Friday, January 3, 2014

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!

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