People and Places

Thoughts on Saudi Arabia

Posted on September 17, 2012

As most people know, we have many students from Saudi Arabia studying with us.  The following is from an interview I did with the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission and I thought I might share some of those questions and answers.

1. Dr. Leblanc, can you take us back to the first time you visited Saudi Arabia?

It was April of 2011 and I arrived there for the International Exhibition and Conference, making a stop in Jeddah along the way.  I had long ago read Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (which captivated me), had traveled throughout the Middle East, and fallen in love with Arabic culture.  My daughter, who speaks Arabic and lives much of the time in Damascus, had taught me a lot as well.  So I arrived with eagerness, curiosity, and enormous excitement. 

2. What were your preconceptions of Saudi Arabia before visiting the country and knowing so much about it?

Having spent time in the region in Dubai, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt I had some sense of what to expect culturally.  When I think of Arabic culture I think about hospitality, a love of family, a deep sense of honor and pride, a concern for one’s moral character, and a kind of poetry of language.  I expected to experience all of that and certainly did.

I was also lucky to have Ambassador Jim Smith and his wife Janet as friends (they live in NH) and we had discussed their experiences and love of the Kingdom. 

That said, I did expect a more conservative culture.  I think Americans often have a simplistic sense of the Kingdom and believe that women are all subdued, Saudis are all rich, and that the culture is humorless.  I found none of those things to be true.  While the culture of the Kingdom is conservative by any measure, there is also a kind of vibrancy and air of change.

3. You recently visited Saudi and wrote a blog during your trip where you marveled over the efforts being put forth for educational funding both inside and outside of the Kingdom; can you talk to us about what has inspired you the most pertaining to educational development inside the kingdom?

The Kingdom is just one of the most dynamic societies anywhere when it comes to higher education.  How so?  Consider the following:

The sheer enormity of the investment in higher education with the host of new universities, an investment in the education of women, an expansion of research and workforce development for non-petroleum industries (such as health care, finance, and engineering), the amazing scholarship programs with tens of thousands of students now studying abroad, and the desire to create world class learning institutions such as KAUST.

Few countries today are investing in higher education the way the Kingdom is investing.

When Europe was plunged into the ignorance and intellectual darkness of the medieval period, the Arab world was a beacon of educational and intellectual accomplishment.  Think about what was happening in fields such as algebra, astronomy, and literature.  No other country in the region is doing what Saudi Arabia is doing in trying to reclaim that educational and intellectual legacy. 

I know on one level that this enormous investment is about workforce development, diversification of industries, and bringing to a new level the overall education of an increasingly young population so as to compete in a globally connected world.  It can also have the effect of sparking a new generation of great thinkers.

4. Do you think there is a difference between Saudi Women and let’s say the women of Damascus or the women of Cairo?

Such an interesting and complicated question.  Objectively, in these other Arab capitals women hold professional roles in greater numbers, generally move about their societies with greater ease, and operate in a somewhat less conservative context.  I think many Americans think those facts must mean that Saudi women are particularly subdued. However, I must be meeting a different group, because the Saudi women I encountered were dynamic, aspiring, smart, and see themselves as agents of change in their country.  At the Conference, for example, the Saudi women may have had segregated seating, but they often asked the most challenging and provocative questions. 

I think we in the West often see issues of driving or the veil as inherently disempowering because we see these things as individual choices and even rights, but the better question might be “How are Saudi women empowered differently?”  More than one scholar has argued that the veil has its own empowering qualities, for example. 

My own preference would be for Saudi women to decide how Saudi women shoud live.

5. How much do you think the average Saudi student that attends SNHU grasps U.S. culture at the end of their educational experience here? If the comprehension of the culture is not to its maximum, whom do you think the fault resides with, the student, or the university? If it is the student, what do you recommend we, as a Cultural Mission, do to better prepare our students for cultural immersion?

It is so hard to generalize.  I meet Saudi students on campus who seem to dive into American culture with energy and excitement and others go to class, socialize only with other Saudis, and seem to stay within an artificial bubble.  We need to better encourage the former, but in the end the most we can do is provide opportunity and encouragement.  Students, including our own American students, will get out of their campus experience what they put into it.  So your question really comes down to “How can we encourage students to be bolder, curious, exploratory, and risk-taking (in a good way)?  To get out of their comfort zones?”

One idea that Mission might play with is the idea of a “Cultural Passport,” a checklist of things Saudi students are required to do while enrolled and that the institution can verify for the Mission.  Just to play with this idea, students would have to participate in some number of campus organizations, go to a professional sporting event, interview a local business leader, volunteer in a community organization, etc.  On our end, we would have to provide support for those activities.  Perhaps there is an incentive for those who complete or fill their cultural passport.  If not this idea, then something else more creative is needed.

The Mission might convene a gathering of some of its participant schools for a brainstorming session on this question, because all parties – the institutions, the students, and the Mission – need to do a better job on this one.

6. What type of cultural and social changes do you think students that conclude their academic study here can bring back to Saudi Arabia? What do they leave with from here?

Interestingly, I think our society has a stronger emphasis on civic commitment and individual independence.  If we could find ways to inculcate more of that into our Saudi students I think they could effect great positive change upon their return.  Saudi culture is so centered on family and clan, a great strength of course, but sometimes one’s strength also becomes one’s weakness.  If the Kingdom is to truly become a great nation, it might be well served to foster a sense of the collective well-being.  Societies that are too much centered on getting the most for “me and mine” are more prone to corruption, nepotism, and weak leadership.  Connections trump merit. 

I asked a Saudi about this phrase I heard often used: “wasta.”  She explained it meant good connections and powerful networking, but she then railed against the idea saying “As long as people in my country get ahead because of who they are and who they know instead of what they can actually do, we will struggle to progress.”  All societies, including mine, have some element of wasta, but if it becomes the main way to get ahead it condemns a place to a kind of mediocrity.

7. Your most recent visit to Saudi Arabia was for the annual International Exhibition and Conference on Higher Education (IECHE), what have you gained from the conference?

I learned an enormous amount about Saudi culture and its higher ed system.  It was a very good opportunity to connect with colleagues from many nations. 

I would observe this: the Saudi educational system is building and still in a formative stage, so it tends to focus on very traditional measures and definitions of quality and tends towards the prescriptive.  A lot of the sessions reflected that natural bias.

However, higher education in the US and the UK and elsewhere is looking at innovation, new delivery models, and outcomes instead of inputs (the real measure of quality).  I would urge the Ministry to think more broadly about its programming. 

8. What types of areas did you visit?

Jeddah and Riyadh.  I found both fascinating, but I really want to get out to the desert.  There is something about the night sky, away from all the city lights, that is just so moving.  I have a love for deserts and feel at home in them.  Ironic, given what a green place New Hampshire is.  All our Saudi students comment on it.

9. What did you enjoy the most about the cultural, more historic areas?

I like seeing how everyday people live.  Cultural and historical artifacts are fascinating, but to be invited into someone’s home, to meet their families, to eat their food, and to talk about the things that matter – those are what make travel so rewarding.  My favorite evening in Riyadh last April was going out to the home of one of our students and spending an evening.  I feel like I made friends, came to understand Saudi culture in new ways, and fundamentally, if we are ever to have a peaceful world it is in discovering our commonalities that success will be born.

10. In your blog you also speak of the range of wealth in Jeddah, from the elite car dealerships to the areas with dire circumstances, what do you mean to get across to the reader?

I think Americans think all Saudis are rich.  It can breed a kind of resentment and is far too simplistic.  I wanted to capture the full range of what I saw: that Saudi society has rich and poor, just as we have in the US. 

11. We notice that you have an amazing depth of information, citing the works and ideas of many intellectuals including Thomas Freidman, Horatio Alger, Larry Summers, David Bok, and even Pam Anderson. However, we also noticed that you have made no mention of any Middle Eastern intellectuals on the academic, literary, or historical level. How familiar are you with the Middle Eastern history in terms of famous writers, poets, historical figures, etc…?

Two responses: A) in writing for mostly American audiences mostly I try to evoke writers/thinkers they are more likely to know, and B) I am not as conversant in contemporary Middle Eastern intellectuals as I should be.  I mean, I know Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, but they have both passed away.  Talal Asad, a Saudi by birth, is someone who forces us to think about the East in different ways.  But I need a better reading list!

12. According to your blog, you mentioned that the U.S. still has a bit to go as far as social development goes, what do you think Saudi Arabia still has to work towards?

I am no expert and have only visited twice, so I am reluctant to venture an answer here.  But you asked, so with all my inexperience excused, I’d observe the following:

  1. There is a battle within modern Islam between moderation and tolerance, on one hand, and fundamentalism and intolerance on the other.  The region and the country is a stage where that battle is being played out.  My own bias is towards tolerance and acceptance, of course.
  2. The struggle with modernity and all it includes good and bad is one that country (and the region) now faces.  The Kingdom’s answer does not have to be a Western answer.  It shouldn’t be a Western answer; it should be a Saudi answer.  But I hope there is room for a full and robust discussion and room for a range of answers so people can hold onto what they most revere within the culture while having enough independence to shape their lives in ways that feel right and authentic to them.  Every society navigates the tension between individual liberty and the common good and it feels like Saudi Arabia is trying to get the balance right.
  3. Can education and investment outrace threats to the country: over dependence on oil (and its eventual depletion or diminished use); high unemployment and an increasingly young population (an often volatile mix); the hegemonic power of western media, the information age, and globalization?   The Kingdom also exists within a very volatile region fraught with economic disparities, sectarianism, and ineffective instruments of civil society.  As an educator, I have a fundamental belief in the power of education and the Kingdom is making a tremendous investment in education.  But it is a race against time and external circumstance.

13. In what ways have you seen Saudi Arabia evolve since the first time you have visited?

Well, my first visit was no so long ago, so I’m not sure I can offer the longer perspective the questions requires.  I can say that my two visits persuade me that the country is changing fast, is dynamic, and is fascinating. One American I met while there has lived in the Kingdom for 20 years and commented to me that “there has been more change in the last five years than in the previous fifteen.” 

14. What do you enjoy the most about the Middle East?

My list is too long, so I’ll mention only a few items:

  1. The people: amazing hospitality, warmth, honor, love of children, and reverence for the elderly (increasingly important to me as I am in my 50s now!).
  2. The poetry of the Arabic language.
  3. The desert landscapes and night sky.
  4. The history.
  5. The food (I have to admit that I think Lebanese food is my very favorite, but I ate extremely well in Saudi Arabia as well).
  6. The generosity.
  7. The time people take with another – a stark contrast to the frenetic pace we keep in the US.
  8. Dates.  I love dates, especially the ones stuffed with almonds (I know, a small item – but I have an addiction to them).
  9. Crafts – the carpets, the clothing, the hand carving, and more.
  10. The call to prayer.  One of the most beautiful, evocative, and haunting sounds.  It stops me in my tracks every time.

15. Can I give you one dislike?

Driving.  How do you people make it through the day?  I’ve seen some of the craziest and most scary driving anywhere (and I’ve been to 45 countries) in the Middle East.  Whew.


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