Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

October 29, 2012

OP-ED: Extension of Scholarship Program will Transform a Generation of Saudis

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

29 October 2012

Flying under the media radar recently was a yet another decision by King Abdullah that is expected to have a far-reaching impact on Saudi Arabia’s future.
At a workshop in Dubai, Dr. Saad Nasser Aldwayan, an international cooperation consultant for the Ministry of Higher Education, said that King Abdullah’s university scholarship program will be extended to 2020, according to the Saudi online newspaper Safaraa. The king launched the program in 2005, then extended it for another two years in 2007. It was extended a third time in 2009 for another three years.
Committing the scholarship program through 2020 allows a new generation of Saudis to study at Western universities. It will bring students’ graduate and post-graduate skills home to help transform Saudi Arabia from its dependency on oil to a nonoil producer and exporter of Saudi goods.
My wife benefited from the scholarship program, arriving in the United Kingdom in 2007 to study for her Ph.D and then returning this year to Saudi Arabia to a waiting job as an assistant university professor. During her five-year program, she came across scores of Saudi men and women studying a wide range of subjects. They couldn’t wait to return to Saudi Arabia with their newfound skills and begin serving their country.
If I sound like an enthusiastic supporter of the scholarship program it’s because there is no other reform measure that will have the effect on young Saudis than a free university education.
According to Safaraa, Saudis under the age of 40 account for 79 percent of the total Saudi population. An estimated 36 percent are under the age of 15.
Those 15-year-olds will become eligible for the scholarship program in 2015 and will return home with university degrees before today’s 10-year-olds become eligible to enter the program in 2020 at the age of 18.
An estimated 1.15 million Saudi students are currently enrolled at domestic and foreign universities and colleges with women making up 60 percent of the higher education student population. The scholarship program receives about SR 9 million annually that pays for 125,000 undergraduate and post-graduate students at about 3,000 universities worldwide.
About 23,000 Saudi students are studying at universities in the United States for the 2010-2011 academic year. That’s a 43 percent increase over the previous year. About 20 percent of those students are women. Science, medicine and high-tech fields of study have attracted a large number of Saudi women.
At Saudi universities women can now earn degrees in law, petroleum engineering, political science and journalism, although the reality is that few jobs in these fields are available to women. However, this is a remarkable turnaround for a country that had seen its 5 percent literacy rate in the 1950s climb to 79 percent today. The literacy rate for Saudi females between the ages of 15 to 24 jumped from 81.7 percent in 1992 to 96.5 percent in 2009.
By 2020, at least 1 million young Saudis will have gone through the scholarship program with a majority coming home from Western universities.
Imagine the implications. In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Saudi men attended universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. But in most cases they returned home without using their knowledge to implement more efficient ways to do business in the private and government sectors. As one Saudi told me recently, “It takes a lot of energy to fight the culture. After a while you just want to get along.”
From my conversations with young Saudis today, the attitude is vastly different. Possessing the social awareness and technical knowledge not available to their parents and grandparents, young Saudis are impatient to be part of the global community. They desperately want to serve the interests of their country. They don’t want to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge and a degree. They want to make a difference.
A sign of the changing attitudes among young Saudi students is their willingness to attend Catholic universities such as Catholic University in Northeast Washington and the University of Dayton in Ohio in the United States. It’s common for Saudis not only to acknowledge that Catholic universities offer curriculum that matches their career goals, but those same universities share values similar to those of Islam. Attending such universities strengthens their commitment to Islam and embraces King Abdullah’s vision of interfaith tolerance.
The cultural benefits of attending such universities reflect the global view of the new generation. While it may have been difficult for thousands of Saudi men to effect change in Saudi culture a generation ago, the same can’t be said for the new crop of university students who have a much broader view of the world due to exposure through social media.
As we have seen with this past Haj and with other programs, socially conscious Saudis have volunteered their time to aid pilgrims and the poor. Even before young people are ready to attend a university, social media and the exposure of other cultures through the Internet has primed them to look at their own world with a critical eye. Their expectations will be high when they return from abroad. And it’s up to Saudi society to accommodate those expectations.


March 12, 2012

Saudi Students Stage Rowdy Protests

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

12 March 2012

In separate-sex demonstrations they protest dirty campuses, ill-treatment

Separate protests by male and female students alleging corruption and ill-treatment at Saudi Arabia’s normally tranquil King Khalid University has shaken the kingdom’s authorities and highlight persistent complaints that young people lack a voice in Saudi society.

On Wednesday, dozens of women staged a noisy demonstration on campus to complain of filthy conditions, ill-treatment from staff and poor infrastructure at the women’s section. Protesters clashed with security forces and members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. About 50 women suffered injuries when the religious police – also called the hai’a – turned water hoses on the protesters to quell the disturbance.

Two days later, about 500 male students rallied in the university courtyard demanding the resignation of Rector Abdullah Al-Rashid. The students alleged corruption in the university’s administration and the faculty’s failure to provide better curriculum. The men chanted, “Listen, listen, go, go, leave Al-Rashid” and sang the Saudi national anthem. The protesters did not elaborate on their corruption allegations.

King Khalid University is a giant institution, with a student population of about 70,000 in Abha in the Asir Province. It contains the Women’s College and the main campus for men. One male student, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Media Line, the men’s protest had shaken local officials.

“No one paid attention to the women’s complaints, but when the guys protested the administration and the authorities reacted immediately,” said the student who was on campus at the time of the protests but did not participate.

Continuing demonstrations in the Eastern Province since February 2011 by Shiites, who account for about 10% of Saudi Arabia’s population dominated by Sunnis, have authorities on edge. Ministry of Higher Education officials have hinted at outside influence in the demonstrations, but no evidence of external influences in the protests has been given.

Prince Faisal Bin Khaled, emir of Asir region, met with the university officials and promised an investigation into the demonstrators’ complaints. He also established a committee to address student concerns. Yet he had harsh words for the protesters. He described the demonstrations as “demagoguery” and the women’s sit-in as behavior beyond reason.

“There are those who are trying to take advantage of this momentum and enthusiasm by you to destabilize security and the security of this country,” the Saudi media reported him telling male and female students at a meeting on Sunday.

However, Prince Faisal said he did not question the protesters’ loyalty.

“I am here today to listen to your demands and I assure you I will never allow anybody to suspect your patriotism and loyalty to your country,” he said during the meeting. “You are the real assets and leaders of the future [of Saudi Arabia].”

Male students emphasized the issues were non-political, posed no threat to Saudi Arabia’s security and that they were loyal to King Abdullah.

A Saudi woman journalist told The Media Line the women’s protest also was not political, but part of a simmering problem of the Ministries of Education and Higher Education failing to address poor facilities for women in high school and the universities. The Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School fire in Jeddah last November that killed three teachers raised issue of school safety.

Female secondary schools and universities generally lock down campuses during school hours, requiring students to leave or enter the campus through one gate. Bars often cover windows and emergency exits remained locked around the clock.

The King Khalid University women’s protest covered much of the same ground. “Their big complaint was the filthy conditions of the campus because there was no rubbish pickup and because the elevators in the building, which has six floors, did not work,” said the journalist, who asked not to be identified.

The journalist said the protest collapsed into a “free-for-all” because university officials did not know how to break up the demonstration.

“University staff didn’t know what to do with the students and the police didn’t know how to deal with it because it’s a very sensitive issue when dealing with women,” the journalist said. “They called the hai’a, which got involved and obviously used violence.”

Reem A., a 39-year-old Saudi high school teacher, told The Media Line that university students are apolitical.

“This is sort of a trend we’ve been seeing in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “We had teachers demonstrating recently over the cleanliness in universities. And we have seen graduates with health services diplomas standing in front of the local civic bureaus asking for jobs because government hospitals will not take them. The hospitals only hire college graduates because they think diploma holders are less qualified. It’s all about jobs.”

Reem said unemployment and corruption among some civil servants are the primary grievances of young Saudi adults. Disturbances in the Eastern Province have had little impact on Sunni Saudis in other regions.

Instead, she said, the breaking point was the 2009 floods in Jeddah that left more than 100 people dead, nearly 11,000 buildings damaged and 10,000 vehicles destroyed. Saudi bloggers and news outlets blamed the Jeddah Municipality’s crumbling infrastructure and a failure to build an adequate drainage system. Dozens of engineers resigned to avoid prosecution on corruption charges.

“Young Saudis matured after the Jeddah floods and no longer accept excuses from local government authorities,” Reem said. “What we are seeing now with student protests is an extension of what we’ve been reading on news websites and blogs about the shortcomings of some of our local decision-makers.”


Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

February 26, 2012

Western Ways Woo Saudi Women

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

26 February 2012

Study abroad exposes them to new freedoms, raises doubts about returning home

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, England – When 26-year-old Sabah arrived at the University of Newcastle in northeast England in the fall of 2009 for her postgraduate studies, she did what many of her Saudi girlfriends had decided. She sent her legal guardian home and lived an independent life.

Sabah, who spoke on the condition that her real name not be revealed because she is not following the guidelines of the Saudi cultural attache, which supervises her scholarship, said neither her father nor mother feel the need to keep her on a short leash.

“I have my own flat, I take the train to the university and I study late into the night at the library,” Sabah told The Media Line. “It’s a life I thought I never would have experience. I owe everything to my parents, who trust me to make the right decisions. Now I must make a decision of whether I even want to go back to Saudi Arabia. My heart tells me to stay here, but my head says I have no choice but to return home.”

Sabah is one of more than 800 Saudi men and women studying at Newcastle. An estimated 110,000 Saudis studying worldwide and are part of King Abdullah’s Foreign Scholarship program. They are studying abroad with about 30% attending U.S. universities, 15% in the United Kingdom, 11% in Canada and 8% studying in Australia.  The rest are scattered in other, mostly Muslim, countries. The program was initiated in 2005 and the first wave of students with graduate and postgraduate degrees has already returned to Saudi Arabia.

However, many Saudi women like Sabah are facing a personal crisis as they ponder their future once they earn their degrees. It’s an issue so sensitive that few students were willing to discuss their lives in the West using their real names, fearing they would lose their scholarships and sent home.

Some women say they see efforts to tighten restrictions on their personal freedoms since the beginning of the Arab Spring. The heady feeling Saudi women felt following the June 2011 driving demonstrations to demand their right to drive has dissipated and replaced with heightened rhetoric among conservatives to stay at home.

A Saudi Ministry of Higher Education official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because sensitivity of the issue, says education and cultural attaché officials, who supervise the scholarship program, are aware of the discontent among some Saudi students.

“We understand our sisters’ concerns about job prospects when they return and some of the other obstacles they face, but they must fulfill the terms of their scholarship and any employment obligations they have,” the official told The Media Line. “They must come home after completion of their studies.”

Maha, who turned 31 recently and is preparing to graduate with an education degree from the University of California Berkeley, has a teaching job waiting for her in Taif that pays 3,000 Saudi riyals ($1,066) a month. “I can’t think of anything more boring,” Maha told The Media Line. “I have lived in California for four years. Jobs in my field pay about $2,700 a month and I would have none of the problems that I would face if I returned home.”

By problems, Maha points to the inevitable laundry list of expectations Saudi society places on her, including the type of job she can have. Like many young Saudi women on scholarships to Western universities, Maha accepted in advance a teaching job in a rural area after completing her studies.

“I’ll be teaching village kids and my colleagues will be village women who have never left the province. And the only jobs available are teaching. I don’t necessarily want to be a teacher, but that is all that is available,” Maha says. “My father is dead, so my brother will be my guardian. I will answer to him for everything and he’s already hinted he expects some of my salary and he will find me a husband.”

Maha and Sabah often grumble about the restrictions imposed on them on choosing their employment, their husband and travel, all of which require permission from a male guardian. It’s the unintended consequence of the king’s scholarship program. For some Saudi women students, they came, they saw and they want to stay in the West.

While some Saudi university students are flirting with the idea of remaining in Britain or the U.S., they acknowledge the enormous pressure of adapting to Western culture. “England, as much as I like it here, has a deep drinking culture and everybody’s sex life is an open book,” Maha says. “These are things I feel very uncomfortable about. Can I live in a culture with different moral values? I wonder.”

The idea of not returning home is also a single woman’s prerogative. Married Saudi women students have their husbands and children with them. Returning home, where their lives are comfortable, is not open to debate. “My married friends have everything they need in Saudi Arabia,” Maha says. “There’s no point in living here when they have everything they need at home.”

Yet the urge to remain in Britain or the U.S often has less to do newfound freedoms and more with the impact the Arab Spring has had Saudi Arabia. One student characterized the kingdom as closing in on itself. “It’s a battle of wills between the conservatives and the liberals, and the conservatives are winning,” says a Saudi male student attending Newcastle and asked not to be identified.

Sabah complains that women have been the most affected by a push among conservatives to stem the tide of reform championed by King Abdullah.  The campaign for the right to drive a car has faltered. Equally strong efforts by women activists to ease guardianship laws to provide easier access to jobs also have led nowhere. Promises to codify laws that give women more rights in divorce and child custody cases in Saudi courts also failed to materialize.

Sabah points to the disturbing trend among religious conservatives to attack men promoting women’s rights. In December, conservatives alleged that Saudi men were contributing to the corruption of women and behaving “shamefully” by socializing with them during session breaks at the Saudi Intellectual Forum in Riyadh. Sabah says that attacking the moral character of a Saudi can be devastating, and serves as an effective tool to silence allies of women’s rights activists.

“I can face this kind of thing. It’s my country,” Sabah says. “But do I want my daughters to grow up in this environment? There’s the old joke that Saudi Arabia takes one step forward for progress and two steps backward. Well, it’s many steps backward now. We’re regressing.”

A 28-year-old doctoral student studying at the University of Birmingham in England, who asked to be called Khadija, says she is hopeful for women’s rights. She points to the fact that women won the right to vote and run for elected office. The university scholarship program is evidence of the government’s desire to provide better educational and employment opportunities for women. A progressive administrator, Sheikh Abdullatif Aal Al-Sheikh, was recently appointed to run the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. His first promise was to disband the volunteer vigilante force that strikes fear in many Saudis.

Yet the progress has had little effect on the day-to-day lives of Saudi women.

“We as Saudi women are getting impatient,” Khadija told The Media Line. “I want to be there for my country. They are giving me an education. But there are too many forces against me. Too many people want me to stay at home and waste my education, waste my brain. If I have to stay in the West to use my brain, I will.”

Yet Khadija says the reality is that the decision to remain in the West entails too high a price for most Saudi women. “I am looking for a job here in England and I’m hoping to find a way to stay here and live without restrictions. But am I ready to lose my family over it? No, not really.”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

October 4, 2011

Tussle over a Textbook

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

27 September 2011

New Saudi high school text prompts controversy with attacks on West and UN

A power struggle usually ends with winners and losers. If a new religious textbook critical of Western culture is any indication of who is winning the role of guardian of young minds in Saudi Arabia, then Islamic conservatives are the clear victors.

In what amounts to a rebuke of a scholarship program under the aegis of none other than King Abdullah himself that sends thousands of young Saudis to foreign universities, a new secondary school textbook called Hadith argues that Western culture exposes students to corruption.

“The conservatives have the upper hand and have made sure that it’s their voice that says what is permitted in Islam,” Ehsan Ahrari, a Middle East analyst based near Washington DC, told The Media Line  “The conservatives have the loudest voice in making a persuasive argument within the Saudi context. Saudi Arabia is truly concerned about modernization in its educational institution, but even the king doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

The publication of the book comes at a sensitive time for Saudi Arabia as it struggles to scrub its textbooks of derogatory language of other religions and cultures. The Ministry of Education has made progress to eliminate some passages, including controversial definitions of jihad.

More than 100,000 Saudis have obtained King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship to pursue studies in universities in professional fields such as medicine, computer science, engineering courses and administration and finance. About 30% study in the U.S., 15% in Britain, 11% in Canada and 8% in Australia. Only about 6% study in a Muslim country, Egypt. Saudi Arabia has the largest number of citizens studying aboard of any country in the world.

The textbook, which warns students of democratic countries’ attempts to Westernize Muslim countries by advancing the United Nations’ human rights agenda, has received little attention in the media, where restrictive laws passed in response to the Arab Spring. The Saudi government can levy fines and jail sentences for criticizing government institutions

As a result, few Saudis are willing to publicly criticize for the record the Ministry of Education. Religious conservatives, Ahrari says, are taking advantage of the chilling effect of those laws to broaden their power.

But the book has lit up the social media with complaints – mostly anonymous – that politics have no place in teaching hadith, sayings attributed the Prophet Muhammad.  The authors are accused of attempting to politicize Islam by slipping criticism of the West into religious texts just as students are preparing to enter foreign universities.

Saudis have also expressed bewilderment that the Ministry of Higher Education, which administers the scholarship program, and the Ministry of Education, which published Hadith, do not have a shared strategic education plan.

However, Hadith has brought renewed scrutiny to how the ministry vets textbooks that contain political opinion. The controversy also renews focus on how much influence Saudi conservatives wield at a time when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Ennahda Party in Tunisia are also flexing their political muscle.

The textbook details the “risks” scholarship students face. “A lot of them [student] have returned laden with the spirit of the West, breathe with its lungs and think with its mentality,” the book states. “They echo their Orientalist teachers in their own land and spread their ideas and theories with deep belief, increasing enthusiasm and eloquence so they become a burden on their society.”

“The percentage of those who survive from this influence is a very little one,” the book’s authors say.

Another section in Hadith, entitled “Westernization,” targets the UN. The section characterizes the international organization as a tool for “dominating” Western powers to apply political pressure on Muslim countries to adopt more aggressive human rights legislation. The West, the textbook argues, uses “the United Nations, the Security Council and its different committees, on weak countries, especially the Islamic ones. This is done for the sake of westernization under slogans such as reform, democracy, pluralism, liberation and human rights, in particular those related to women and religious minorities.”

In fact, some of the views expressed in Hadith are widely held by Saudis.

Maha A., a 33-year-old Jeddah native and university student studying in Newcastle, England, says the UN entry in the book is legitimate. She points to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as meddling in the Kingdom’s affairs and with sharia, or Islamic law. Saudi Arabia ratified CEDAW in 2000. “I have no problems with the way the United Nations is portrayed in the book,” she told The Media Line.

The schoolbook also warns of Western attempts to subvert Islamic culture by distributing “immorality” through the media. It considers the media tools to advocate western values.

Turki Al-Dakheel, a journalist and presenter on Al-Arabiya television, complained in a column in the Arabic-language daily Al-Watan that the textbook’s “extremist” portions are not consistent with the changes taking place in the international community and in Saudi society.

“The same educational institutes that send students abroad also criticize the scholarship [program],” Al-Dakheel argues. “We should take out the mentality of disagreement from our curriculum in order to protect our students from being politicized or being slaves to one single notion.”

Ahrari, the Washington-based analyst, told The Media Line that the book’s content is less a challenge to King Abdullah and more of “classic bureaucratic” infighting in the Ministry of Education

A Saudi Ministry of Education official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the textbook, agreed. He told The Media Line that there are two factions in the ministry struggling to implement their ideology: Western-educated liberals and Saudi-educated conservatives.

Many of the ministry’s decision-makers hold postgraduate degrees in education from the U.S. and Britain. These supervisors often square off with mid- and upper-level managers educated in Islamic studies from Imam Mohammed Bin Saud University in Riyadh and other Saudi universities.

“There is a great debate between conservatives and liberals. The conservatives are in the minority, but they are very active,” says the official, although he notes the ministry’s policy requires moderation in texts.

The infighting is so intense, he says, that the ministry recently began publishing school textbooks without authors’ names to prevent accusations of extremism. Yet the anonymously authored books have also led to the lack of accountability within the ministry’s ranks for authors failing to adhere to moderation guidelines.

One 22-year-old Riyadh student studying in Britain says there is little merit in warning scholarship holders of the dangers in the West.

“Saudi students are already asked to attend a two-week course on Western culture. The scholarship program selects the highest qualified students to go abroad. If a student is weak in religion and cultural values, he won’t be studious and he won’t be allowed in the program,” Muhammad A. told The Media Line.

But the student also says that human rights issues advocated by the UN are consistent with the pillars of sharia. “Sharia talks of human rights and it’s no different than the United Nations’ human rights. It’s compatible, and there are no negative effects on Saudi Arabia,” he says.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved

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