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Exporting the Expertise of AUB

For the past 25 years, the Office of Regional External Programs has brought the know-how of the AUB faculty to governments, schools and universities, NGOs, agricultural institutions, hospitals, and businesses throughout the Middle East. Read on for a rundown of REP and its regional outreach.

The Office of Regional External Programs, better known as “REP,” has been described as AUB’s consulting arm. As the number one vehicle for transporting the professional expertise of the University’s faculty and staff members beyond its campus confines, REP has been steadily maintaining AUB’s presence throughout the Middle East region for more than two decades. Along the way, it has also been giving the staff and faculty some wonderful opportunities to work together on a wide variety of projects. This overview of REP—its birth, history and accomplishments during the past 25 years—is intended to introduce MainGate readers to the wide range of its activities and to a few of the many people who have been involved in REP projects over the years.

The History of REP

REP, created in 1976, was the brainchild of the late Najib Halaby, who was then chairman of AUB’s Board of Trustees. As the civil war broke out in Lebanon, Halaby worried about how AUB would be able to preserve its regional position. Prior to the war, about 40 percent of the University’s students had come from countries other than Lebanon, and there was widespread agreement that this diverse student body was an important part of what made AUB so special. Halaby and others—including Professor Abdul Hamid Hallab of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences who has been involved with REP from the very beginning—knew that the University would no longer be able to attract students from the region. They hoped, however, that by creating REP they could open up a pathway for AUB itself to extend its presence out into the region.
Although the University continued to function throughout the war, the number of its students fell dramatically. With so many fewer students, it became clear that AUB would not need the services nor could afford to keep all the faculty and administrators remaining on its staff at the time. Still, it did not want them to leave for positions elsewhere in the world and be lost to AUB forever. Although no one thought then that the war would drag on for 15 years, the leadership of the University at that time was never in doubt that the institution would survive. And establishing REP was seen as a feasible way to help it do so. The rationale was that by putting the professional skills of its academics to work, AUB would be able to hold on to as many of its faculty members as possible and at the same time retain its regional stature.
Already existing at the time was the AUB Services Corporation (AUBSCO), which Halaby viewed as the ideal organization to serve as the precursor for REP. AUBSCO, which had been created a few years earlier as an independent legal entity and incorporated in the state of Delaware, was solely owned by AUB but had its own board of directors. In taking action to realize his plan, Halaby began by asking Professor Hallab to become one of AUBSCO’s two vice presidents, along with Professor Nadim Haddad of the Faculty of Health Sciences. Then, in the late 1970s, the Board of Trustees decided to dissolve the AUBSCO affiliate and place its activities directly under the auspices of the University. What eventually became REP was first formed as the Research and Development Administrative Center (RADAC) under the directorship of Hallab. But, by the early 1980s, as Halaby’s operational planning took concrete shape and prospects for work in the region began to emerge, the name of the organization was changed once again, from RADAC to the Office of Research and External Programs, and then finally and permanently to the Office of Regional and External Programs.
It is hard to believe it now, but in those early days Hallab and others were not at all sure that the venture would succeed. For a start, it was quite difficult to travel to the region to drum up business and meet with prospective clients. The Beirut airport was closed for much of the time and it was not at all easy, nor safe, to travel via Cyprus or Syria.
Hallab remembers the important role many AUB alumni played in making key introductions for REP in the Gulf. He mentions in particular Dr. Ali M. Fakhro, who received his MD from AUB in 1958 and was Minister of Health and Education in Bahrain from 1971 to 1982. This fortuitous connection led to REP’s first contracts, which were concluded in Bahrain and under which it helped establish the University of Bahrain, the Ministry of Health’s College of Health Sciences, and the Salmaniyyah Hospital.
Although REP got started in Bahrain, the contract that still brings a broad smile to the face of Hallab more than twenty years later is the five-year $40-million contract (1977–1981) that AUB signed with the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to establish regional agricultural and water research centers. In this instance, he is quick to mention the critical support of Dr. Mansur Aba Hussein, who was then Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of Agriculture and Water. With that contract, all doubts of REP success disappeared; the AUB Office of Regional External Programs was now definitely on the Middle East map.
Nuhad Daghir, who is now dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, was recruited to be the REP project director in Saudi Arabia. As such, he led a team of more than 50 professionals possessing expertise in agriculture, engineering, and economics. The work consisted of assisting the Saudi government in the development of agricultural experimental stations and research centers and included providing ongoing advice to individual department heads in the ministry. Putting the team together was not easy. As much as possible, AUB relied on the talents of its own faculty members, many of whom were understandably willing to leave Lebanon during those difficult years. AUB also recruited team members from among its alumni network.
Daghir spent two years in Saudi Arabia, but other AUB faculty members remained in the Kingdom for much longer. Thinking back on those days now, Daghir comments on the critical role that REP played during that time. “It kept us in the picture. People in those countries remembered AUB because of REP’s presence in the Gulf.” In Daghir’s opinion, REP did more than just keep AUB on the regional radar screen. “REP helped create a good image of AUB in the minds of many of the people with whom we worked.” Although there were many people from all over the world working as advisors in the Gulf during those years, “the AUB team always stood out.”
Among its other activities in the Gulf during the pre-2000 period, REP also administered the College of Health Sciences and Schools of Nursing project in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, from January 1982 through June 1996.

REP Today

REP is quite different now. Professor George Najjar, who served as the team leader for a REP project in Bahrain for many years, returned to AUB in 1997 to become vice president of the institution, succeeding Hallab. As someone involved with REP since its earliest days, he has a keen appreciation of its invaluable contribution to the University. He notes that although it is quite common these days for a university to be involved in the consulting business, that wasn’t the case then, and says that REP is a prime example of an institution that was “ahead of its time.” Working with Najjar in the REP office are Deputy Vice President Mohammad Faour, who spent the last two years as the executive director of REP’s Kingdom Schools project in Saudi Arabia, as well as Research and Contracts Officer Iman Wakim, Accounting Manager Samir Kfoury, and Administrative Assistant Amal Farra.

Najjar explains that REP offers top-of-the-line professional services to its clients. He sees REP as one of the ways in which AUB connects to the communities that it serves in engineering, agriculture, education, nursing, and medicine. In the process, REP succeeds in bringing together faculty members from throughout the University. As Najjar puts it, there is no single-faculty REP project.
One of the major changes in REP and how it operates was the recent decision to offer its services to private clients. In the early days, AUB worked only with regional governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Najjar felt quite strongly, however, that REP was uniquely placed to take advantage of an important economic shift that occurred in the late 1990s: the increasing importance of the private sector in the region. He explains that this move into the private sector has been done slowly and carefully. Although REP is clearly concerned with the bottom line, Najjar readily concedes that working within the context of a university imposes certain restraints. This does not bother him. On the contrary, he says that AUB’s mission and core values are why clients seek out REP.

So, who are some of REP’s current clients? There are literally dozens of them. High on the list is Kingdom Schools in Saudi Arabia—a REP client since 1999. At the request of Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Al-Saud, REP has been assisting in the establishment of a school that now has an enrolment of more than 1,400 students, thanks to the efforts of Mohammad Faour who brilliantly represented AUB management in the schools effectively for two years. The school, which extends through the 12th grade, is located on a modern campus and includes the very latest in education technology. Involved in this project is Professor Kassim Shaaban, chair of AUB’s Department of English, who has been affiliated with many REP projects over the years.

As he talks, you get a sense of the range of responsibilities that characterize many of these REP education projects. Shaaban explains that he and his colleagues “design the curriculum, interview prospective faculty members, select the textbooks, and administer assessment exams.” Despite the fact that the school is up and running, REP is still very involved. There are always new issues that come up which need to be resolved. When the team found that even experienced teachers were having some trouble managing the classroom, for example, it scheduled a faculty workshop to address the issue.

REP is also engaged in a number of educational projects that involve universities. Among them are the recently concluded agreements to provide technical assistance to the University of Dhofar in Oman and to the ongoing University of Sharjah project. In the Dhofar project, REP was asked to concentrate its attention on two areas: academic development and professional capacity-building, including the establishment and management of institutes for professional development and financial management. Professor Khalil Bitar, who is dean of AUB’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, serves as the team leader both for this project and for the Kingdom Schools project described above. REP has unquestionably earned itself a reputation as the place to go to if you are thinking of setting up a university in the Gulf. For example, in 2003, Abdul Aziz Al-Rawwas, chairman of the academic committee for Dhofar University, contacted REP to seek its assistance in designing the academic and support infrastructure for this new university.
Another recent client is the Kuwait Petroleum Company. It contacted REP in 2002 for assistance in providing executive education to its management employees. In fulfilling that contract, REP conducted 15 workshops in Kuwait during the 2002-03 academic year that covered the theory and practice of a full range of executive know-how, including financial management, budgeting, negotiation skills, and time management. More than 30 more similar workshops are scheduled for the current academic year.Both the Kuwait Petroleum Company and the Al-Hikma Pharmaceutical Company in Jordan are members of REP’s new Corporate Partnership Program. The program, which was recently launched, allows REP to enter into long-term partnerships with corporate entities. This makes it possible for REP to design programs specifically for a particular client and, at the same time, be assured that it will remain on board to oversee the project to its conclusion. Knowing that REP will be around to implement its recommendations provides the corporate client with a level of security as well. Najjar is proud of the fact that so many REP clients have been clients for many years. He points out, for example, that the University of Bahrain was a REP client for more than twelve years and that the Kingdom Schools Project is now in its fifth year.

Najjar explains that REP’s interest in long-term relationships sometimes gives it a competitive advantage compared to other consultants who may not be prepared to make the same type of commitment to a specific client or to the region. Najjar tells a wonderful story that illustrates this point quite well. He was asked once by a client who was trying to choose between REP and another firm that was bidding for the same project, “Why should I choose REP?” Najjar replied, “Because the cost of failure is much higher for us.” He goes on to explain that because REP works only in the Arab Middle East and is part of a university that has been in the region for almost 140 years, it feels a unique responsibility and commitment to this part of the world. AUB is not leaving the Middle East and neither is REP, he insists. This profound commitment to the region affects how REP approaches its clients and projects. It always keeps a careful eye on how what it is doing now may affect its reputation—and that of the University—in the future.
REP also has designed senior executive workshops for Al-Hikma Pharmaceuticals in Amman that have been tailored to fit Al-Hikma’s specific needs and concerns. This has given the company’s middle and senior managers the opportunity to acquire skills that will enable them to better address the issues they daily confront in the workplace. Certificates or diplomas are awarded for successful completion of the workshop program.

REP in Lebanon

Although REP was initially established to provide services to the region, it has always had an extensive presence in Lebanon as well. REP manages AUB’s Continuing Education Center (CEC), a community outreach program that has been offering courses at an affordable price since the 1970s. At any one time, CEC serves more than 200 people, young and old, who take courses in areas as diverse as business English, colloquial Arabic, gardening for the home, accounting, and music appreciation. In addition to its courses for the casual student, the center also offers a number of certificate programs that include business, accounting, office management, human resource management, e-business, marketing, information technology, and small business and entrepreneurship.
For the 2003-04 academic year, CEC is offering two new workshops, one in business and the other in environmental journalism, as well as a Near East Survey Program that primarily targets diplomats and senior expatriate managers in Lebanon and the region. There are also plans to introduce a program in food technology and nutrition in the near future. And, in cooperation with the Kuwaiti Public Authority for Applied Education and Training, CEC will be launching some of its certificate programs in Kuwait, starting in 2004. This will be the first time that CEC courses will be offered outside Lebanon.
In collaboration with the AUB Suliman S. Olayan School of Business, REP also manages a Center for Business Excellence. Its mission is to provide guidance to Lebanese companies in benchmarking themselves against best practices and working with them to adopt those practices successfully. The center has already completed several studies for the Lebanese Ministry of Economy and Trade and the Lebanese Federation of Industrialists.
Between 1995 and 2003, REP provided management training to more than 2,000 Lebanese civil servants working in various ministries and public agencies. In the opinion of many, this project—which was funded by the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development—has helped reinvigorate the Lebanese public sector.
Over the years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided the funding for several REP projects in Lebanon, including one to improve the quality of the dairy stock in Lebanon. AUB faculty and staff, working through REP, provided technical and operational support for the importation and placement of about 3,000 pregnant Holstein dairy cows from the United States on farms all over Lebanon. Another USAID-funded REP project has been focusing on some of Lebanon’s serious environmental problems. This multi-faceted project is addressing issues of water quality, urban planning, natural resource conservation planning, population, solid waste, air pollution, and hazardous materials. The Council for Development and Reconstruction similarly provided funding for REP assistance in undertaking an irrigation rehabilitation project in Yammouneh that seeks to improve the levels of income in rural areas and alleviate poverty.

Looking to the Future

Like Hallab, Wakim and Farra have been involved with REP from the very beginning. When asked how REP has changed over the years, Wakim says, “REP has always been dynamic. At one time, we were also responsible for the administration of all of AUB’s research contracts and service consulting
projects. Now, after the establishment of the Grants and Contracts office, instead of research projects, we are offering executive education workshops.” Wakim and Farra have enjoyed the fact that they are never bored working at REP. They also feel pride in how they managed to keep things going even during the war. They both laugh when they tell the story of working to pull together conference materials for a World Bank project in 1989 on the reconstruction of Lebanon while the shelling was going on all around them. Clearly, such strong dedication and commitment to REP has played an important role in its success over the years.
Najjar, still full of entrepreneurial energy, sees a bright future for REP. Backing up his optimism with facts, he points to the new REP initiatives, such as the Corporate Partnership Program, and to the fact that the institution has recently signed a couple of significant new contracts. He says that even though the region can once again come to AUB (its number of students from the region has increased in recent years), REP has decidedly carved out a permanent presence for AUB in the region. As he puts it, the die is cast.
Shaaban, on his part, describes REP as a major public relations tool for the University and says that AUB has had a more profound influence on the region because of REP. “We have introduced a different way of thinking about education,” he explains. Dr. Huda Huijer Abu-Saad, the director of the School of Nursing, agrees: “REP’s work is part of AUB’s mission. It is important for AUB to have a presence in the outside world.”