The landmark visit of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to the United States last year was a success on many fronts, laying the foundation of the two countries bilateral relation on a sounder footing. One of the areas of agreement called for the mutual expansion and exchange of students going to Saudi Arabia and the USA. The aim was to develop a better cultural and social understanding of each other’s viewpoint, whereby differences can be argued and debated instead of being fought over.
This initiative is to be welcomed, not just with the USA, but also with the many other countries with which the Kingdom wishes to establish long-term mutually beneficial relationships such as China, Russia, India and other European countries.
How would Saudi students going abroad benefit? Secondly, how would Saudi society at large and the Saudi economy benefit from such exchanges? If the Saudi students are selected on sound academic and personal skills criteria and not on expediency and connections for the sake of filling up scholarship quotas, then such students can be the best possible unofficial ambassadors of the Kingdom, influencing others of their age group as well as the societies in whose midst they are living. They will gain greater confidence in public debate, feel comfortable in handling themselves in a multicultural environment, and demonstrate that Saudis, Arabs and Muslims can listen to other people’s viewpoints and dispel the prevailing image that Islam is an intolerant religion.
Such multicultural exchanges will also equip Saudi students with negotiating skills which will come useful when they hold government or private sector positions when they return back to the Kingdom, including acquiring valuable employable international skills. Saudi students will have observed how foreign students acquire educational skills that prepare them for the prevailing labor markets.
Above all, they will observe that foreign students, and US students in particular, will often ask themselves the question, “how am I am going to benefit in economic and social terms in pursuing a particular course?”, since most of them fund their own education. Hopefully, the majority of Saudi students should be asking the same question, except that the government is funding their education.
On the economic front, Saudi students will learn new work skills, discipline and managerial responsibility, all crucial elements in the long-term development of the Saudi economy in the age of globalization and knowledge-based economies. Such students will acquire the work habits of wealth generation through hard work rather than through short-term stock market manipulation and a get rich quick mentality.
And how will the foreign students coming to Saudi Arabia benefit, and how will they cope in living in the Kingdom, given local customs and traditions? Not much thought has been given to this in the current scramble to send the new batch of Saudi students abroad, but this issue must be addressed frankly at some stage if a two way multicultural exchange is to be successful. Will the foreign students be assigned to a few select Saudi universities who already have some student diversity, or will the foreign students be assigned to all Saudi universities, especially those with few foreign student bodies and multicultural contact?
The latter is probably of more importance in the long term, as it is the more insular educational establishments that require two way multicultural exchanges.
Again, such foreign students will have to be carefully screened and selected to ensure that the students understand the special social circumstances of the Kingdom so as to avoid surprises and disappointment after their arrival. This is where the Saudi cultural attaches abroad have an important role to play in the foreign students’ social awareness role.
After they arrive, how they benefit will depend on how they are treated in the Kingdom and what impressions are left behind from their interaction with Saudi students, some of whom might not have traveled widely abroad or have met with many foreign students of their age.
The benefit, to both sides in the long term, can be extremely high, as the foreign students could observe first hand how Saudi students are generally polite, generous and hospitable to foreigners. The foreign students will see how Islam preaches moderation and tolerance.
At the same time, the Saudi students will have made valuable friendships that could last for many years and which can serve their country during times of crises and misunderstandings between nations. At least the students of both countries will understand the language of the other this time round.