Saturday, January 18, 2014

Catching Up....Part 2

I'm now studying abroad this semester in Israel. I wanted to finally post about my last day in Saudi Arabia and then have a final post pulling everything together but I seem to have left all of my papers at home! I'll wrap up the blog once I find some way to get my notes.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Eastern Province: Day One

Our first visit in the Eastern Province was to Al-Jubail Industrial City, about an hour away from our hotel in Al-Khobar. We met with representatives from the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu (RCJY), which directly oversees the construction, operation and development of both industrial cities. The city is the largest civil engineering and construction project in the world ever attempted, with planning and development beginning in 1975 and still continuing to this day.
When we drove into Jubail, the industrial center stretched
 along the highway for miles and miles. 
The waterfront area in Jubail alongside the Gulf. 
The RCJY has now established a giant industrial park in Jubail with the largest seawater cooling system in the world, two world class ports, and advanced industrial infrastructure with the largest petrochemical complex in the world. The businesses in the industrial zone are classified into three areas, primary industries (ethane and methane petrochemcial and fertilizer manufacterers), secondary industries (plastics and synthetic materials producers), support and light industries (food services, shipping and packaging plants etc).

The residential area is equipped with everything a city needs: utilities, transportation, hospitals, schools, malls, and recreational areas. It's right on the Gulf and the RCJY has built beautiful waterfront and beachfront picnic areas full of greenery. It was really amazing to see what forty years of planning have achieved in Al-Jubail and my post barely captures how impressive this city made out of thin air really is. The RCJY projects that Jubail will be home to over 1.3 million people by the year 2040. The members of the commission made it clear that their goal was to make Jubail and Yanbu centers of business, living and entertainment where people want to live, work, and play.

After visiting Jubail, the group traveled back to our hotel in Al-Khobar to speak with an American woman who has been living in Saudi Arabia for over 40 years. Sally Alturki  married a Saudi national that she met while studying international relations in D.C. She ended up moving to Saudi Arabia with her husband and they opened up the Dhahran Ahliyyah School, a K-12 private school for boys and girls with an international, dual-language curriculum. The NCUSAR have a relationship with her through her school's participation in Model Arab League.

Sally Alturki had some really interesting things to say about being an American woman in Saudi Arabia. Of course she has felt restricted by the limitations placed on her as a woman in the country, but she said that she has never been made to feel like an outsider. She has always felt at home and welcome in her husband's family and in Saudi society. Here is an article I found online that she wrote if you find her story compelling: <>. She had some great insights into changes in Saudi society, especially since 9-11,  and about the progress made for women over the past thirty years.

She echoed the theme of evolution not revolution in Saudi Arabia, the importance of slow but substantial changes that will keep the country stable. She fully acknowleged how lucky she was to have married a good man with an accepting family, when so many foreigners who marry Saudis end up in horrible situations. It was really touching to see how happy and fulfilled she was with her life in Saudi Arabia, though. She really loves her husband, the country and the people of Saudi Arabia. One thing that she wanted us to pass onto Americans was that although progress may not be in the way we may expect it or would like it to be, change is happening and there is a lot of hope for the future of the country.

After talking with Sally Alturki, we took a visit to the Prince Sultan Science & Technology Center (SCITECH) in Al-Khobar. It's basically a science museum, similar to ones you would find in the United States. It is affiliated with the King Fahd University of Petroleum & Petrochemicals in Dhahran, and its goal is to educate the community and promote interest in science and technology. We watched an IMAX film on Saudi Arabia and then were let loose around the center. We all became such children, running around playing with all of the different exhibits in SCITECH. Needless to say we all had a great time.

Inside SCITECH's main lobby.

Later today I'll try and post on my final day in the Eastern Province and in Saudi Arabia.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Last Two Days in Jeddah

I just returned home from Saudi two nights ago! I apologize in advance for the lateness of these upcoming blogs, but needless to say the last few days of my trip were quite busy.

During my last post I discussed the tour of historic Jeddah by Mr. Sami Nawaz on January 4th. The group stayed in Jeddah for another two days before departing for the Eastern Province.

In the morning of January 5th the boys got to go to the private beach we visited the day before, the Silver Sands Beach. The girls stayed at the hotel and caught up on some much needed rest and relaxation. For lunch the group had a meeting with an editor from the Saudi Gazette Newspaper, a highly popular private English-language newspaper in the Kingdom. The newspaper is mostly read by expats and other educated Saudis who know English. Many of us had been reading the newspaper and other Saudi news sources in anticipation of the meeting (we could get the newspaper for free at the hotel and during our flights).

Several of the articles seemed very biased and unprofessionally written, with a focus on topics that didn't seem worth reporting. The editor did acknowledge the lack of professionalism and ethics in Saudi Arabian journalism during our meeting. Many people working in the field receive little to no education or training before entering the profession. Journalism is a field very much in its infancy in the Kingdom, with few full-time reporters in Arabic or English language newspapers. This is slowly improving though, as journalism is now a field being developed in the universities and is slowly but surely opening up to women.

When we asked the editor about censorship and crossing redlines in Saudi news media, she said that lines do exist but that the newspaper always tries to work around them. She found the redlines frustrating and restricting but said that she was only stopped twice in her career from publishing articles. Candidly she told us that to find out what's really happening in Saudi Arabia, you have to read between the lines in the newspapers. She hoped that in the future there would be more political analysis and a focus on human rights issues in Saudi media outlets. There is hope, as during the last ten years newspapers have begun to report on issues ranging from child abuse and women's issues to corruption and infrastructure problems.  As Saudi society slowly opens up and previously taboo topics become fair game, journalism in the country will continue to grow and develop.

After the visit with the journalist, the group had the opportunity to visit the residence of  famed local architect Dr. Sami Angawi. It is probably the most beautiful home I have ever seen, or ever will see. I was so amazed by the architecture and decor that I didn't listen closely enough to the tour we received, but I remember hearing that the home was designed in the traditional Hijazi style with pieces from all over the world. None of the pictures I took accurately capture how amazingly beautiful the house really is. 

"Hijazi is the local region here, which is an ancient name for this region. And
Hijaz has always been the reflecting point. It's the melting pot of the Muslim world. So you can see something in Hijaz, which is from India, and you see something from Morocco, and
something from Turkey, and something from Yemen. Everything is a reflection of the idea of the unity and the diversity. My statement here is that to live in a time now, you don't have to forget your traditions. So it's the balance between the constant and the variable. And that's how it's always been in Islamic tradition; Islamic architecture." 
-From PBS NewsHour 2002

The house was so warm and inviting, and talking to Dr. Sami Angawi was a fascinating experience. Apparently Jimmy Carter has visited the house multiple times before to discuss Islam and promote understanding and peace around the world with Dr. Angawi. 

The next day, January 6th, the group had two visits. The first was to the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), which was about an hour outside of Jeddah. As we drove up to the site of the campus, there was nothing but the campus security checkpoints surrounded by desert. KAUST was built only five or so years ago on a site in Thuwal alongside the Red Sea. There was really nothing there until the campus was built, and it now constitutes a city within itself with everything students and professors need to live and work within the university (residential areas, gyms, grocery stores, restaurants etc.) . I can only assume that there is so much security to get onto the campus because of the fact that KAUST is the first mixed-gender university in Saudi Arabia. We saw women without veils and abayas freely mixing with male colleagues. 

Our group walking around the site of the main campus.
Inside one of KAUST's main buildings.
The view of the Red Sea from the library. 
I was disappointed that we weren't able to stay on the campus for a longer period of time but we did get a tour of some of the libraries and research facilities. It's incredibly impressive how many resources have gone into making KAUST a world-class research university that attracts students from around the globe. As someone whose focus is away from the scientific or technological fields, I was blown away by the university's laboratories, resources, and facilities. All of the buildings were brand new, beautiful, and designed to be environmentally friendly. 

On the way back to Jeddah from KAUST, our bus driver stopped alongside the highway so that we could see some of the camels. One of them actually  walked over to our group and stood still for about a half an hour or so while we took pictures of it. 

Me with the friendliest camel! 

After our brief interlude with the camels, the group headed over to the Nafisa Shams Arts & Letter Academy back in Jeddah. The academy provides training and job opportunities for women creating prayer rugs, jewelry, fashion designs and photography. It was wonderful to see a group trying to harness Saudi women's creativity, talent, and initiative. Everyone in my group was really impressed by their showroom, which displayed the Saudi women's creative works. 

The showroom for the Nafisa Shams Arts & Letter Academy.

That night, the group took a flight from the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah to Al-Dammam in the Eastern Province (first class again of course). We were all exhausted when we arrived at our hotel, Le Meridien, in Al Khobar. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Al-Balad - A Tour of Historic Jeddah

 Yesterday was probably my favorite day in Saudi Arabia so far. Our group was lucky enough to have a tour of the historic center in Jeddah by Mr. Sami Nawar who has given tours to people like Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. For about an hour or so we walked around the historic district, meandering along the narrow streets. We saw mosques that are over 500 years old and old homes with ornate woodwork on the windows. It's exactly what I imagined the Middle East would like, with tight alleyways, dilapidated but beautiful buildings, and wandering street cats. We had the area mostly to ourselves as it was Friday and most people were at prayer. It was a wonderful experience getting to see the historic district free of the hustle and bustle of Jeddah city life. I'll never forget being able to walk along the historic pilgrimage path to Mecca, knowing I was following in the footsteps of Muslims from hundreds of years ago. 
The main square in Al-Balad. On one of the signs
it says "Historic Hajj Rout West".
We were taken up to one of the tallest and oldest buildings in the area, with a beautiful view of Al-Balad and the more modern Jeddah in the distance. It was under construction but as we walked up four flights of stairs to get to a rooftop area, we were amazed at the building's beautiful architecture. When we reached the top floor, there was a seating area with open windows and a beautiful red rug with seat cushions. We all sat down and were given some tea and bread, amazed at the experience. We all wanted to stay there forever, lounging on the floor cushions and sipping tea with the call to prayer in the distance, but unfortunately we had to leave. 
Drinking tea on the top floor of a historic
 building with Mr. Sami Nawar.
View of  historic Jeddah from the rooftop.
After Al-Balad the girls were allowed to go to a private beach on the Red Sea about an our north of Jeddah. When we arrived at the gate to the beach we didn't know what to expect, it looked somewhat sketchy, but when we walked towards the Red Sea we were amazed at what we saw. There were beach chairs, boats, water skis, wind surfing, and people in bikinis and speedos. Walking along the sand we could hear mostly Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian Arabs speaking but we also saw other Europeans and Americans. Our Indian driver told us that Saudis don't go to this private beach, which is mostly patronized by other Arabs from the Al-Sham region. It was sort of strange but somewhat fascinating to see groups of Arab women hanging out together with some wearing bikinis, other burqinis.
The private beach on the Red Sea.
I didn't bring a suit with me or anything that was conducive to swimming so unfortunately I didn't go into the Red Sea but I still had a wonderful time. I sat on a beach chair in the shade while the other girls in my group swam, listening to a mixture of bosa nova, techno, and Umm Kulthum coming from a group of Egyptians next to me. The weather was absolutely perfect, warm but with a nice sea breeze. 
All the girls at the private beach!
On the way back to our hotel we talked with our driver a little bit and asked him about himself. He has been in Saudi Arabia for 18 years, visiting his home in India at least once every year. His children are all in school, which is why he works in Saudi Arabia and sends his money back home. The wages are apparently double what they are in India which is another reason why he came to the country. Saudi Arabia has been covered in the news a lot for some human rights abuses related to their foreign workers, but our driver said that he was lucky because his employer is generous and nice. He said that he has lived in Jeddah so long that he can tell what nationalities people are. 

Jeddah is a city with a lot more diversity that the rest of Saudi Arabia, with it being the principle gateway to Mecca for Muslims from around the world. This international influence and exposure gives it its more liberal reputation. We've met Saudi citizens with Turkish, Filipino, and Pakistani backgrounds. Once again I realized how ignorant I was, imagining that all Saudis are Arabs coming from families who have lived their for hundreds of years. 
Later in the day we returned to Al-Balad to go shopping. The streets had completely filled up and the place was transformed. I was really surprised how crowded it was and I couldn't believe that we were in the same area. We grabbed dinner at Al Baik, a sort of Saudi Arabian version of KFC that is incredibly popular. The place was packed because it was right after prayer time, with lines going down the street. The girls had to wait in the "ladies line" which was much longer with only one cash register. It was worth the wait to see what all the fuss was about though. 
The crowded streets of Old Jeddah at night.

The Al Baik ladies line.
After eating we split up into small groups to check out all of the shops. There were a lot of gold jewelry, scarves, rugs, and date shops. I've realized that I'm really not a fan of haggling so I didn't buy anything, but we go shopping again in the next few days so I'll have to get over it. A few of the girls bought some abayas and gold rings and earrings for some great prices and the rest of the guys bought their thawbs and keffiyehs. They put them on in the shop they bought them from and walked around for the rest of the night in them. It was hilarious how much attention they received for wearing them, with people shouting Masha'Allah at them and other compliments. One of the guys in my group is even mistaken for an actual Saudi, with people on the street speaking to him in Arabic. Our Ministry of Higher Education guides jokingly call him an undercover Saudi. Everyone in the streets seemed really excited and or amused at the Americans wearing traditional Saudi clothing and wanted to get pictures with them. There must have been at least twenty Saudi men who requested pictures, and the guys in my group happily obliged them.
Our guide Abdullah from the Ministry of Higher Education in the center
with the guys in our group. His face was priceless when he saw them wearing
traditional Saudi clothing. 
Random Saudis on the street taking pictures with the guys.
I have a feeling that today will be my favorite day of the whole trip, but I'm excited to see what our last four days in Saudi Arabia have in store for us! Today I think we go shopping again and talk with a reporter from the Saudi Gazette News Paper. More to come. Stay tuned. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Visiting Universities in Jeddah

Our first visit in Jeddah was to the King Abdul Aziz University (KAU). The university was the first private one in the Kingdom when it was founded in 1967. Apparently it was also the first university to allow women to study all of the programs available at the school. We met with the Associate Dean and a professor of political science. One interesting thing that the Dean said was that the university always strived to "reach for modernity without loosing our cultural heritage". He also mentioned that the school tries to make things "separate but equal" for women by giving both sexes the same facilities and educational experiences.

After the meeting we were served lunch, which of course included Arabic coffee, tea, and a variety of juices. While eating we were able to have a brief conversation with the political science professor who told us how hard it is to create an NGO in Saudi Arabia. In America, it takes less than a week he said, but in Saudi you could spend your whole life trying to create one if you don't have the right connections (واسْطة). He said that NGOs are very important for countries development processes and he hoped that the institutional barriers would be removed in the future so that more could be created.

The university seemed to have a high number of scientific research centers, and placed a lot of focus on research, innovation, and ingenuity.We visited one research center that had sections ranging from hereditary diseases research (a problem in Saudi because marrying your cousin is still too common), to immunology, stem cell research and osteoporosis. One interesting thing about the center was that men and women worked side by side with each other. I almost felt as though we saw more women researchers than men, which is a great sign for the country's future. We were even introduced to two female high school students who were doing research at the facility already, which was very impressive.

After KAU we went to Effat University, an all-female university named after Queen Effat, the wife of late King Faisal.  We met with some of the students, faculty members, and other women at the college and ate lunch with them.  One of the students we met was the head of the college's shura council, their version of student government. Seeing the students interested in student government, a small form of political participation, was interesting to see. Many of the faculty members had studied in the United States, and hoped to return there someday soon. Several of the students also hoped to study in the United States and I spoke to one who was looking to get her masters in economics there in the future. She asked me where the best colleges were for economics, but honestly I wasn't sure which ones in the United States were best other than the University of Chicago or maybe some Ivy Leagues.
A photo of the group with some of the students and faculty
from Effat University. (Posted on the university's facebook page).
Many of us had the opportunity to candidly speak to students again, who echoed what we've heard at other institutions. They want to drive, but think that driving isn't their top concern or priority. Despite the fact the women's labor force participation rates are low in the country, they had high expectations for employment in the future and thought that the labor market was opening up quickly for them. Apparently, 63% of the students are working or studying after graduation, which seemed like a pretty good statistic in Saudi Arabia for women. At the end of the visit many of us exchanged emails, twitter accounts, and blogs with the students. I hope that I can keep in touch with some of them in the future!

After both of our university visits we returned to our hotel for some dinner. After our meal we all decided to smoke some shisha (hookah) at a cafe next to our hotel. We smoked in a beautiful patio area which had a huge TV screen with some Arabic music videos playing from artists like Nancy Ajram. We all pushed several couches together and took turns smoking shisha flavors like grape and double apple. It was a beautiful night, smoking in a gorgeous outdoor area with the stars and the moon shining brightly. Towards midnight, a friend of one of the other fellows met up with us. He had gone to a university in the United States with her several years ago and since had moved back to Saudi Arabia to work for Aramco. He brought his brother with him and we had a chance to openly talk with them about how young Saudis interact with the opposite sex and what they do for fun. They had very similar things to say to Hammam, the other Saudi we've spoken to about such things in Riyadh.

Shisha smoking! (Taken from Maddison's facebook)
A little past midnight they took some of us who were awake out driving through Jeddah. The roads were very crowded as driving around looking for restaurants and shopping or trolling for girls is the pastime for young Saudis. The two brothers told us how young men will try and flirt with some of the girls driving around with their drivers. If a girl makes prolonged, flirtatious eye contact you, you follow them around in your car and try to throw your phone number through their window.  If you get enough girls together and find a private place, you have a sort of "party" where you can invite some of your other friends. It isn't as difficult for the rich and connected young Saudis to go to "parties" or other social gatherings.  It was so silly of me to imagine that things like that don't happen in Saudi Arabia!

Overall, our drive around Jeddah was a surreal experience, swerving around traffic at one in the morning. It felt like a dream as we sped around listening to techno music and mixes of Rihanna's "We Found Love". I never thought I would have an experience like that in Saudi Arabia, which just shows how ignorant even I can be. You always have to remember that no matter where you are in the world, people are people, and young men and women will find a way to enjoy themselves no matter what the social restrictions may be.

Last Day in Riyadh

 The first meeting that we had for our last day in Riyadh was with Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Zamil and other leading members of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry. The Doctor is one of the most powerful and influential Saudi businessman and has owned a number of companies in the past. The Chamber is the only lobbying group in the Kingdom and is one of the most organized institutions for business and social development.

For most of the meeting, the Doctor addressed a number of questions that he thinks most Americans ask about Saudi Arabia. He talked about what Saudi Arabia does with its oil wealth and where it goes around the world. He then discussed the role of women and the question of social development in the country. After that, he talked about terrorism in Saudi Arabia and around the Middle East. Finally he candidly discussed corruption in the country, but always made it clear that corruption is not just a Saudi issue, but an issue all over the world. His final message to the group was that he had great respect and admiration for the role that American universities have played in the country's human capital development. The Doctor said that, "The U.S. was the first and only country to open it's heart to Saudi students." All of the students going to America have had great experiences and made wonderful friends and connections. The U.S.-Saudi educational exchange has had immensely positive effects on American business, something that we should not forget.

Al-Yamamah is in a less developed part of Riyadh,
far out from the center of the city. On either side of the university
there is just desert. 
After visiting the Chamber of Commerce, we headed over to Al-Yamamah University, a private school in Riyadh. Once again the boys were taken to the all-male campus, and we went to the all-female section. The university was very impressive, with many new looking facilities including a gym. Fun fact: the university has a day care center. We've found out that most all-female schools in Saudi Arabia have day cares so that women can receive an education and raise their children. Food for thought when our country, seen as far more progressive for women, doesn't provide the same services. The university also has the first female soccer team in the country, traveling around the Middle East playing matches against countries like the U.A.E. The school is known for its strong business program, and we had the opportunity to see one of the senior student's final project. The girls in the group created an application for smart phones for online grocery shopping. Since Saudi women can't drive, they often send their drivers or male relatives to food stores for them. Many times they come back with the wrong products though, and many women have been very frustrated by this. The application would allow women to get everything they need to cook and host guests, something that is very important for a country that is known to be family-oriented and very hospitable.

The girls in our group with some students and employees of Al-Yamamah. 
I was absolutely blown away by their idea and presentation.  An online application like theirs, in a country with more cell-phones than people, should be very successful. Some of the professors grading the project were very excited for it and asked the students to email them when the application was available for their use. We found out that the girls actually had an offer from a company to buy their app. Apparently many students Al-Yamamah University receive business offers for their product ideas. They take the projects very seriously, and it shows in the amount of success that the students have had in taking what they've learned and applying it to the real world.

Many of the women at the university expressed similar things to the girls we met at King Saud University. They very much wanted to drive and had a lot of hope for the future from their job prospects to the general role of women in society. They all seemed very hard-working, intelligent, and confident in their ability to enter the workforce, despite the fact that female labor market participation in the Middle East is the lowest the world. The students that we met said that all sectors of the economy were opening up for women, and didn't see that trend changing any time in the future.

After leaving the university, we headed back to our hotel and packed for our flight to Jeddah. Surprisingly, we were given first class tickets! The flight to Jeddah took only an hour and a half or so, but we were in awe at our spacious and reclining chairs. During the flight we received Arabic coffee, tea, dates, and a delicious dinner. We really are being spoiled on this trip with our five star hotels and now first class airline tickets!

First class!
Outside of our plane upon arriving in Jeddah. 
We arrived in Jeddah very late at night, but I could tell it was a beautiful city. It's much more settled than Riyadh, with far less construction and new development in the older parts of the city. In the airport we could see many people dressed for the Hajj, since Jeddah is the principle gateway to Mecca. Jeddah is the closest I will ever get to the holy city, a place where only Muslims are allowed.

Once we put our luggage in our rooms, some of us walked outside of the hotel to see the Red Sea. There is a boardwalk type area very close to the InterContinental and we walked along it at around 11pm. Along the pathway there were many Saudis sitting with their families or smoking shisha. The representatives from the Ministry of Higher Education said that Jeddah residents are known to stay out very late at night, and work less than in Riyadh. I could tell, even at night, that Jeddah is a much more liberal city than capital. There were women wearing colorful abayas or hijabs, or not wearing hijabs altogether. There are also many people of different nationalities in Jeddah, and I could see all of the diversity in the city just by walking along the boardwalk.

A fountain blowing up water out of the Red Sea. 
I'll write more about Jeddah and my first day here sometime soon! I've been very busy and tired, trying to experience Saudi Arabia as much as possible. That doesn't leave much time for blogging unfortunately, but I'll do my best!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

An Unforgettable New Year's Eve

While visiting the Princess Al Anood Foundation we met Hammam, the manager of Warif and the Youth Development program for the foundation. Another fellow, Westyn, was talking to him about wanting to buy a thobe and kufiyah (traditional male Saudi clothing). Hammam was kind enough to offer to take him shopping around the old souq in Riyadh. Many of us thought that Hammam would be too busy to follow through, but sure enough he showed up at our hotel around 9pm to take us shopping. He helped all of us bargain and haggle with the shop owners to get good prices for souvenir goods. Two of the guys in our group ended up buying thobes and kufiyahs.

Hammam showing us around the shops.
Many of the stores have been redone,
but the shopping area is a part of the old district in Riyadh.
Me in a shop with some wonderful souvenir goods! 
The night didn't end with shopping though, Hammam took us to a Lebanese Restaurant on Al-Tahlia Street in Riyadh. He wouldn't accept the fact that we hadn't eaten outside of our hotel yet and insisted that he treat us to some Arabic food. Apparently many young Saudi men and women meet on Al-Tahlia Street. We saw gangs of young boys aimlessly walking up and down the main road. Hammam told us that if they see pretty girls they walk up to them and hand them their phone numbers. Dating isn't really accepted in Saudi Arabia but many young people, with the help of technology, can carry out relationships using their cell phones and the internet.

The food at the restaurant was delicious and the first time that any of us had eaten outside of our hotel. Hammam ordered many different Arabic dishes and we happily ate them all. I tried a mint lemonade drink that was lovely, more delicious than even Saudi sangria or champagne. We celebrated the New Year with a quick cheer, but the holiday is not really celebrated in Saudi Arabia. By the time we left the restaurant it was 12:30pm and the streets had mostly cleared out. Hammam was nice enough to even pay for our meal!

Our New Year's Eve picture with Hammam. 
Going out into Riyadh was a great experience, allowing us to really explore the city. Our group visits to universities and other institutions have been interesting, but it was wonderful to be able to speak with a real Saudi, and hear his personal opinions and views.  Hammam was very open and candid with his answers to our questions and he had some really interesting insights into Saudi society and culture. I am continually blown away by Saudi hospitality and friendliness, and our outing with Hammam will be a New Year's Eve that I won't soon forget.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Eve in Riyadh

The group started off our New Year's Day by visiting the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. Driving into the diplomatic quarter of the city there was a lot of security and speed bumps. We were actually pulled over once by the police but everything was cleared up quickly.  When we finally arrived at the Embassy we had to show our passport and turn in any electronics that we had with us, so unfortunately I wasn't able to take any pictures inside. We were told that the mission in Saudi Arabia is very large, classified as one of the largest in the foreign service. There is no active ambassador in the country now we were told, which was unfortunate because we were hoping to meet an ambassador. Our visit was still wonderful though, and we spoke to five different foreign service members who worked in political, economic, consular, and public affairs. 

Proof that we visited the Embassy.

One of the most interesting things we learned from them was that despite coverage in the media, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is still very strong and healthy. There was a lot of talk in the press of the relationship being fundamentally changed over disagreements with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, especially with regards to Syria, but the foreign service members said that it's just angry rhetoric. The relationships that really need to be strengthened are between Saudi and U.S. nationals that don't involve the government. They were very happy to see groups like ours in the country, trying to bridge that divide by bringing U.S. students to Saudi Arabia. Over 74,000 Saudis are studying in the United States now, but zero students from our country are studying in Saudi Arabia. The student exchange system is one of the strongest pillars of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the Embassy is hoping to make it even stronger in the future. Not only does the program promote greater understanding between the two countries, it also brings in a lot of revenue to the U.S. with the Saudi's paying tuition. 

After the U.S. Embassy visit we had lunch at a mall under the Al-Faisaliah building. I didn't eat but the other fellows enjoyed some Saudi McDonalds food. We sat in the family section of the food court and we've gotten into the habit of making jokes about our giant and diverse "family". In Riyadh, a more conservative area of Saudi Arabia, in many public places there are family sections and single men sections. In Jeddah we are told, there are no such partitions and everyone sits together. I'll talk more about the differences between a more liberal Jeddah and conservative Riyadh in a future post. 

The mall was very high end, with companies like Burberry and Gucci all over. It was most interesting to see a lot of the women's clothing stores with short dresses, lingerie and pants in the windows. To tell you the truth, when we visit women's campus' they dress ten times better than women in the United States. I can only venture to guess that it has something to do with having to wear the abaya in public all the time. 

After the mall we took a quick walk over to the King Faisal Research & Islamic Studies Center. We were shown some really interesting historical Islamic manuscripts. The center collects and preserves works from around the world and tries to make them accessible to researchers studying Islam. At the moment there are over 250,000 historical works in the center's library, making it one of the biggest collections of Islamic works around the globe. Our guide in the center made it clear that the foundation was committed to preserving and strengthening Islamic culture and heritage through their work. 

A SUPER tiny Qur'an.
Restoration work of Islamic manuscripts.
Shout out to Natalie Zink, a plate from Iznik!

Finally, at the end of the day we visited the Princess Al-Anood Foundation. I believe that the Princess was one the wives of a previous King of Saudi Arabia. In her will she specified all the charity work that she wanted to carry out, and so the foundation was created by several of her family members after her death. The visit was coordinated after we met a young woman at King Saud University who volunteered at the foundation and wanted us to visit. The foundation is a very successful NGO in the Kingdom and we met with representatives of their youth program called Warif. During our visit we discussed civil society in Saudi Arabia, the role of NGOs in the country's development, and issues facing youth in the Kingdom. More than two-thirds of citizens are under the age of 30, and the country faces major demographic issues in the future. Statistics from the Ministry of Economy and Planning show that nearly 70 percent of the Saudi population are aged between 16 and 30. Many people we have spoken to so far in the country have pointed out how different this generation is from the previous one. Cell phones, television and the internet have vastly altered Saudi social life among young people. A lot of the youth have nothing to do in Saudi Arabia though, facing major social restrictions, so they turn to drugs, television, food, and fast cars. There is a real identity crisis among the youth population and Warif seeks to fill this identity gap by having young people volunteer for their communities.

There is a lot of stigma in Saudi Arabia against volunteer work, almost similar to in the United States. The program has a hard time finding young people who will do charity work for free and commit to it fully. In the past, charity work has been controlled by religious elements in society, and many Saudis think that only the ultra-religious volunteer. Warif is trying to change this and instill a culture of volunteerism in society, but they face an uphill battle. They hope that with their work they can empower young people and provide a home for the youth population which is gripped with boredom and a lack of direction and purpose. It was very encouraging  to see an organization trying to promote civil society, and a sense of ethics among the youth population. It's a positive sign for the country's future which will be greatly altered by demographic shifts and generational differences in the future.  

That's all for now. We just arrived in Jeddah at 10pm tonight by plane. It was a long day so I will try and post on my New Year's night tomorrow! 

The King Abdul Aziz Historical Center

After visiting King Saud University and returning to the hotel for lunch the group drove over to the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center. First we visited the National Museum of Saudi Arabia which was built in 1999. The museum was very new-looking (as with everything in Saudi Arabia) and had a very large entrance/lobby area. The exhibits covered all of Saudi history from "Man and the Universe" to modern times in the country. There was also a large exhibit about the Hajj and the two holy mosques. 

Outside of the National Museum. 

The museum's main lobby/entrance. 

A meteorite found in the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia.
In the background you can see our Ministry of Higher Education guide, Abdullah. 

A model of the Kaaba and Mecca.
After visiting the Museum for two hours or so we headed to a historical fort called Al-Masmak.  The fort is famous for being recaptured by Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, on January 14th, 1902. It has been turned into a small museum celebrating the battle and the victory of Ibn Saud over his rivals, the Al-Rashid family. There is a tiny door at the front of the structure where Ibn Saud had fierce hand to hand combat (with who I forget) and finally opened the door into the fort. There is a mark on the door that is very famous for where a sword (I believe Ibn Saud's) hit the door during the conflict. 

Outside of the fort structure. 

  The tiny door where Ibn Saud finally entered the fort. 

You can see the place where a sword or bayonet
was pushed into the door by Ibn Saud.

It was very nice to visit the historical part of the city, which has been refurbished very recently. Before entering the fort, we wandered around some of the old marketplaces, looking for an ATM so that people could take out some Saudi riyals. When we returned to the main street of stores it was the maghrib prayer and everything was completely closed up. We could see at least three mosques in the area and could hear the beautiful call to prayer or adhan. It was actually the first time that I could hear the prayer clearly in the city and it was a beautiful, relaxing experience. We stood outside of the fort int the twilight and silently listened to the prayers.

That wraps up the rest of my December 30th in Riyadh. Tonight, I will try and post about my New Year's Eve day yesterday. Happy 2014 everyone!