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.

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