Senior Researches How Tourism Impacts Tribes Near Petra

Nicolas Reeves, an Elliott School Dean’s Scholar, balances research on tourism with life as a student athlete.

Nicolas Reeves
Nicolas Reeves, a senior majoring in international affairs and economics, plans to study Arabic as a CASA Fellow at the American University in Cairo next year. (Photo provided by Nicolas Reeves)
April 16, 2019

By Kristen Mitchell

Nicolas Reeves didn’t plan to get involved in research when he came to George Washington University as a member of the swim team, but after spending his junior year in Jordan, he wanted to find a way to continue exploring the place that had become his second home.

Mr. Reeves, a senior majoring in international affairs and economics with a minor in Arabic, researched how state-led efforts to develop the city of Petra for tourism have impacted local tribes economically, socially and politically as an Elliott School Dean’s Scholar. Petra has long been a tribal area, but in recent years Jordan has made efforts to attract western tourists. Mr. Reeves explored how uneven opportunities for development, tribal narratives and outside intervention by the local and national government have shaped the dynamics between and within the Bdoul and Layathna tribes.

“I wanted to look at how the tribal narratives about, for example, which group came to Petra first or whether they perceived the other tribe as somehow slighting them, whether that differed between tribes,” he said.

Mr. Reeves studied abroad in Jordan on a Boren Scholarship as a junior, and he was inspired to explore tribal relations and tourism after making several visits to Petra, where locals find work in the formal and informal economies, selling meals, lodging and excursions to nearby monuments. He returned to Jordan over spring break to pursue his research.

Mr. Reeves conducted interviews about their experiences with the tourism sector in Arabic. Navigating these questions was tricky because, especially as a foreigner, it took some time to build the kind of trust necessary to discuss sensitive topics that could involve critiquing the government and members of their own tribe, Mr. Reeves said.

“It was definitely an eye opening experience for me," he said. "I had to learn how to approach a sensitive topic like this in a way that is not only respectful, but in a way where I can get responses that are helpful for my research.”

For example, he asked locals how their lives differed from the lives of their fathers and grandfathers, as opposed to whether they felt marginalized by the government. Mr. Reeves is still writing his final paper, but noticed that individuals of similar economic status often gave similar answers to this question across tribal lines. The tribes are more distinct on origin story narratives, however, each saying they have been living in Petra longer.

Shana Marshall, Mr. Reeves’ research adviser and associate director of the Elliott School’s Institute for Middle East Studies, said his project is extremely sophisticated. The skills he is learning as a student researcher will directly translate to meaningful employment after graduation, she said.

“He displays an empathy and innate understanding of relationships and conditions in societies that are very different than his own,” Dr. Marshall said. “That isn’t necessarily something you can teach but it is something you can encourage through programs like this.”

While wrapping up his research, Mr. Reeves also closed the final act of his athletic career with Men’s Swimming and Diving, which claimed a third straight Atlantic 10 title in February. Mr. Reeves said the skills he’s developed swimming, with a primary focus on the butterfly and backstroke events, helped him become a dedicated researcher.

“Swimming has always had this way of keeping me focused even on things that are outside of swimming,” he said. “It forces you to strictly regiment your time because you know you have practice in the morning, so you need to be in bed early.”

Swimming has also helped Mr. Reeves build confidence and strengthened his ability to perform in high pressure situations, he said. Instead of feeling discouraged or questioning his Arabic skills going into conversations with high-ranking officials in Petra, he focused that energy into productive interviews.

Mr. Reeves recently presented his work at Research Days and received the second-place award for undergraduate presenters in the international affairs category. He was awarded a 2018 Elliott School Undergraduate Research Award, which will allow him to travel to conferences to share his research. He encourages other students to consider research opportunities during their undergraduate careers.

“You don’t know if you’ll like it until you try,” he said. “One thing I really like about the Dean’s Scholars program is that I was given an incredible amount of freedom to mold my project for my interests and what I wanted to study.”

Mr. Reeves plans to graduate in May and will study Arabic as a CASA Fellow at the American University in Cairo next year. In the future, he wants to be a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service specializing in tribal and refugee affairs.


To learn more about available research opportunities contact the GW Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research.

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