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Connecting people through portals

REFILE - CORRECTING NAME OF PROJECT PARTICIPATED BY PRESIDENT OBAMAU.S. President Barack Obama participates in a Shared Studios Portal virtual conversation with entrepreneurs at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

During the Misk Global Forum (MGF) last November, visitors had the opportunity to notice the presence of a strange golden rectangle erected in an auxiliary part of the complex. It was actually a recycled container for the good of the Portals initiative, a concept that allows people from all over the world to connect virtually...

The soft glow of a screen emanates from inside the container, projecting sparkles of light on the faces of the curious. Here, viewers are not watching a program. In fact, they are having a conversation with people thousands of kilometers away.

Apart from providing employment and networking opportunities for the Kingdom’s youth, one of the main objectives of MGF is to help open Saudi Arabia to the world. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the MiSK Institute has decided to bring the world to Riyadh, in the form of Portals, an initiative spearheaded by Shared Studios. The conference version, which is a smaller and more mobile one, stands approximately eight feet high, with enough space for a dozen or so people.

Time Square meeting Riyadh

Started four years ago by the young Lebanese American Michelle Moghtader – a former journalist and community organizer – Portals was originally conceived as a type of public art installation, but with a twist. Hidden within the confines of a shipping container, participants and passersby would discover a window to another world. The concept was simple: to allow people from different locales and backgrounds to communicate with each other directly through the connective power of the Internet, and in doing so, to shatter stereotypes and broaden horizons.

The first Portal was set up in Times Square, in New York City. Halfway across the world, another portal was opening, a connection was made in Iran. Suddenly, pedestrians in one of the world’s busiest intersections had a window into Tehran, and vice-versa. For many of the users, it would be the first time either person ever had an opportunity to speak to their respective counterparts, which were often portrayed as the “enemy” in both Iran and the States.

More than 500 people participated in those first dialogues and a dozen artists collaborated. Many came out crying, giddy and refreshed… Today we have a network of 35 Portals across the world now that serve as this interconnected community space for collaboration, debate, and learning”, said Michelle Moghtader, founder of Portals

“Everyone is so eager to connect”

And it is exactly for this reason that Portals continues to show promise and success across the globe. Whilst knowing that what is portrayed online and on the air is often not the same as reality, Portals is helping to construct a virtual bridge for those curious enough to cross it.

Commenting on their role within the larger media spectrum, Michelle commented, “Our job is to complement and add a broader range to what the media provides.

While it was her first time in Saudi Arabia, Michelle said that what surprised her most was the enthusiasm of Saudi youth. “We’ve had the most people [ever] in one day,” Michelle says with a smile. “They want to share what’s going on in their own words. The youth are thirsty to share their culture and learn from others. This has been one of the best crowds that has used portals. Everyone is so eager to connect.” Overall, over five hundred guests entered the experience, all within a day’s time.

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Throughout the MGF, the buzz was palpable among the attendees. Indeed, it was the youngest and most diverse edition of the Forum in its history. With Portals, these leaders of the future were able to speak to their contemporaries from the conference floor, but open doors of dialogue that transcended borders. As the Kingdom continues to undergo rapid societal change, Portals serves as a portal of perspectives, allowing each side to peer through the veil and see the person who lies beyond.