A President's Reflections

Saudi Arabia — Part III

Posted on April 20, 2011

Yesterday was the first full day of the Conference and Exposition (www.ieche.com.sa), which is taking place at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center, yet another of the grand and modern buildings that seem to be going up all over the city.  I’ve attended many higher education conferences and walked through many exhibitor areas, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this one.  The scores of institutions from the US, Canada, Australia, Britain, Turkey, Japan, and more have the usual booths with pennants, pictures, and so on.  Then one arrives at the Saudi section and those institutions are over the top: water treatments (sort of a fountain meets waterfall thing about ten feet tall), living room areas, high tech displays, and booth areas that seem a quarter acre or so.  You can drop in for tea and dates (the kind you eat; the other kind are frowned upon big time here) and the hospitality, as always, is generous and warm.

If we come back next year we are bringing a mock up of the NH state liquor stores on our highways, snowmobiles, a Tea Party activist, and bear cubs.  That’ll show ’em!  Maybe have everyone in plaid flannel shirts too. 

The exhibition area is crowded with waves of propsective students and all our brochures and materials have been scooped up.  Not sure what we are going to hand out today.  The students are mostly wonderful (There was the kid who asked “Er, is your college free?”  I told him it was for him if he qualified for the King’s scholarship program, but something about his look told me he was well below the necessary GPA.) and a little bedazzled at the idea of studying abroad.  America continues to be a huge draw, though you got to love the chutzpah (Yiddish keeps sneaking in) of the NY Film Academy’s presence in a country that does not yet allow cinemas, as Ambassador Jim Smith pointed out last night.

As he also pointed out, the event is extremely rare in a country where strict segregation of the sexes continues: men and women are actually allowed to be in the exhibition area at the same time.  This is apparently a very big deal and word must have gotten out because I passed a large group of high school boys trying to get in and they had no passes, but heard that “mingling” was going on.  Women are attending the conference presentations in a separate seating area, but it was considered significant that the moderators are fielding questions from them.  I both find myself both taken aback at times at the place of women and also a little defensive for our Saudi hosts.  Again, it is important to remember that these deeply embedded cultural changes take decades and the country’s leadership is moving in dramatic ways.  For example, 60% of those enrolled in Saudi universities are now women.  Jim Smith, in his comments last night, reminded us that his mother taught the first integrated class in his home county in Georgia and that was in is lifetime.  We like to think that we in America have taken care of our racism and it is behind us, but the stats don’t back us up.  Progress, yes.  A long way to go?  Disheateningly so. Even more so for our gay and lesbian citizens.

Though I do have to confess to a strange phenomenon after only three days in the country.  With so many women in niqab, full face covering, I was approached by a women whose face was not only uncovered, but whose veil was pushed well back, revealing a lot of hair.  I had a momentary “Wow, she’s stepping out!” sort of reaction one might have if someone at home showed up to work in their clubbing clothes (that’s “going out” clothes to you Canadians, not seal clubbing) instead of a work outfit.  Then I bemusedly caught myself and realized how culturally defined or conditioned is our response to things like appearance and modesty.  Three days in Saudi Arabia and you’d have thought Pam Anderson was asking for one of our brochures.  In fact, at our table last night there was an interesting conversation about the how we might argue that the highly sexualized fashion sensibilities directed at American adolescent girls by places like Abercrombie and Fitch and MTV are no less patriarchal and in their own way degrading and in some ways more insidiously so since they masquerade as freedom.

I have newfound respect for all of our admission reps who work at admissions fairs.  Whew!  It is exhausting and truth be told, Faisal is doing all the heavy lifting.  I am at least getting a break to attend sessions, tape interviews, and to meet with colleagues.  Some of these poor students don’t know even the simplest details,as is true in the US I’m sure.  I remain touched by those who come with a parent (i.e. father), where the questions in those cases are mostly about safety and will we take care of their child.  It touched my heart and reminds me of how extraordinarily family-centered is the culture of the Middle East.  That and the incredible hospitality of the Arab world are two of the reasons I still love this region so much.  The care of guests – -the desire to know every little need is being met — makes American hospitality look….oh, I don’t know, Swiss.   

Our day at the conference was followed by an evening reception at Quincy House, the home of the Ambassador.  If one needs a reminder of the dangers still present here, the security around the Diplomatic Quarter (where the embassies and residences are located) provides ample evidence.  Entrance to the Quarter is heavily guarded with a zig zag course through concrete barriers, sand bagged outposts with heavy machine guns, saw tooth tire strips across the road, and a LOT of armed security guys.  Once in the Quarter everything is open and quite lovely (I love looking at embassies and seeing how their designs reflect their countries or not) until you approach Quincy House, which has its own layer of additional security, this time under supervision of Americans and consisting of many of the same elements.  I choose not to steal any of the cool paper dinner napkins with the US seal on them.

Quincy House is a lovely, modern villa style home and the reception was mostly out around the pool with lovely uplights under the palm trees.  Janet and Jim have decorated with NH art, including two gorgeous commissioned quilts that hang on the walls.  Janet and Jim are down-to-earth and welcoming hosts and the house and the reception felt more like being in their home (which it is, at least upsatirs in their private space) than at a formal reception.  Jim’s brief comments reminded us of how key is higher education in building relationships between countries and at the extraordinary commitment the Saudis are making, realizing that the future depends on the capacity building and education of its populace (Governor Lynch, I’m talking to you).  I was sitting with Cornell President David Skorton who marvelled at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, an audaciously brand new $6b campus that is whollyLEEDS Platinum certified.  Ad David said, he has one LEEDS Gold building and he brags about it all the time; these guys have a huge campus with the highest LEEDS certification possible.  By the way, David spoke at the opening ceremony yesterday and delivered a good part of his initial remarks in Arabic.  I hate him.

Jim and Janet invited me to stay afterwards and we chatted until almost midnight, mostly about the Kingdom and the unrest in the region and about this extraordinary two years in their lives.  Imagine, to be in this post at this moment in history with so much promise and potential for disaster and the stakes so very high for the world.  Jim, with the calm nerves of an ex-fighter pilot, and innate kindness and humility, is just the right guy for the job.  I’m a huge fan.  Janet, the first spouse at the post in years, is restoring a sense of “America is back and committed.”  It is a big deal in this family-centered culture that the Ambassador’s wife is here again.  She has thrown herself into her role, often as an extension of Jim in the endless social/ceremonial demands put upon them, and in her own right, supporting and highlighting the work of so many extraordinary women in the Kingdom.  It was a highlight of the trip to sit with them and talk near to midnight.   The university is lucky to have them as friends.

My gracious host in the Royal Family provided me with a car and driver (boy I could get used to this) and we made our way back through security and finally to the hotel.  Another mind bending day in the Kingdom.

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