A President's Reflections
People and Places

Saudi Arabia Part II

Posted on April 18, 2012

Day Two of the higher ed conference here in Riyadh.

As a follow up on my post yesterday, this report from a Saudi Princess on the five things Saudi women need has been mentioned more than once to me by Saudi women academics here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17446831.  It apparently caused quite a stir.

A few observations from day two:

  • Saudi teenage boys can be fully as goofy as American teenage boys, though with the latter there is not a baseball cap to be seen.  Tip: buy stock in the Saudi cologne industry.  Whew.
  • Saudi women are covered head to almost toe, but they do seem to be wearing some pretty shazam shoes (credit being married and having two daughters that I even notice).
  • All booths are grouped by country.  Most popular?  The US, UK, Canada, and Australia.  In contrast, the folks from Morocco, Malaysia, and even France look pretty lonely.  The French are mostly standing around chatting and flirting with each other, maintaining a heavy lidded, slightly bored look.  If they would only be smoking Gauloises they’d perfectly complete the picture.
  • Why do Penn, Harvard, and MIT have such sparsely decorated booths?  Because they are Penn, Harvard, and MIT and simply having that sign out means a crowd. 
  • Why do so many Saudi architects design buildings encased in glass when it is so sandy and dusty here?  They must have investments in the Saudi window washing industry, a high need area if there ever was one.

As I am always reminded, Arab hospitality is remarkable.  I am also reminded how young is this region’s population.  Half of all the people in the Arab world are under the age of 25.  In that “youth bulge” lies enormous opportunity and enormous challenge.  Saudi Arabia is one of the countries with the resources to harness that energy and aspiration and education is the key.  Where that education opportunity is absent, young Arabs will increasingly see themselves shut out of the future and the danger is that they turn to fundamentalism and the kind of nihilistic despair that spawns suicide bombers.  This conference and the Kingdom’s enormous commitment higher education both domestically and through the ambitious scholarship program that sends tens of thousands abroad there is cause for hope.

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