Posted on April 17, 2012
I am back in Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for this year’s international higher education conference. Arrived last night after a long trip via Munich and today was the kick off of the event. There are even more institutions here this year than last and hundreds of thousands of students interested in studying abroad. Ran into American Ambassador Jim Smith and his wife Janet. Jim remains such a hopeful promoter of the US-Saudi relationship and is convinced that education will be the key to the future of the region.
We had one good illustration of Jim’s point. Naif, the Saudi student who is President of our Saudi Student Association and who is along to work the booth, had SNHU photos blown up and mounted on the walls of our booth. He did an amazing job and we easily had the most attractive booth of any school there minus the Saudi universities. There’s no competing with their over-the-top displays that include waterfalls (really), living rooms, multi-story structures, and multimedia. A member of the religious police took exception to SNHU photos that included young American women in typical campus clothes: jeans and tee shirts. Apparently, their bare arms offended and he challenged Naif, asking “So you study in America and your whole thinking changes?” Naif stood his ground, Allah love him, and asserted that he was showing “his campus in America” and not life in the Kingdom. He also told the guy to go get a Quran and show him the text that dictates what women wear. He offered to go to his car and get his own copy. The guy just skulked away.
The CEO of Aramaco gave a compelling opening address in which he called for the country to move from a dependency on oil economy and to make its way into a global knowledge economy. I just don’t believe that KSA can be successful without harnessing the brains and energy of its women. Nick Kristoff tells a great related story:
Bill Gates recalls once being invited to speak in Saudi Arabia and finding himself facing a segregated audience. Four-fifths of the listeners were men, on the left. The remaining one-fifth were women, all covered in black cloaks and veils, on the right. A partition separated the two groups. Toward the end, in the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience noted that Saudi Arabia aimed to be one of the Top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010 and asked if that was realistic. “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” The small group on the right erupted in wild cheering.
The good news is that this year, as last, I meet amazing Saudi women who are working hard to educate and advance women in the society. For example, I met the Rector of Princess Noura Bin Abdul Rahman University, a huge all-women’s institution. She wants to partner with SNHU to introduce culinary programs to a country that has none. Her face is covered and she must sit in a segregated section of the auditorium, but she is really smart, inspired, and determined. I think it would be a mistake to confuse the deeply conservative practices of the society — the inability to drive oneself, for example — with an abject lack of progress. It is more complicated than that and long time expats here repeat what I heard last year: there is more progress in the last five years than previous fifteen.
By the way, a wonderful little story. There is a train that provides service to Princess Noura U and the women who run it are not called “drivers.” The law does not permit such things. They are instead called “operators” and refuse to give the controls to any man.
Before we got too sanctimonious, remember that religious conservatives in the US are again assaulting women’s rights to reproductive health and we are once again arguing about the nature of women and work. The right to equal pay for equal work was only made law in the last four years. That said, the Kingdom still lags far, far behind and what is encoded in law has planted itself deeply in cultural practice and the latter changes much more slowly than the former. I recently asked a Saudi woman on campus what her biggest challenge was as a first year graduate student. She reported that it was extremely hard to get up and present in a class that included men. She is confident in other ways, married, well travelled, and financially secure. She is studying in a country and society with no segregation of the sexes (unless you are the Augusta Country Club), and yet this deeply embedded taboo surfaced without any contextual reason or support.
The key might be fathers, I think. There is a generation of Saudi men educated in the West who love their daughters and do not want to see them restricted in any way. I’ve met them. They talk about supporting their daughters’ dreams. If Naif someday has daughters I suspect he will dream their dreams as well.
On a much more pedestrian note: if hummus proves to be bad for one’s health, I won’t survive the week. Moving from food to drink, I saw a bunch of Brits in the lobby bar drinking Saudi Budweiser (i.e. no alcohol). They seemed a little crestfallen.
Final note: I am pretty sure there is no Arab word for “line.” Trying to buy a coffee this morning at the crowded exhibition hall was an exercise in “elbows up” fend for yourself crowd management. My favorite was an elderly woman who walked past the semblance of a line to the front, nudged in front of the kid about to order, and nonchalantly ordered up an expresso. Wow, she was cool.
There is some crazy NH anti-Islam group that has a web site and includes me on their list of near-seditious lovers of Islam, so this will give them all sorts of new fodder for their off-kilter world view.