From MGIMO Halls to SGIA Classrooms: Koutaiba Daboul Unveils the Dynamics of Modern International Journalism and the Arab Spring

From MGIMO Halls to SGIA Classrooms: Koutaiba Daboul Unveils the Dynamics of Modern International Journalism and the Arab Spring

Being the most multinational faculty of MGIMO, the School of Government and International Affairs unites students and graduates from more than 50 countries around the world. The multinational character of SGIA is not limited to students and graduates alone — the teaching staff of the faculty is also very diverse in its national and ethnic background, creating a unique atmosphere of tolerance, mutual respect and understanding that promotes the development of intercultural dialogue and enriches the knowledge of the students.

For instance, Koutaiba Daboul, a professor and visiting lecturer of the School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA), was born in Syria before moving to Dubai during the outbreaks of the Syrian civil war. After living in the UAE for three years, he decided to «pursue further studies,» prompting a relocation to Moscow in 2015. Completing a Master of Arts in Governance and Global Affairs at MGIMO, Koutaiba recalls his time as «a very interesting experience [...] on a personal, academic, and professional level.» The multiculturalist and multinationalist atmosphere paved the way for Koutaiba to join the Russian Today Network team after graduating from the program. «I worked there for about two years as a senior news editor in the main newsroom of the Arabic department. Following my time at RT, I spent several years in Moscow working as a media and journalism consultant before returning to Dubai in 2021.» Currently shuttling between the UAE and Syria, with frequent visits to Moscow for business purposes, Koutaiba Daboul’s narrative encapsulates the globalized essence of his experiences.

SGIA: Why did you specifically choose to study here at MGIMO?

Koutaiba Daboul: I had the options to study in the UK and in Russia, and I decided to come here. I heard a lot of great things about MGIMO — many known and respectful professors recommended MGIMO when I was getting my bachelor’s degree back in Syria. The university has a strong reputation both in Russia and globally. Prior to my study here, I made a visit to Moscow. I liked the city and the culture so much that I decided to move. I had taken many courses in western universities, so it was important for me to do my master’s studies at a leading Russian university to be able to understand the world better and to learn to analyze and assess events from a multipolar perspective rather than from a single perspective.

SGIA: Does the academic training you received at MGIMO help in your daily work?

Koutaiba Daboul: It helps a lot. Although my Russian is not as good as my English, I now have a third language I can communicate well in. I speak Russian almost fluently, which helps in my consultancy work that I now do in Dubai in two areas: in media and in real estate. I have a lot of clients from Russia, so speaking the language and understanding the culture is definitely an advantage. Besides, academically, I now hold a very prestigious master’s degree from MGIMO, which has opened many doors for me — this year I joined the teaching team at SGIA as a visiting lecturer in international journalism, which has also been very interesting. I have just finished my first semester as a professor and look forward to teaching in the upcoming semester.

SGIA: Why did you decide to become a journalist? Did studying at MGIMO influence your choice of profession as well?

Koutaiba Daboul: When I initially came to Moscow, I had plans to work in the diplomacy sector, which would have meant moving back to Syria. However, by the end of my master’s studies, I decided to stay in Russia, as I wanted to understand the country better — something that going back to Syria would have deprived me of.

International journalism is one of the fields that you can join right after graduating with a degree in international relations. I did not have the desire to further pursue academic studies and to receive a PhD, I wanted to work. The opportunity to work for RT presented itself and I found it to be a very interesting one. You could say I chose international journalism, and international journalism chose me. Having a deeper understanding of how media works, I am now a professional media consultant — something that I find fascinating and something I want to share with the students who are about to graduate and will be joining the work market promptly.

I strive to provide students with the knowledge and information that will be most beneficial to them. This is particularly meaningful to me, as I get the opportunity to do so at the university I graduated from, which holds a special place in my heart. I have many fond memories of my time here, and the decision to become a visiting lecturer was an emotional one for me. I truly love this university and cherish the days I spent here as a student.

SGIA: Is teaching and being a visiting lecturer here at MGIMO more fulfilling for you than being a journalist, or is it just a different field for you?

Koutaiba Daboul: I am fortunate to have a fulfilling professional career while also embarking on my academic journey. Both aspects of my work hold equal importance to me, as they contribute to my growth as a media professional and an academic. Working in media consulting allows me to immerse myself in a professional environment where I can apply my expertise and contribute to real-world projects. On the other hand, being part of the academic sphere gives me the opportunity to share knowledge with students and engage in the process of teaching and learning.

In today’s world, I believe that having a balance between academia and practical experience is crucial. Merely relying on theoretical knowledge is insufficient to truly understand the complexities of our world. Similarly, being solely focused on professional endeavours without the guidance and depth provided by academia limits the ability to contribute meaningfully.

SGIA: As a journalist, what kind of issues do you report on?

Koutaiba Daboul: I specialize in politics and economics, with a particular focus on the Middle East. Being from this region, I possess extensive knowledge of its politics, economics, religions, and social dynamics, and my fluency in Arabic allows me to do proper research. Both my bachelor’s and master’s theses were dedicated to the political dilemmas of the Middle East, allowing me to utilize my academic background and journalist experience to examine this area effectively. I am able to analyze events in this area and write professional forecasts about different political matters in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.

SGIA: Being an expert in this field and being from the region, do you think that the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war affected journalism in any way?

Koutaiba Daboul: The Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war have had a significant impact on journalism, particularly in the case of the Syrian conflict. This conflict garnered immense global attention due to its geopolitical significance, as Syria is strategically located and possesses valuable natural resources. The diverse demographics of the country that includes Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, and Circassians, further contributed to the international media’s interest in the conflict.

Moreover, the Syrian conflict was one of the first conflicts where social media played a prominent role. This transformed the nature of international journalism, as traditional rules and norms were challenged. Citizen journalists and social media activists emerged as key players in reporting and shaping events on the ground. Reports from these actors became increasingly prevalent, often surpassing those from established international news organizations. This marked a shift in the role of social media and technological advancements in international journalism.

SGIA: How do you maintain your own mental and emotional resilience while reporting on traumatic events and witnessing human suffering?

Koutaiba Daboul: Maintaining one’s own emotional resilience is crucial for journalists. As an adult, I have learned to control my emotions to a great extent. Additionally, as a professional, it is essential to remain fact-based and focused. Many stories from around the world are difficult to witness and follow. The world can be tough, but it is important to strive for objectivity. Allowing emotions to influence our work would compromise its integrity. We are all humans who are capable of empathy and personal opinions, but they should never overshadow the overall objectivity of our reporting. It is vital to always rely on facts and seek independent, objective sources.

SGIA: How do you ensure that your reporting always remains objective and unbiased?

Koutaiba Daboul: To be honest with you, there is no 100% objectivity- we as humans come from different cultures, we speak different languages, our characters are different, we have different experiences and we went through different hardships in life, so nobody can be completely objective no matter how hard they try. Still, I believe that while complete objectivity may be unattainable, there are steps that can be taken to ensure fairness and balance in reporting.

I think a good method to understand how objective you are is to try to publish your material and look at the feedback. If you get balanced reviews, it means your material was as objective as possible, but if the feedback is extremely polarized, with the audience being either fully in your support or against you, it means that your reporting was probably not very objective, and you might need to revise it or explore the issue deeper.

I would also recommend any professional in the field to have a variety of sources, whether online or offline, and not rely on a single news agency as a source but to pay attention to different news channels to get a better understanding of the world. It is also very important to be able to refer to non-traditional sources, as a documentary published on YouTube by an influencer can be just as informative as a good book. It is also important to assess the reputation and credibility of these sources, considering their track record and the quality of their content, not how popular they are.

SGIA: You have mentioned the importance of work experience. In your personal experience, have you had any challenges or issues, perhaps with censorship, accessing certain areas of the world, or obtaining accurate information?

Koutaiba Daboul: I think in the age that we are living in it has become very easy to get access to information. All research is done online, and you can access the biggest libraries in the world through the Internet. Unlike before, it is very hard to hide the truth now, because with the Internet’s unprecedented spread and reach all over the world, finding information has never been easier. Despite the fact that some embargoes are being made in certain areas of the world, you cannot hide anything now — that is what also happened in the Arab Spring. One of the reasons that helped it spread that rapidly is the rise of social media and such new technologies as 3G networks and satellite Internet that allowed to transfer videos and photos instantly all over the world, making it much harder to practice censorship on activists.

SGIA: Are there any specific stories or issues that you feel are not receiving enough attention from the international community?

Koutaiba Daboul: We live in a rapidly changing and unpredictable world. I think we are going into a period of time where the next 10-15 years are going to be a bit more chaotic than today. I believe that since our world is going through a transformative period, shifting into a more multipolar world rather than a unipolar or bipolar one, the priorities of the international community are changing. This transformation will bring about new challenges and heightened global competition in various regions.

During this change, the priorities will shift, and some issues will remain unaddressed or lose priority in the eyes of the international community. Unfortunately, this means that many topics that deserve more coverage and attention by the international community will be ignored. I think with time there will be more and more ignored matters on the global scale, whether it comes to unresolved political matters, poverty, or to social challenges.

SGIA: Does that mean that western issues get disproportionately more attention than issues from other regions of the world?

Koutaiba Daboul: Yes, definitely. When it comes to international media, the biggest organizations are based in rich, developed countries, and those countries highlight issues related directly to them rather than issues that are related to other nations. For instance, the ongoing crises in Europe matter to the European media much more than what is happening in, let us say, Africa, which is logical, as the impact of what is happening geographically closer is far greater than the impact of wars happening in other regions.

International journalism does not necessarily cover events equally. There are many parameters according to which reporting works, and it does not always have anything to do with geography.

SGIA: Speaking of the multipolar world, it could be argued that in recent years, Russia has shifted its focus from the West to the East. Would you agree that international cooperation between Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Syria has grown in recent years?

Koutaiba Daboul: We are currently witnessing a significant shift in the global political landscape, particularly in Russia’s diplomatic relationships. There is a noticeable trend of Russia aligning more closely with Eastern countries, such as India and China, while distancing itself from the West. This shift can be attributed to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and disagreements on various global issues.

Russia has been fostering stronger ties with countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is a departure from the past three decades. These relationships are becoming increasingly beneficial for both parties involved. Despite the United States’ disapproval of these developments, its political dominance has diminished, allowing new players like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Algeria, and Turkey to assert their own independent foreign policies and choose their allies accordingly.

It is likely that the world order will continue to evolve towards multipolarity in the next 20 years. This transformation will become more evident and defined, shaping a new global landscape.

SGIA: We would like to wish you luck in both your professional and academic career, and we look forward to seeing you among our returning visiting lecturers next semester. Thank you for doing this interview.

Koutaiba Daboul: Thank you for having me.

The MGIMO School of Government and International Affairs