One sweltering day last spring, out of curiosity and a long-standing interest in the old-fashioned American institutions of civic engagement, I stepped out of my apartment building in the nation’s capital and walked over to attend a nearby conference of the Toastmasters. Founded in a Southern California YMCA basement for the betterment of tongue-tied young men, the Toastmasters have been offering “practice and training in the art of public speaking” along with “sociability and good fellowship” since the mid-1920s. In my mind, the group harked back to a half-imagined America of bowling leagues, church barbecues, and Rotary signs on the edge of town. What was funny was that my apartment resided in a sandy, congested neighborhood of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Under the Arabian midday glare, I scurried across one of the city’s sprawling six-lane boulevards—past a billboard that months earlier had advertised the local Krispy Kreme’s “Ramadan Dozen” special—to reach the campus of a local women’s college that was hosting the event. When I arrived at the main auditorium, I found it humming with a 300-horsepower murmur. The place was packed with men and women in off-the-rack power suits, plus a few starched white robes and black abayas. The room was decked end-to-end with gold silk banners, each, to my amazement, representing a different local chapter of the Toastmasters. By itself, Abu Dhabi—a young boomtown of global migrants roughly the size of Milwaukee—harbors seventeen active chapters of the group, I learned. The UAE as a whole, with a population of about eight million people, has seventy-one chapters.