What is Zeytun?

Zeytun is a grassroots initiative for durable academic exchange between the Netherlands and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for students of political science, international relations and diplomacy. The word zeytun, meaning ‘olive’ in different languages in the MENA region, has many symbolic senses that are cherished in this initiative. The olive has a reputation for being a strong and rooted tree able to survive for centuries and is at the same time a symbol of the richness and glory of ancient European and Middle Eastern and North African cultures, as well as of peace and goodwill. These features are exactly what Zeytun stands for: relations between Europe and the MENA region with a rich and glorious past, a peaceful and prosperous future and a strong nature able to persist for centuries.

Why exchange?

Europe and the MENA region have been of great importance to each other throughout history and remain so today. The two regions are connected to each other not only by geography, but also by a shared history, trade links, cultural ties, migration, security questions, as well as environmental issues. Many have recognized the importance of relations between Europe and the MENA region and have tried to bring the two regions closer to each other. Despite these attempts, there is still a huge gap in many fields, among which higher education.

Higher education produces the intellect of tomorrow and is in this respect of vital importance for societies, whether in Europe or the MENA region. If it is our desire to establish durable, stable and beneficial relations, we should first of all make the young minds in both regions actively engage with each other. The most effective way to facilitate this are academic exchanges. Exchanges not only make prejudices and stereotypes diminish, but, more importantly, lead participants to common values. The diffusion of a common European consciousness among participants of the Erasmus program in Europe illustrates this very well.

Our vision and values

Zeytun envisions greater academic mobility and increased cooperation between higher education institutions in Europe and the MENA region. Mobility and cooperation are considered important assets that contribute to the broader aims of modernization and innovation in higher education in both Europe and the MENA region, and to a healthy and constructive foundation for dialogue between the two regions.

Being an academic initiative, Zeytun attributes much value to diversity, transparency, and freedom in academics. It ensures that its activities are built upon these values and seeks to diffuse these values among its participants by signifying their importance.


Zeytun builds on a series of earlier exchange projects between the University of Amsterdam and higher education institutions in Iran, Syria, and Yemen. The first exchange was already realized in 2002 with the School of International Relations (SIR) in Tehran and has been repeated each year with new groups of students. After the successes with SIR, exchange projects were established with Sana’a University and the Yemen College for Middle Eastern Studies in Yemen in 2005-2006, with the University of Kalamoon in Syria in 2007-2008, and with the University of Tehran in 2008-2009. In that same year, a pilot project was realized in Iraq in 2008-2009.

Zeytun was established in 2009 with the purpose of developing these individual exchange projects into one comprehensive and durable exchange program, while at the same time offering a clear-cut model for academic exchange and creating a framework for gradual development of academic relations between Europe and the MENA-region.

In addition to the above-mentioned existing exchange programs, new exchange programs were established with the University of Kurdistan-Hewler in Iraq in 2009-2010, with the École de Gouvernance et d'Économie in Morocco in 2012-2013, and with the American University of Iraq Sulaimani in Iraq in 2013-2014. On the other hand, Zeytun's exchange programs with the Syrian and Yemeni partners have been suspended since 2010-2011, due to security concerns in these countries.