A President's Reflections

Saudi Arabia first impressions

Posted on April 17, 2011

Arrived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last night and starting my visit in Jeddah, the Red Sea city that is second largest in the country and the main entry point for pilgrims making their way to Mecca, just north of here.  That last fact would explain the sea of people in white (appropriate pilgrimage wear for all, hiding all distinctions of class) at customs as flights from places like Jakarta, Dubai, Pakistan, Manila, and other nations with predominate or large Muslim populations all seemed to converge at about the same time as our Air France flight from Paris.

I am here for the large Higher Education Exposition in Riyadh, an event that our friends in the Saudi Mission suggested would be good for relationship building and nurturing the strong relationship we now enjoy with them.  We have almost 200 Saudi students studying with us and many Saudi institutions welcome paretnerships with American schools.  I am accompanied by Faisal, one of our Saudi graduate students, who will staff the SNHU booth while I do the rounds of schmoozing (that sounds a bit Yiddish for this staunchly Islamic setting), attend presentations, and connect with potential partners.  Our friend Jim Smith, now American Ambassador to the Kingdom, and his wife Janet are hosting a reception on Tuesday night and the three of us hope to have dinner later in the week. 

Faisal is already proving a worthy travel companion, wise in the ways of wheeling and dealing in a culture where relationships, status, and the ability to negotiate are the foundation of getting by.  For example, his three minute conversation with a customs official had us pulled from the long, snaking line of pilgrims and escorted to the front of the line.  I’m pretty sure Faisal told him I was Larry Summers or Derek Bok, but I prefer not to know.  In a culture already pretty ambivalent about past colonial misdeeds and arrogant westerners, I felt a bit sheepish, but I might still be at customs if not for Faisal running interference.  He procured a taxi and negotiated a $15 fare to the hotel.  When he beckoned me over, the surprised driver said to him, “Hey, if I knew I was driving an American I would have charged $50.”  Faisal laughed and said “Why do you think I arranged things?”

So first impressions with fewer than 24 hours in country?  They are:

  • It’s good to be a royal.  There is something like 4,000 of them and when our plane landed out on the tarmac, a parade of BMWs and Mercedes sedans were waiting and everyone was held on the flight until a handful of royals got off and simply walked to the waiting cars.  No pesky customs lines for them!
  • I am used to women in abayas (from travels elsewhere in the Middle East and even on campus), but it not unusual in Syria, Egypt, Dubai, and even Kuwait to see women with their hair exposed.  Here, the abaya is mandatory, for western women as well, and the niqab is very common (covering most of the face) and a lot of women are in burqas (covering even the eyes).   I knew the Kingdom is very conservative and the veil is a complex cultural (it predates Islam) and religious topic, but it is still striking to see its ubiquity.  Even a group of American business women at breakfast in the Sheraton were in black caftans and head scarves.  By the way, my emerging theory is that American business interests means one of two things: oil or defense.
  • That said, we today visited an all womens university, Effat University, and it is clear that the King and other reformers are finally tapping into the enormous talent pool of women.  At Effat women are studying to become engineers, architects, teachers, and more.  The King has decreed that almost all professions are now open to women and while they have a LONG way to go, there is a sense of genuine and exciting progress.  Faisal, who has been away for six years, frequently comments on it.  Before we get arrogant about the place of women in Saudi society, we should remember that only a few decades ago American women could only be nurses or teachers (and often remained single as part of the bargain) and the cultural constraints on their individual freedom were formidable. 
  • While this is not a developing nation economically (it is a G20 nation and making enormous investments in infrastructure), it is a nation with great disparity of wealth.  On the high end, I’m talking serious, serious wealth.  It’s reflected in some of the palace-like villas along the Corniche and the Bugatti and Ferrari dealerships in the north end of Jeddah.  In other parts of the city are rubbish strewn streets and impovershed immigrant laborers (endemic in the Gulf) living in dire conditions.   The amazingly generous scholarship program that has sent us so many Saudi students and that is sending tens of thousands of students abroad raises an interesting question: what will they all do when they come back?  This is the blessing of oil (you can afford a program like this one) and its curse (an economy built on oil breeds a dependency that squelches the development of other industries, as Thomas Freidman has so often argued).  The leadership knows it needs to develop new industries and is investing heavily in non-oil related endevours, especially around science and technology.
  • The threat of fundamentalist attacks is real and somewhat heightened right now.  There have been past attacks or attempts to attack western compounds, oil facilities, and other shootings some five or six years ago.  Hotels like the Sheraton are barricaded with jersey barriers (maybe called Riyadh barriers here, I’m not sure), gates, metal detectors at the entrance, extra security guards, and even barriers on the walking paths (a security guy told me they slow attacks on motorcyles).  It doesn’t feel dangerous and I always think of these things as “wrong place at the wrong time” risks.  Hell, we had 32,000 handgun deaths in the US and your average Saudi thinks we live in something akin to a war zone.  If you visit areas of Detroit, Baltimore, LA, Chicago, and New York you’d agree.  Just to be safe, when I go visit the suq (the traditional market) later today I am wearing a Canada tee-shirt and will occasionally say things like, “Hey, do you hosers play hockey here? Eh?”  just to be safe.  Everyone loves Canadians, if you dont count seals.

So those are first and mostly ill-informed impressions.  As always, it is exhilirating to see firsthand a culture and place that we hear so much about and for which our understanding is so limited.  It is even more exciting to see a place going through such change, grappling with how to hold onto its traditions and values and to transform itself at the same time.  More to come.

3 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia first impressions

  1. Its good to know that the Saudi government is making such great strides in women’s education, women’s emplyment and in diversifying their economy. However, its sad to hear of such poverty as well. Hopefully with the scholarship programs that are sending students abroad, those students will come back to assist in educating those who do not have the privilege of traveling for their education, and even work with the immigrant laborers to spread opportunity.

  2. Ed Daniels says:

    Hopefully that “New Brunswick” cap has come in handy!

  3. Bander Alotaibi says:

    Happy to hear you are doing well in your first day. I hopped I was there to invite you out of the city for a safari trip in the buetiful dessert. Don’t miss to visit Al-Jenadriyah, the biggest culture and heartage festival ever in the arab world.

    Hope you enjoy the visit!

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