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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – The Perils of Going West

November 1, 2014


There has been much ado in the Saudi media recently about young students getting into trouble in one way or another while studying in America.

Under the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, up to 150,000 Saudis are attending courses at foreign universities at any one time. The largest number go to the US, but the UK, Australia and New Zealand are also popular destinations. And an increasing number are heading east, to countries such as Japan, China and South Korea.

Inevitably, problems arise. And lately there seems to have been a rash of them in the US. One student in California was recently murdered. Another died, seemingly of natural causes. And another has just been jailed for up to 25 years for assaulting a woman.

These cases have been reported on and discussed widely.

As any parent knows, when your offspring departs from home to go to university, it’s hard not to feel a frisson of worry, especially if they opt to go on a gap year that takes them to exotic and often potentially dangerous places on the other side of the world. Many young Saudis are well-travelled by the time they are ready to go off to study at some foreign institution, but usually they will have been under the protective wing of their families. Going several thousand miles on their own to live in a dramatically different culture is another matter altogether.

The challenges are numerous.

There’s the culture. A lot of young guys have little idea of how to interest with women, especially if they come from a part of the Kingdom, such as the central region, where social taboos against encounters with unrelated women are rigidly enforced. Imagine showing up for the first time at Venice Beach, which is littered with scantily clad girls throughout the summer. If you’ve never been out of your highly conservative home town, you might be forgiven for blowing a fuse. The opportunities for misreading the signals are rife. What an American girl regards as a friendly gesture – a smile perhaps – can come over as a declaration of love to the inexperienced young student. And for the Saudi girls, what an American guy would see as good manners – the offer of a handshake for example – can be the cause of severe embarrassment when cultural norms they grew up with compel them to refuse the extended hand.

Then there’s the issue of Islamophobia. There are parts of the US and the UK where the average citizen is deeply suspicious of Muslims, for all the obvious reasons – but often irrationally so. How do young students deal with verbal attacks on their faith? They will need communication tactics for which their education at home has not prepared them. Being the object of hostile attention does nothing for anyone’s confidence. And lack of confidence can lead them to seek the company of their fellow nationals, thus depriving themselves of the opportunity to learn about a culture other than their own. Why study thousands of miles away only to spend your time exclusively in like-minded company? And where such company is not available, there’s the risk of isolation. Loneliness can corrode the motivation to study and often trigger dropping out altogether.

Money is another problem. The average young Saudi does not, contrary to popular mythology, arrive at a foreign university brimming with dollars. Like most other students, they’re on tight budgets, and like many, including me many decades ago, they sometimes comprehensively fail to manage their finances. They get into debt, and have to appeal to their parents or to the support team at their embassy – or else fall prey to loan sharks and credit card operators charging outrageous interest rates.

Some Saudis embrace the host culture wholeheartedly, and become more local than the locals themselves. This can lead to problems when they come home, and their parents wonder what became of the dutiful young son or daughter who left their shores months or years before as their loved one swaggers in exuding alien values. Others react violently against the culture they find themselves in, and cling doggedly to their religious beliefs. Those beliefs can sometimes intensify and become more extreme as a consequence, especially when they are reinforced by others who think the same way. And yes, occasionally thoughts turn to jihad.

As if all these hurdles were not enough, there’s the studying itself. Foreign education systems can be very different from what they have experienced at home, where – especially in the state schools – there is a very strong emphasis on rote learning. Going into an environment that prizes self-starting ability and critical thinking can require a shocking and difficult adjustment.

So it’s small wonder that some fall by the wayside, and when it happens it can cause resentment, grief and soul-searching, as seems to be happening in the wake of the recent incidents. Having said that, the vast majority of Saudis studying abroad come through the experience and emerge wiser and more capable individuals. I have met many of them, so I know this to be true.

However, life is not always a bed of roses when they finally get home brandishing that hard-won degree, at least initially. Many find it hard to find a job that meets their expectations, if they even find a job at all. They are competing with local graduates in a competitive job market. The government cannot accommodate them all in the civil service, which is often their preference. And the private sector is struggling to offer attractive salaries to nationals as the result of the pressure on them by the government to replace low-wage foreigners with Saudis. Female graduates in particular find it hard. The percentage of women in the workforce is still way below that of men. Despite strenuous efforts by the government to get more women into work, there are many highly qualified women – some with Masters degrees and PhDs – sitting at home.

I would hope that the majority of those 150,000 Saudis studying abroad are having the time of their lives. But I also hope that anyone reading this who encounters one of them – and any other foreign students for that matter – will remember that their life is not always easy, and will extend the hand of friendship. Like students everywhere, they can be a pain as well as a delight. But we should leave prejudice aside and remember that they’re human beings finding their own way – just like our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. Sometimes vulnerable, and usually a long way from home.

And helping them out when needed is also a way of countering any less than benign prejudices they might be harbouring. Given the fraught situation in the Middle East today, the more we can do to break down barriers and build friendship the better.

  1. Excellent post. Although not as a student, but as a teacher, I was honored to have lived and taught in the Middle East. I experienced just as much culture shock as the students for which you advocate. If people would just remember the Golden Rule, to treat others the way they want to be treated, what a wonderful world it would be. Wishing you peace,

    • Indeed! Thanks for your comment Victoria – it happens both ways. Steve

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