The orientation session began with introductions of the nine other students going on the trip to Saudi Arabia with me. The fellows come from all across the country (Texas, California, Michigan, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland) but I noticed that most people studied international affairs or political science with a focus on the Middle East or Arabic. It was great to meet other people who have similar interests in the Middle East and a passion for studying the region, Arabic and Islam. Everyone seemed very friendly and thoughtful!
After introductions we ate lunch and had a discussion on some of the pre-trip assigned readings that had basic background information on the country. Finally from 2:30pm to 5:30pm we met with four different groups or speakers who had special connections to or familiarity with Saudi Arabia. First we had a presentation by some representatives from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in D.C. After that some representatives from Saudi Aramco came to talk to us about some interesting things that the company is doing with clean energy and various social projects. Then we spoke with a board member on the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Randa Fahmy-Hudome, who worked under the Bush Administration as the Associate Deputy Secretary of Energy. She had traveled to Saudi Arabia multiple times before and had some great advice on traveling to the country and some interesting insights from her experiences in the Middle East. Finally we spoke to Colonel Abbas Dahouk, a Middle East Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Army who recently became the Defense Attaché to Saudi Arabia. He had some really interesting things to say about his time in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and the mid-2000s with the Riyadh compound bombings. He also outlined the strategic military and diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
The orientation ended at 6pm with everyone feeling quite exhausted and hungry. After the session was over I grabbed some dinner with several fellows and headed over to my hotel.
Tomorrow my flight leaves for Saudi Arabia at 6pm and I couldn't be more excited! It almost seems like a dream that I'll be there tomorrow.