In this interview, Coco Tait speaks with current student Albert Vidal Ribe, a Fulbright Scholar interested in the foreign and security policies of the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as well as maritime security, maritime geoeconomics, and port politics.
1) Please tell me about yourself and what you did before coming to Georgetown?
I was born in Barcelona and grew up in the city’s suburbs. In 2016, I went to Pamplona to study International Relations at the University of Navarra, where I began to develop an interest in the Middle East, and the Gulf more specifically. During my third year, I had the opportunity to go to Jordan, where I started studying Arabic at Qasid. After that experience, I continued my Arabic studies online while I worked as a research assistant for a professor, deepening my understanding of the foreign and security policies of Arab Gulf states in the Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa.
After graduation, I decided not to rush for a job, and instead doubled down on my Arabic studies, continued working as a research assistant, and started publishing some pieces in various outlets, while I pondered my next step. Eventually, I decided that a graduate degree would make the most sense in my journey to become a regional expert; I had no formal training in Middle Eastern studies and all I had learned during my years as a research assistant was related to post-Arab Spring developments. A master’s program would allow me to cover all those gaps and continue deepening my knowledge in the fields I was most interested in.
By March 2021, I received the good news of my acceptance at Georgetown, and a couple of months later I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, without which I would not have had the opportunity to pursue this degree.
2) Can you discuss some of the issues that you are most passionate about now? How are you able to balance them as you pursue your degree?
I am most interested in the Arab Gulf states’ foreign and security policies, their defense diplomacy with African and Asian partners, and maritime security dynamics in the Middle East. Lately, I’ve been diving deeper into port investments, navies, maritime coalitions, deployment of AI and unmanned systems, logistics, and shipping, with a focus on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. I also follow political, economic, and security developments related to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, as well as EU – GCC ties.
The way I’ve balanced that with my degree has been by taking classes that were aligned with my research interests, in terms of substance, and by proactively communicating with professors and making sure I would be able to write research papers about my topics of interest. I have also chosen the thesis track, which is an excellent (and sometimes painful) way to become a real expert on a subject of your choice.
3) You have been very active in attending workshops and forums, as well as publishing work outside of your studies. In what ways have you navigated both your time in academia broadly and D.C. specifically to bolster your educational opportunities outside of the classroom? Do you have any advice for your colleagues and incoming graduate students?
I came here knowing that, while my first priority was to successfully complete the master’s program, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop professionally. As a result, I have consciously prioritized enrichment activities outside of the classroom, and most importantly, meeting new people. The caliber of my classmates, professors, fellow Fulbrighters, and other people I’ve met here is impressive, and I knew from the beginning I would not want to miss opportunities to meet new friends, research colleagues, and mentors.
- Being organized is helpful if you want to juggle classwork, professional development, and fun, while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Keep a calendar, an agenda, or whatever works for you. Start working on your final assignments early on so you don’t have to rush in the end and can actually enjoy them. Be strategic about them. If you want to become an expert on port operators in the Middle East, then make sure you use your papers to deepen your knowledge on that subject.
- Develop your brand. Maybe I’m biased, but as an aspiring researcher, it is crucial to distinguish yourself from the rest. What are you known for? What is your expertise? Make it specific enough that you have little competition, relevant enough that it can allow you to make a living, valuable enough that it contributes to bettering the world, and make sure it plays to your strengths.
- Passive networking is underrated. Meet people, not because you want to find a job, but because those human connections are intrinsically enriching. Try to learn from other people’s stories, mistakes, and successes. Share yours.
- Keep an active list of people you want to meet, and people you have met. I think “contact management” is the fancy word for it. Don’t just wait for people to send you opportunities, but whenever you see something that fits your friend’s interests, send it along.
- Continue applying to university-related and external awards, fellowships, workshops, conferences, and anything that interests you, during the program. Doing that takes time, and at first it isn’t easy to track those opportunities. But in the long-run, you will benefit a lot from it.
4) What are your aspirations post-graduation?
After graduation, I hope to pursue a Ph.D. in International Relations to continue developing my research skills and expertise. After that, I would like to communicate all that knowledge through different channels; I am considering a variety of options, such as teaching at a university, and consulting with international institutions, governments, as well as the private sector. Ultimately, I would like to make the complex and highly relevant regional dynamics affecting the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East’s maritime domain more accessible to everyone.
Coco Tait is the CCAS Events and Program Manager.