visiting scholar at the Elliott School’s Institute for Middle East Studies, a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford University, and a Graduate Research Fellow funded by the National Science Foundation. His research addresses questions related to authoritarianism, human rights, refugees, and religious authority in the Middle East and has been published or accepted by academic journals including Comparative Political Studies, the Journal of Peace Research, the Journal of Experimental Political Science, and Middle East Law and Governance, as well as outlets like the Washington Post, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Baker Institute for Public Policy. For his dissertation, Williamson completed fieldwork in Jordan and Tunisia, as well as survey research in Egypt and Morocco. Previously, he was a junior fellow in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a CASA fellow at the American University in Cairo.


“I am currently working on my dissertation, which studies the politics of blame avoidance in authoritarian regimes. Titled ‘The King Can Do No Wrong: Delegation and Blame under Authoritarian Rule,’ the project develops a theory about when and how dictators will delegate policy decisions to subordinate political institutions for the purpose of shifting blame for the public’s grievances. I show that dictators can minimize their exposure to the public’s anger by ceding some of their powers over policy design and implementation, and I demonstrate that this possibility influences when and for which issue domains dictators are willing to share power with other elites in their regimes. I also argue that autocratic monarchs are better positioned than other dictators to utilize this strategy effectively, which helps to explain the surprising robustness of royal rule in the modern period. Empirically, I draw on surveys, experiments, text analysis, archival materials, and more than 100 elite interviews to test the theory's observable implications in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I also rely on additional case studies and cross-national statistical analysis to demonstrate the theory’s applicability to authoritarian political systems generally, and to support my argument that autocratic monarchs are particularly effective at avoiding blame through delegation.”


What brought you to GW? 

I came to GW because the Institute for Middle East Studies provides a valuable scholarly community with access to exceptional resources. The faculty’s knowledge of Middle East politics is second to none, and it hosts both the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS). The institute is constantly organizing excellent events, including book launches for important scholarly works on the Middle East. I also value its interdisciplinary focus, which includes monthly interdisciplinary workshops that have helped me to learn about exciting research outside of my own academic field.


What advice do you have for students thinking about going on to a PhD program? 

For students considering a PhD program in political science who are interested in studying the Middle East or another region, my advice would be to acquire language skills and research experience prior to applying. There is often little focus or time given to language abilities in political science programs, despite their importance for navigating field research, so it is helpful to develop these first. Acquiring familiarity with the research process prior to graduate school will also allow you to hit the ground running in terms of starting your own projects. It can be helpful to work as a research assistant for professors to learn about the research and publication process, and it’s also important to try your hand at independent projects as soon as possible, since research is in many ways a trial and error process that you learn by doing.

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