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! 

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