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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Other NCUSAR KSA Bloggers

If you are interested in my experiences in Saudi Arabia, I encourage you to check out a few of the blogs from other members of my NCUSAR group.  Different things attracted and inspired each of us differently, so I think that their blogs might give a bit of further insight, especially since they are written by people that are arguably much smarter than me.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

American University of Dubai Campus

I have now been in Dubai for over a week and have kept almost completely out of touch with my family and friends back home.  There's a 10 hour time difference, and I've just been really busy.  But this is a new kind of busy--I"m not filling my weeks with 18 hours of class and 40 hours of work, but I'm actually living what I have always considered the best college lifestyle, filling my new found plethora of free time with exploring, socializing, and, alhamdulillah (thank God), studying.  I haven't had this much available time to do my homework and meet people since Middle School, and it's so refreshing.

I should note that I'm currently writing this on the beach beside Jumeirah Beach Residence, here as just JBR, listening to those centering beach sounds and doing some mad people-watching.  To my left I see some sort of industrial port in the distance, to my right I see the Burj al Arab, behind me are skyscrapers, and in front is just sea and rocks and yachts.  I've gotten no small amount of odd looks from passers-by at the blazing (yes, blazing) white chick scrawling inter a leather portfolio on Al Faisal University note paper (not that I really think people care about my note paper).  JBR is close to Skydive Dubai, so every 15 minutes you can watch the people falling slowly to the ground sometimes little spin tricks, and then really pick up speed before turning and sailing into the water.  I see nearly naked, reddening women sprawled on towels and women in black abayas and hijabs walking by, chatting quietly with their husbands.  The men are even more diverse, sporting Speedos or 3-piece-suits, in groups with women, in packs with other men--probably leering at women, or walking in pairs, clutching pinkies, a very non-homosexual way to walk with male friends here in the Gulf.  Oh yeah, and there are camels.
A man, a boy, and camels on the beach at JBR all instagramified
Anyway, you probably aren't reading this to hear about the beach, so how about the AUD campus?

To begin, the dormitories.  My dorm stands out as an oasis of mediocre in an otherwise incredibly satisfying life here--not to the point where I'd call this complaining, but if you're thinking of forking out thousands of dollars or dirhams for an AUD education, it should be said.  My dorm is larger than my room at Troy.  I'm in the "old dorms" which are blessed with high ceilings and huge windows, but the floor and furniture are dingy.  My room is unique in that it has some of the ugliest border I've ever seen bisecting the tall walls.  I have a switch in the hallway for my hot water heater that takes at least 2 hours to finish heating, which upon my arrival in Dubai at 1:00 AM after 28 hours of travel and the flu (or something) I met with great dismay and a minor hissy fit. The bathroom has little counter space and the small floor space is taken up by a large bidet that I know is one morning going to catch one of earrings or makeup brushes as I get ready for school. The shower has regular floor tiles on the ground and walls, so the grout is black and generally yucky.  The bathroom also holds a smell I can't seem to place or eradicate, likely just built up moisture in walls and fixtures not meant for a bathroom.

The dormitories have kitchens, a group lounge, and a study room that I can't complain about.  Laundry is also cheap, and I have access to a girls-only gym that is lacking in cardio equipment but has good weight machines, which are the only things I don't want to use in front of boys anyway.

The boys and girls dorms are separated by a high wall and two security guards.  There is a 12:00 AM curfew in place for all students under 24 unless you have a parent sign a form to either opt out or change the curfew.  The guards are pretty cool, and I do think they care about our well being, especially the girls, but they'll still report a curfew violation with a quickness.

The campus is beautiful.  There is an army of gardeners and custodians constantly keeping up appearances.  There are many places, both outside and in to sit and chat or enjoy a coffee and study.  The hallways and study rooms have bean-bag chairs.  Troy University, take note.

I'm not used to having good places to eat on campus, and I have a few options for a good cup of coffee, which I think is a necessary quality in campus life.  I and my books and laptop have become permanent fixtures outside the Starbucks, surrounded by foliage and obnoxious birds.

My favorite view on campus is of the soccer field: a patch of pristine green surrounded by skyscrapers and the pale pink buildings of AUD.

We have a convenience store, dry-cleaning, a barber shop, and a beauty salon on campus.  Prices are fair by Dubai standards.  Food prices are a bit higher on campus.

In the surrounding areas, there are many food options.  We are really close to Media and Internet Cities, which have nice shisha places, restaurants, food courts, and large outdoor sitting areas.  The park in the center of Media City is gorgeous, and I foresee it being a good place to relax off of campus.  EVERYTHING delivers in the Middle East, including the on-campus restaurants.  I live like 100 yards from the student center, but my roommate still likes to order delivery.  Delivery is a good option though, because I'm finding that, both in KSA and UAE, the word "fast" is rarely applied to food preparation.  Regarding fast food, we have a lot of American fast food chains in Dubai, including KFC, McDonald's  Burger King, Subway, and Hardees.  The food from these places is better here than in America, and better in KSA than here.  Arabs take their food seriously, even if its just a burger and fries.
A few of the Americans studying for one semester at AUD
AUD is near to a metro station and taxi rides are the best deal you'll find in Dubai.  I am, overall, incredibly happy with the campus.

It's starting to get pretty breezy here at JBR, so I think it's time to hail a cab and head back to campus for a shower and some clubbing later.  Tomorrow, it's Arabic homework, meeting with friends...and some clubbing later.

The Industrial City of Jubail

Jubail and Yanbu 

RCJY LogoUnder King Abdullah, two industrial cities have been completed: Jubail, on the Arabia Gulf (which is, in some circles, the Persian Gulf, but I won't be posting an opinion on this discrepancy) and Yanbu, on the Red Sea north of Jeddah.  The cities are administered by the Saudi government under the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, which we visited for a day during our time in Khobar.  Jubail and Yanbu were built from a central plan, unlike the natural urbanization of villages and towns that usually forms a city.  They are indeed cities in every sense, to include housing, education, transportation, and recreation infrastructure and venues for the benefit of the people working in one of the many industries present.  Jubail has many factories and plants, plus a college and vocational school, a desalination plant, and a seaport.  Yanbu is more specialized, with a port, refineries, and petro-based industries.  The government offered incentives for companies to begin producing in Jubail and Yanbu, setting up the 70% government-owned Saudi Arabian Base Industries Corporation(SABIC).  SABIC organized companies that utilize natural gas as their "feedstock," dominating the non-oil industries.

The city of Jubail has both industrial and residential infrastructure.  Though not included on our tour, King Fahd port is the area that makes much of the trade to and from Jubail possible.  The industrial region is divided into heavy and light industry zones.  There is also a massive area dedicated to the community of Jubail to include shopping, dining, and recreation areas, and residents have a variety of living options to choose from in Jubail.  Some residential areas are owned by the industrial companies operating in Jubail for employee housing, another incentive from the Saudi government for companies to set up shop there.
Jubail community.  Photo from
The community of Jubail is open, with the potential to attract people from other areas as the need for housing spreads outside of Jubail's current limits.  However, the actual industrial areas have not been structured the same way.  The industrial site has a development potential of 35,000 to 75,000 hectares.  Industrial sites are organized into blocks based on type of industry, so that secondary industries might be separate from primary and feedstock industries.  The newly developing petrochemical industries are located in a new sector, called Jubail II.  These petrochemical facilities rely on the byproducts from Saudi Aramco.

What stuck out to me as the most relevant development from the Royal Commission is the construction of an East-West natural gas and oil pipeline running from Jubail to Yanbu, avoiding the Strait of Hormuz between the UAE, Oman, and Iran.  The Strait has the potential to be closed by Iran (this ability was tested by the US armed forces in the 2002 Millennium Challenge) and has produced recent disputes in 2008 and 2011-12 between Iran and the US, a major ally to Saudi industry.

Our visit to Jubail

Us and some fellas from the Royal Commission 

Our first reception
Our visit was well planned and impressive, but it was awash in propaganda.  We were greeted by a group of stoic, thobed men who led us to a large boardroom, where we heard a formal introduction, watched an incredibly long and dramatic documentary on the city, and drank tons of Arabic coffee, as per usual.

Tour of the visitor's center
I have no idea what's happening here
We were then taken on a tour of their visitor's center which included mostly information on Jubail's stages of development, interesting facts about infrastructure, and a lengthy discourse on all the awards the planners had won.  We then got into a bus for a long tour of the community and then the industrial areas.   Entering the areas where the highest caliber of refining and industry occurred was a minor ordeal.  The areas are heavily guarded, and it took much planning on our hosts' parts to get a busload of Americans on the premises.  Pictures are not allowed in these areas, so I included a few from the web.

A worker at a 2010 project.  The entire city was built by immigrants. Photo from 
I honestly have no idea what I'm looking at here. Photo again from
Jubail refinery. Photo from

Jubail desalination plant. Photo from 
We concluded our tour at another reception at the "tent," a building styled to look like a Bedouin camp but swarming with Filipino servants.  We removed our shoes, entered, and got some more coffee while meeting with some professors and higher-ups from the college in Jubail.  We then ate a huge lunch and returned to the tent for pictures and to receive the gifts that I mentioned in the "Hospitality" post.
The "tent"
Looking cheesy while being thanked for coming to Jubail.  Please, no comments on my disheveled hijab. It was a long day.
Through out the tour, we truly asked far fewer questions than at other locations.  Maybe we were too tired, or maybe we were just confident that questions would be met with generic, undoubtedly positive, answers.

In short, What bothered me as a Feminist

In a post on our trip to Jubail, I just can't ignore the couple of comments and things that really irked us Americans.  I personally wasn't too susceptible to culture shock and adapted pretty well to Saudi society on this trip, but these things made even me roll my eyes and produce a few sarcastic thoughts--even if they never developed into the snarky comments they so wanted to be.  The three things that bothered me as a Feminist are as follows:

I.) "Everyone can swim!"
While driving past a pristine beach in the community of Jubail, one of my group asked if outsiders, like non-Jubail employees, could use the beach and its facilities.  Our PR man tour guide responded, "Yes! Everyone can swim!" To which we were amazed.  Every other place we visited had major restrictions on women at the beach, we clarified, asking if he meant women too.  He replied that of course not, only the males could go to the beach.  A moment later, we saw a large sign on the beach prohibiting children from entering the water.

Males 15 years or older make up 39.1% of Saudi Arabia's population, so, you know, everyone.  (Statistic from

II.) "If women work beside men, they'll get pregnant." I'm paraphrasing here, but it's pretty accurate
When we questioned our tour guide about the policies in place for women in the work force in Jubail, the guide explained that there were gender segregated work areas in all sectors except the zone where the industries with the highest safety risks were located.  We did not ask much more, because we already knew Jubail's policies from our earlier briefing.  However, probably upon seeing that the whole concept of gender segregation bothered us, he elaborated, explaining that, if women were to work in the same place as men, there would be romances, and of course, pregnancies.  When we either scoffed or laughed at this comment, he continued to explain that Jubail's policies were not in place to protect the man or woman in these relations, but the children who could be raised without knowing their fathers and with ostracized mothers.  Men and women are thought to have very little control over their sexual urges.  I am hoping that this generation of Saudi females who are studying in America and Europe in mixed settings will return to the Kingdom remarkably unpregnant and shatter a few of these misconceptions.

III.) The Shannon Slap
How one would typically respond to a setting where mixed gender contact is not allowed. Photo from a pretty cool blog on Indonesian culture,
As many who are familiar with Islamic culture know, many people interpret physical contact between unmarried/unrelated men and women as sinful, or "haram" in Arabic.  For this reason, in formal meetings, some men or women will cross their hands and nod out of respect, but not shake the hand of someone of the opposite gender.  At Jubail, as we moved through introductions to Commission members and faculty of the college in Jubail, a few of the men were obviously avoiding touching the females--which, I should add, offended no one because it is a religious observance that we understand.  One of the girls on our trip who is very well versed on Islamic culture herself, Shannon, instinctively reached out to shake an Algerian's hand (usually North Africans are less observant to mixed gender rules than Saudis), not seeing that his posture indicated that he didn't want to touch her.  Most Muslims, I believe, would explain that they could not touch a woman or simply back away and nod, as I've seen many do.  This man, however, slapped her hand away.  I'm no Muslim scholar, but from experience I understand that slapping requires contact.  Why this man thought that slapping a woman was less disrespectful than shaking her hand will be the first question I have for the first imam I get to talk to me.  I'll just be sure that when I do so, I keep my distance.

I took few notes while at Jubail, so a few of the earlier production and facilities-related facts came from the following sites:

Monday, January 14, 2013

Boating in Jeddah

As in the West, businesses in The Gulf have 5 day work weeks.  Saudi Arabian businesses view Thursday and Friday as the weekend, whereas in the UAE it's Friday and Saturday.  Our second day in Jeddah fell on a weekend, so with none of the places similar to what we'd been touring open, our Saad and Sultan decided to take us boating on the Red Sea.  We had been pestering them the whole trip to take us to Bahrain, so this was their gift for our benefit--and to get us to shut up about Bahrain.  Boats and jet skis seem to be pretty easy to rent in KSA because the little marina we went to had a ton of people coming and going on borrowed watercraft.  Two 20 or so foot boats were rented for our group.  Each boat had a captain that spoke only Arabic to us, but seemed to be of some Southeast Asian ethnicity to me.  
I saw a lot of residential development along this part of Jeddah

I don't think we were technically on the Red Sea, but we were definitely in a bay or river that  flowed into it.
Racing with the other boat captain

Saad and Matt, finally able to party in the open

Daredevil jet skiers, I never got to double check if women could rent jet skis, but I think they can

The perfect accessory for your water front home in Jeddah

My first observation was that water laws in Saudi Arabia are much less stringent than the rules along the Chesapeake Bay and in Florida, where I'm used to boating.  There seemed to be no enforced rules against wakes in harbors, and the lives of jet skiers seemed to be insignificant to all involved.  We were however told to wear life jackets, not that they would help much in the crashing of two speeding boats.

The students on the NCUSAR visit to Saudi Arabia had not expected to be given the opportunity to swim, especially outside of the hotel, so we were forced to do some serious improvising.  I swam in my pajamas, making my own waves of haram in spaghetti straps and under armor shorts.  
After sweating under a hijab and abaya for over a week, I felt naked in shorts

After being told by our captain to put on some life jackets and sit down before the Border Police came over
The scantily clad American sirens drew the attention of many a passing jet skier, and at one point, the border police.  Luckily, I succeeded in my primary goal of not being arrested in the KSA, but one of these encounters led us to head back to port and tie up a bit ahead of schedule.  

First Day of School at AUD

Two days ago, I took a taxi from Dubai International Airport to American University of Dubai with lots of luggage and a couple of expectations.  I entered a frigid room with no hot water, circumnavigated by the ugliest roll of border you've ever seen.  The next day, I made my first friend while sitting in a small smoking section of picnic tables in the center of campus; then, I spent the next two days getting to know the other study abroad students and the few AUD students interested in showing us around.  I've been to three malls, one bar, and way too many restaurants.  What is surprising me the most is the cost of living here, but I think that a study abroad student anywhere will end up paying too much for things like transportation and room necessities.

I really look forward to writing about my experiences in Dubai, but I also still have so much to say about Saudi Arabia, it will just have to wait.  For briefer updates about Dubai, I have broken down and started using my Instagram (lncoughlin) with some frequency whenever I have wifi.

Now for a bit of downtime in the dorm room before my second and last class of the day, Religions of the Middle East.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Our Generous Hosts: Hospitality in the Arab World

The fact that Arab people are characteristically hospitable is probably not news, even to readers completely unaware of Islamic culture, but I will write this post to reaffirm this understanding and further apply it to Saudi Arabia.
Even in the US at Troy, I received numerous invitations to Saudi homes upon their learning that I spoke a little Arabic and generally cared about other cultures, so I knew that our group would be treated very well on our visit.  However, my own expectations were blown away and I received more invitations and gifts than I ever expected.  Though each present and offer was unique and very appreciated, I'm just going to list everything I can remember.

  • At each school we attended, we left with books, pens, keychains, mugs, and bags.  Just about all of this free university propaganda was well made and likely expensive to produce, making it impressive that the schools dolled out this stuff on American students that will, in reality, never attend their universities.  
  • At a few schools, the gifts were extra-impressive, even if they were only given to the boys.  The girls were rather unhappy that, on two occasions, the boys received briefcases from schools that only gave us a pen and a pile of brochures.  Male and female campuses operate mostly independently, and it's not surprising that male visitors were treated a little bit better, and it's still impressive that the schools were willing to spend so much on their visitors.
  • A quick picture with King Abdullah at the female campus of Al Saud University
    the ladies giving us a tour were uncovered, so I couldn't post any pics of them
  • The universities themselves made great efforts planning our visits.  At the female campus of Al Saud, we were shown around by an absolute army of PR women and many schools hosted us in huge board rooms with individuals in the highest levels of leadership. 

An example of a swanky boardroom afforded to our
NCUSAR visit, this one at PMU
  • Many meetings included small delegations of students to show us around and answer questions even though it was exam time and those couple hours were extremely precious.
  • Every single meeting everywhere included multiple opportunities to drink Arabic coffee, the symbol of Saudi hospitality, accompanied by dates and usually some sort of pastries or hors d'oeuvres.  The coffee and food was served immediately once we sat down, usually by a Filipino servant the same gender as our hosts, but sometimes by the lowest ranking individual among our hosts.  
  • At hotels, we were served fresh smoothies, called "cocktails" in the dry country of Saudi Arabia, while we waited for our room keys to be programmed.
  • Doors were readily opened and bags carried, if you protested, there would be trouble; then, you would hand over your stuff and let the favor be completed.  I'm sure that our male colleagues received only a slightly toned-down variety of this chivalry.  
  • Our Saudi guides from the Ministry of Education, Saad and Sultan, paid out of their own pockets for a number of things for the group.  This included a few souvenirs and a whole day of boating on the Red Sea for the entire group.  (I"ll post pictures from that day in my next post.)
  • Saad and Sultan also volunteered their time, patience, and expertise to our own shopping goals.  Sultan spent an entire evening with the girls while we shopped for new abayas in Khobar.  We walked about a half mile to find a spot with the best stores, and he helped each of us find abayas that were relatively fashionable and fairly priced.  There’s a surprising amount of variety available when purchasing these black, unflattering dresses.  He was quick to point out that the abaya I was eyeing was of an old fashioned cut or style.  He also frequently criticized my selections as being too plain.  Once I selected one I liked, Sultan carried it up to the salesman for the fiercest haggling I’ve ever seen.  He gave this attention to each of the girls purchasing abayas that evening.  Saad was equally dedicated to our shopping success when we went to the old souk in Jeddah and gold shopping in Riyadh.  Although the chaos of the old souk didn’t really appeal to such a classy guy, he still bargained for our spices, scarves, perfumes, and trinkets like he was paying with his own money.  Saad ended up also being a gold expert, giving us lessons on quality and then helping us select and barter for our own pieces in the markets of Riyadh. 
  • Both Saad and Sultan also picked up a few small items for the girls they were shopping with.  Sultan was extra happy to buy a recording of sung Koranic verses for the opera singer/Middle East expert in our group who also blogs at
  • I was at an advantage in the Kingdom because I already had a few friends living there.  When I was In Riyadh, a friend from Troy came to our hotel for dinner with us and then returned to give everyone in the group a little souvenir before we went home.  Another friend from Dammam dealt with my crazy schedule to pick me up, introduce me to his family, and then take me and another girl from our group, Khadija, out to eat with his sister and cousins.  Even the people we had just met went out of their way to visit us and take us out.  One new acquaintance even picked me up from the hotel to go out to the cafe at the Ritz Carlton with his cousin (it seems that cousins are always free for such things) and gave a first-hand lesson on covert fun in Saudi Arabia.  As in America, it is near impossible to convince your hosts to allow you to pay for your own food. 
  • In addition to our own planned tour, the one Muslim student in the group, Khadija, was taken on hajj to Mecca, a once in a lifetime opportunity that, to my knowledge, cost her nothing.
  • Everyone we met freely gave business cards, contact information, and Facebook friendships for networking and potential future visits.
  • Our visits were included in school newsletters and web posts, like this one from PMU
  • When we visited the Jubail Industrial City’s Royal Commission for Planning, we were privileged to a day-long tour, lectures, and a reception/lunch with Commission members and faculty from the university associated with the city.  The visit to Jubail ended with the best gifts we’d gotten thus far: traditional tagias, gutras, and igals for the boys, framed traditional Saudi jewelry for the girls, a framed picture of the group and the city lit up at night, and a CD of all the photos taken throughout the day.
  • When we visited the Nafissa Shams Academy for the Arts and Crafts, a training academy and production facility for Saudi women in Jeddah that specializes in traditional and Islamic handicrafts, we were greeted with spectacular warmth from our hosts, great prices on the few items that were for sale in their shop, and a beautiful set of prayer beads for each visitor.
  • We each received many invitations to dinner at private Saudi homes either as a group or through our own personal contacts.  Unfortunately, the only of these offers we were able to take up was the meal at Dr. Mody’s home, which was amazing and definitely worth waiting for until our last night.  
  • We also received many invitations for trips to the desert or cultural destinations that we were unable to accept based on our schedules.  For future trips, it might be helpful if the Ministry guides allowed a few of these visits, giving us the opportunity to experience Saudi Arabia through someone else's perspective and giving them a short break from a trip that is otherwise pretty demanding.
  • The wait staff at every hotel we visited treated us loud Americans like royalty.
  • One or two universities gave us the use of their buses for our travel while in their cities.
  • Though not quite in the vein of "hospitality," Saudis dolled out compliments, especially to the ladies in our group, very frequently.
Although this is an exhaustive list, it's not even near complete, but it hopefully solidifies your understanding of Arab hospitality, as experienced by a group of 10 American students and 2 NCUSAR leaders while on a brief visit to Saudi Arabia.  

How Saudi Arabia Turned Me Into a Girly-Girl

My ten day trip in Saudi Arabia of course changed the way I think, but it also changed the way I act.  From the time I took to get ready to the way I held my purse, I was behaving just a little bit different while in the Kingdom, and it’s taking me some time to revert to my more natural habits.

I would say that my most defining physical feature is my hair, and with that tucked under a hijab all day, I picked up the desire to put too much effort into my make-up.  My skin was very dry at the start of the trip, so I picked up some fantastic Nivea moisturizer and packed on the Bare Minerals foundation for the first time, and then I wielded my eye-liner pencil with a similar fierceness as most Arab women, to whom we owe credit for the pain in the ass invention in the first place.
After having spent much time mastering my own hijab-tying method, I felt the very
pretentious desire to show it off and took lots of pictures
I didn't only get girlier by caring about my looks a bit more.  The hijab requires the wearer to turn her shoulders and torso with head to spy anything outside her further limited peripheral vision.  This movement results in slightly better posture and a more elegant and prissy appearance.  An abaya that is too long (so any abaya) requires either high heels or marked sashaying to keep the bottom hem clean.  The long sleeves require the wearer to raiser her hands, maybe clasping them together in front of herself, to keep her hands from being lost in the folds of black fabric.

Abaya shopping in Khobar with the girls and our  fashion-savvy guide, Sultan
Personally, I try and complete the same actions needed for life as men: opening doors, serving food, or carrying heavy things.  However, when my primary focus shifted from self-sufficiency to avoiding tripping and falling on my face, I waited as car doors were opened for me, my food was dished up, or one of our guides offered to carry my briefcase for the billionth time.  I accidentally took this a step further by purchasing an abaya with beading on the shoulders, making it unwise to carry an across-the-body bag and forcing me to carry my purse in the crook of my arm like a straight-up diva.

While these little changes are humorous to me, the passing tourist, I cannot imagine a whole life where even the simplest tasked seem to be aimed at increasing my poise or relying on a man’s help.  Maybe the restrictions on women travelling alone are based on the fear that Saudi women would trip over themselves, landing in heaps at the bases of airport escalators due to not having their men at the ready to carry their things while abayas are held out of harm’s way. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Day 12: Refocused Attention on Racism in the US

I am currently writing this on the plane from Doha, Qatar back to Dulles, VA.  My 10-day trip has felt more like a month-long trip, leaving me exhausted and overwhelmed.  I have grown incredibly attached to the people I met through this visit and it feels strange that they aren't accompanying me to Dubai.  Although we did so much this trip, I have yet to even mention 75% of it on this blog, and there are still aspects of Saudi society I know I haven't seen.  The visit lacked study of tribes, minorities, the poor, and the counter-cultures that are present in the KSA.  For this reason, I'm considering using my 90-day visa to return to the Kingdom for some follow-up research.  This is something I'll decide on later though because I might find that Dubai holds even more mysteries than Saudi Arabia.
Our final meal in Saudi Arabia, served at  Dr. Mody's house, traditional -style on the floor

Before leaving Dr. Mody's to pack and fly back home
I am anxious to return to Troy University and begin implementing my projects associated with my post-visit year-long fellowship.  I had my own ideas about how I could help Americans understand Arabs, specifically Saudis, but my course of action has changed slightly.  On our last night in Riyadh, we ate an amazing traditional dinner at the home of Dr. Mody, who we know from the Saudi Cultural Mission to the US in Virginia.  After dinner, she gave some insight into why Troy University was losing so many of its Saudi students.  The lack of a very challenging curriculum was one factor I expected, but she also said that some of our Saudi students experienced so much racism that they want to avoid the South all together.  This really scared be because I thought that our international students were better protected from the harsh, often racist, views I've become familiar with.  I am embarrassed by my culture and my school.  In order to try and combat this, I may host a workshop for incoming Arabs on dealing with racism and ignorance.  Our Saudis are proud of their beliefs, but likely have had few reasons to defend them in the fact of opposition before coming to Alabama.  I would need extra help reaching out to Saudi women in Troy, who stand out so harshly in abayas and niqabs in the Bible Belt of the US.  I also want to bring in other Arab students who have successfully adjusted to life at Troy without abandoning their own cultures.  I don't really have experience in dealing with racism.  It's definitely present in my area, particularly where I went to middle school; I also have felt sexism since coming to Alabama, but I have never been mistreated in public places like grocery stores or school offices because of my heritage, and I'll have to work to remain realistic when trying to combat racism from the side of the victim.

Of course, I also want to work with Americans, since it is not the fault of the Arab students that they are met with hate.  This might include talks with church groups, joint events with my school's Saudi Student Association, and maybe even some beginner Arabic lessons I could start off.

I don't think that my enthusiasm for these projects will wain because it attacks a problem that I've been witnessing for years; it is also obviously significant to the NCUSAR and Saudi government, or they wouldn't have invested so much into our trip.

I have more to write about my experiences in Saudi Arabia, but I just wanted to give you an idea of the bigger picture of the visit as this fantastic trip concludes.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Women in Saudi Universities

During our visit to Saudi Arabia, we have visited most of the prominent universities in the Kingdom (the greatest exceptions being Dammam University and Queen Noor University in Riyadh).  These have included male universities, female universities, and campuses that accommodate both.  The campuses that accept both males and females had two separate and identical campuses for each gender, except for Al Faisal University in Riyadh.  Women had access to near exact replicas of the buildings and facilities in the men’s sections.  The situation regarding mixed gender professors differed.  At some universities, men and women did not mix at all.  At others, there were one-way screens that allowed women to see their male professor, but the professor could not see his female students.  In schools with this set-up, like Prince Mohammad University in Dammam, women could not teach men.  Al Faisal University has taken the most progressive steps toward mixed gender education we saw.  The Al Faisal buildings each had four floors.  Floors 1 and 2 were for male students, and floors 3 and 4 were for female students.  The lecture halls were situated on the 2nd and 3rd floors so that teachers could see all of their students.  This construction allowed male and female students to even communicate with each other during class discussions.
A lecture hall at Al Faisal

King Faisal's Palace, in the center of Al Faisal Unviersity

A lot of these schools love symbolic motifs, Al Faisal has key holes

An example of a one-way screen in women's classes at some universities

The reaches of King Fahad campus

King Fahad Research Center
Among Saudis, it is firmly believed that men and women learn and think differently, so everyone I asked had an opinion on gender mixing in the classroom.  Some people, including the female faculty and staff at both Prince Mohammed University and Al Faisal and males at other universities believed it was important to learn with the opposite sex in order to see new perspectives on issues and prepare for potentially mixed workplaces.  However, some of the women studying at segregated campuses said that the differences in learning styles inhibited success in the classroom.  One girl at Prince Sultan University in Riyadh said that she would never want to learn in the same room as men because women tend to intuitively understand some concepts quicker and men slowed the process by asking too many questions.  I found few, however, that appreciated being only taught by one gender, or sitting in a room where the professor could not see them. 

Having spent all of this time in universities touring facilities, hearing from professors, and questioning students, I have of course developed my own opinions shaped by my own experiences and this trip.  I understand and sympathize with the argument that men and women learn differently.  Even in the US, where genderization is far less pronounced than in the Kingdom, I have seen that collectively, girls learn differently than boys, especially in the elementary and middle school years.  However, these differences are tempered and utilized once students reach high school and college.  In group discussions, especially in literature and political theory, I cannot imagine a well-rounded discussion that lacks representation from half of the world’s population.  (Maybe in more technical courses, this is less of an issue.)  Also, by competing for grades with female students, males will be forced to recognize intelligence and capability in women, the first step to granting equality in the workplace and society.  

In some areas, I completely appreciated gender-separate facilities, like within female gyms and swimming pools, but having entire campuses and staff duplicated is costing universities millions, and with all of the current development of the higher education sector and massive scholarship programs for students, universities should follow more sustainable models, like those I saw at Al Faisal.  King Al Saud in Riyadh and King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah seemed to have the largest separate facilities, with sprawling gardens and huge medical research facilities for each gender. 

The women of our own group have gotten more unwanted attention from men here than they would in the states.  The harassment was at its greatest in airports and low-end shopping districts, but it was also present on all-male sections of universities.  I remember some disconcerting stares at Prince Sultan University, and a few of us were even sung to while passing by male students at Prince Mohammad University as we crossed over to the female campus.  When we toured classes and saw men in a more professional setting, the ladies were clearly a novelty, but they were in no way disrespected.  At Al Faisal, however, the male students were models of respectability.  I even tried a few of the faces I’d learned at the airport to see if I could illicit a response—Nothing.  It was clear to me that the men of Al Faisal were the most prepared to work abroad or in a mixed gender setting in SA.  Unfortunately, we didn't have time to speak to any of the women studying at Al Faisal to get their take on the matter.

At our visits to one-gender schools, like King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals in Khobar and Dar Al Hekma in Jeddah, the experience was no different from a visit to an all male or all female school in the United States. 

Another important topic about gender and higher education is the availability of majors to each sex.  It is clear that Saudi society values gender roles and Saudi universities have taken small steps to alter conceptions of ability to perform a job based on gender (I’ll include my personal thoughts on this below).  While Saudi schools are at the cutting edge of education in medicine, engineering, and the hard sciences, women have, in many cases, been left out of this development.  On most of our visits, after praising their school’s international accreditation in the fields of sciences and all of the possibilities for engineering student job placement, the PR man would inform us of the great programs for women in interior design or child psychology.  (I can say that none of the American visitors shares the universities’ enthusiasm for either of these subjects after hearing that other majors are off-limits to women and that men couldn't pursue such fields either.)  Now I do not doubt that just about all of these women are perfectly happy with their selection of majors, and they’ll become fantastic new media specialists and designers, but it is unfortunate that they are not given the choice to study the same subjects as men.  There were some inspiring exceptions to this limitation, such as the women’s law program at Prince Mohammad University and the science departments at a few other schools. While some schools had great science and medicine programs offered to women, the added cost of separate facilities made this accomplishment seem hollow and unsustainable.

Now, this may seem a criticism of Saudi higher education, but all of these practices that seem so different from our own American values must be viewed in light of Saudi Arabia’s societal structure.  Saudi society has actually made major leaps in the past 20 years regarding women.  Changes can be viewed with every graduating class of women leaving their Saudi universities to go work, receive further education, or chose to begin family life.  University education for women is no longer just an appeasement process with no meaning; women graduating from Saudi schools are prepared to work anywhere in the world, except in many cases their own country.  The women of Dar Al Hekma, to which I would like to dedicate a post to later, are the best examples of educated and ambitious young Saudi women I have seen.  The Saudi system for girls is very different, but I could also see myself studying alongside them, building friendships and skills without romantic distractions.  I do believe greater balance is necessary in Saudi female life, and so I will also talk about the Saudi women’s chamber of commerce, the Al Sayedah Khadijah Bint Khawilid Business Centre, inshah allah once I get some free time.

I am thankful for the hospitality shown by the schools we toured and I expect to see greater accomplishments for Saudi women in higher education because their ambition and optimism is so limitless.  And with that, our plane is now landing in Riyadh for our final night in the KSA.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Things Saudis Like

Here is a tentative list of things in no particular order that I suspected Saudi's liked before, only to be reaffirmed by this visit:

1) picnicking
2) Rihanna
3) napping
4) playing their music too loud, especially if it's Rihanna

Some Thoughts on Historical Sites in Saudi Arabia

Just as a note, I doubt that many of my other posts until the end of this trip will be very chronological, and I'll try and work more on themes rather than days.  This also will allow me to skip talking about things I'm not really informed of or don't really care about without as much guilt.

Anyway, historical buildings and stuff...

When driving [or sitting as a passenger if you're an apathetic female reader] through Riyadh, you are surrounded by futuristic and opulent architecture.  You can really understand frequent Saudi boasts about the modernity and development of infrastructure in the Kingdom.  Oil wealth is funding the Al Saud ambitions of presenting a new image of Arabia and a rival to other up-and-coming Gulf cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Manama.  However, this development has costed and characterized the appreciation and understanding of Saudi Arabian history.  You will see no historical buildings around town, quite unlike the typical Western capital that always has some throw-back to the early history of the city.  In Saudi Arabia, it seems that people have no interest in the land's incredibly rich history, especially that which predates King Abdulaziz (the first king of Saudi Arabia, also called Ibn Saud...I can explain the parts of an Arabic name later maybe).

In Riyadh, the two exceptions to this rule that I got to see are Musmak Palace and Old Dir'aiyah.  Musmak is a palace/fort in Riyadh.  It is the fortress that Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud) took to solidify his hold on Riyadh.
Colored lights on Musmak Palace
How Ibn Saud unified Arabia after conquering Riyadh

The museum included many weapons related
to the taking of Musmak Palace and
anything that generally made Ibn Saud look good

We arrived at night to find colored lights flashing on the facade of rough stone.  The lights and the amount of people milling around made the fort look like a themed section of Disney World.  The museum inside was open, and we were led on through to see generally self explanatory and expected exhibits of weapons and traditional Arabian crafts.

Another historical site in Riyadh is Old Dir'Aiyah, which is a section of NW Riyadh where you can still see buildings like those so romanticized in films and literature.  Old Dir'Aiyah consists of old palaces and houses in various states of both decay and restoration.  The restoration work is currently under way and construction equipment in the area made our bus ride rather tricky.  I'd like to revisit the area in a few years when the trucks have rolled out and the buildings are open to the public.

Riyadh seems it can erect modern architectural masterpieces much quicker than it can complete restoration work, though that is certainly understandable.  I wonder if, when completed, these restored areas that seem so akin to the restored areas of American cities like Williamsburg, VA will have admission fees or not.

Tonight, I am in Jeddah and am again in awe at the modernity, traffic, and cosmopolitan lifestyle here.  The group did get a bit of culture in Jeddah's beloved old souks.  The buildings housing stalls of prayer beads and spices certainly give a feeling of being in a different time, but the prevalence of clearly Westernized items, mostly cheap knock-offs, detract from the beauty of the experience, though I feel the permeating odor is somewhat similar to that experienced by camel traders of yore.

There are of course many historical sites that are simply not in my 10-day program as planned by the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia.  The holy cities of Mecca and Medina house sites most relevant to Muslims, but also to Christians and Jews also descended from Abraham.  Unfortunately, Mecca and Medina are off-limits to non-Muslims and so visitors cannot view the Kabba or the beautiful Masjid Nabawi.  Also not on the program was Medain Saleh and the famous Al Hijr archaeological site, of course we also will not see the various lesser archaeological sites present in the Kingdom either.  I think that a visit to these sites would have altered my conceptions of how Saudi's view their history.  Similarly, I believe that spending some time in the desert would leave the traveler feeling more tied to Arabia's ancient roots than touring major cities would.  I'm certainly not complaining--just saying that I may feel differently about this idea were I to see more of the Kingdom.

While I love the city life, development, and optimism in KSA, I'm finding myself nostalgic for a time I never experienced in this place I've never been to before.  When questioned about misconceptions I had about KSA before coming, I don't include this idea because I was already pretty aware of the cultural situation here.  Saudi cities don't center on their own histories like American cities often do; they are much more concerned about the future and ancient ideas clogging up their goals.  I do hope that, on this trip or any future visits to the Kingdom, I find a place that, to use a perturbing phrase, looks to its future without forgetting its past.  I think I could find places like this in the Eastern Province or maybe in the north and south, and though we won't be taken there on this visit, maybe on a future trip, I'll find that ideal city that can progress while allowing its people to remember their history through some architecture and infrastructure.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Day: 4? Maybe?

Some Arabic tea while dining with the ambassador, photo credit to Mohammed,

Me, basking in the glory of Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman (Ibn Saud)
So I'm not entirely sure which day of the trip it is, but it is currently 6:15 PM on January 1 in Khobar, Saudi Arabia.  I only have 15 minutes to post and SO much to talk about.  Apart from a day-by-day plan of what all we've done, I really want to take some time to write some good critiques of what I've learned recently, but not tonight.  We just got back from a brief walk to the beach in Khobar and will soon be heading to a nearby museum.  Inshah allah, I'll be writing a darn good and long post tonight.  Happy new year everyone!  

About Your Author

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Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.