A President's Reflections

Some closing thoughts on Saudi Arabia

Posted on April 21, 2011

If you wish to understand a time past, you can read history and come to an intellectual understanding, but it is literature — novels, poetry, memoir — that can help you know what it felt to live in that time.  Similarly, one can read about a place and survey the media accounts and the analysis and build an understanding of a place as yet unvisited, but it is not until you walk its streets, take in the smells, eat the food, share the cultural practices, and talk to the people about their lives, their dreams, and their frustrations can you really start to know a place.

“Know” might be the wrong word here, because in the act of experiencing a place you start to apprehend its complexities, contradictions, nuances, tensions, delights and frustrations, and you quickly realize how little you actually knew before you arrived and how much more there is to know as your time runs out.  That’s how I feel as my week in the Kingdom nears its close.  The American media is guilty of the most superficial characterizations of this society — everyone is rich and imperious, its cowed women are subjugated, and the Kingdom resists modernity.  There are shades of truth to that picture: there is enormouswealth here, women are working hard for their full place in society, and there are deeply conservative elements at work here stubbornly holding onto a very traditional interpretation of Islam.  But there is so, so much more.

Here are some other observations I’d make:

  • The Kingdom’s commitment to education is incredibly substantial and the foundation of the plan to modernize.  KAUST, the newest university, is a LEEDS Platinum campus (!) and has been launched with a $10 billion endowment (!!).
  • I have met some of the most impressive, hard charging women I have ever met anywhere.  They may have abayas on, but they are smart, passionate, funny, outgoing, and inspirational.  Someone observed to me that the role of women will irrevocably change as this next generation of fathers support their daughters’ dreams and take pride in their accomplishments as doctors and engineers and writers.  I met some of those young women and their fathers on this trip.  Remember that 60% of university students here are women.  Women in America first went to work outside the home (during WW II) and then went to universities in droves.  These women are going to university first and they will come out demanding a greater role in Saudi society and they increasingly have fathers who will stand behind them.
  • By the way (I know Pat will say “Told you so!”), but the female prospective students we met these three days are far more driven and focused than their male counterparts.  If you look at SNHU, this is largely true for us as well (check out the honor societies; our athletic program’s overall GPA is greatly lifted by our women’s teams).  So Pat would then say, “Tell me again why we let men run so many things.”  She might have a point.
  • No place exhibits greater hospitality and warmth than Saudi Arabia.  What is true for the Arab world in general is amplified here and it puts our culture to shame.  It is a matter of honor and heart to make a guest feel welcome and well taken care of when they visit. 
  • If you want to know why international education is so important, meet the Saudis who studied in America in that first great wave of the 60s through the 80s.  Not they are sending their children and they all express great affection for America.  Higher education remains the best expression of soft power, of diplomacy.  One man told me his host family in the 70s was his “second family” and when he heard that his “mom” was asking for him on her death bed he flew to the US and spent her last two days at her side, often holding her.  He teared up as he talked about what that one simple family meant to him then and now.  He was at the exposition with his high school age son looking for the right American college.
  • As always, one meets people who have suffered and survived and are inspiring in their resiliency.  I had a driver today from Eritrea.  He was a solder for 13 years in that country’s bloody war of attrition with Ethiopia.  He had sad eyes as he recounted that time, but then brightened when he talked about his time in Riyadh and how good his employer family treats him.  Plus, he said, prolonged war is good preparation for driving in Saudi Arabia!  He isn’t kidding, by the way.  This place has the highest traffic fatality rate in the world and you can see why.  Driving here is not for the weak of heart — it may not even be for the sane.  Thus my appreciation for the careful driving of my buddy Ayob, modest thief that he was.
  • In thinking about the Kingdom and what might happen here in this Arab Spring sweeping across the region, I would make one important distinction.  In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria a major part of the population, perhaps the majority, had the sense that those who had power did not care for them, weren’t working to make their lives better. I don’t have that sense here.  Surely there is frustration at corruption, nepotism and patronage, and some of the more severe aspects of the religious conservatism that holds so much sway, but there seems to be widespread admiration for this reformist king and a sense that he cares and is investing in their future.  His scholarship program, the building of new universities at a rapid pace, improved wages for workers, and a move to more democratic processes at the local level are concrete signs of a government that is trying to make things better and most of those moves were well underway before the unrest began (and yes, they are lucky to have the wealth to respond to the needs).

I come away quite heartened and respectful of what is happening here in Saudi Arabia.  It feels very fragile in some ways and there is much to put this progress at threat, including a very dangerous enemy in Iran, destabilized nations across the region, a question of who will succeed the ailing king (and it is very unclear how that gets decided — everyone squirmed a bit when I asked), the ability to control the most dangerous elements within the Kingdom, and the need to continue the power shift from the religious elite to the ruling family.  It is delicate.

Years ago, I read Alfred Thesinger’s Arabian Sands, his account of being the first westerener to cross the vast and merciless Empty Quarter that later become Saudi Arabia.  Thesinger came to respect and even love the Bedouin culture of the region — fierce, proud, generous, and tough. 

It was no trek across the dessert (it was actually weaving through Riyadh traffic in a chauffeured Escalade), but the highlight of the trip in many ways, other than my visit with Jim and Janet Smith and their fascinating insights, was my time today with a family over a meal.  They made me feel like I belonged and we laughed and traded stories (and jokes) and teased and as I looked at their kids, who were all wonderful, I could only want the best for this complicated, fascinating place.  As I eventually waddle onto the plane, rubbing my date filled belly like a good Saudi businessman, I will think of them when I think of Saudi Arabia and mutter a “Alhamdulillah” for knowing them and thus better knowing their country.

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