Ricciardone sees many commonalities between Saudi vision and AUC mission

Ricciardone sees many commonalities between Saudi vision and AUC mission
Francis Ricciardone
Updated 25 January 2017

Ricciardone sees many commonalities between Saudi vision and AUC mission

Ricciardone sees many commonalities between Saudi vision and AUC mission

JEDDAH: The president of the American University in Cairo (AUC), which completes 100 years in 2019, held a series of talks with high-ranking Saudi officials and businesspeople in Riyadh and Jeddah with a view to exploring new avenues of cooperation.
Francis Ricciardone, a former US diplomat and now head of the historic university, says education is “more important than ever.”
Education can make the Middle East a hub for a deep-rooted culture rather than a region of conflict.
After a long diplomatic career that gave him first-hand experience of what it is like to live in the Middle East, he was recently appointed president of the AUC, a 98-year-old Western educational institution in the heart of the Arab world.
“I came to the AUC because I believe that the educational mission is more important than ever,” Ricciardone told Arab News on Tuesday during his visit to Jeddah.
Established in 1919, the AUC is one of the oldest Western universities in the region. “We’re almost 100 years old, and the AUC has always had a mission of service to Egypt and the region” he said.
“This has made it be seen as part of the region, not something foreign. If foreign, then in a good way. If American, then in a way that Arabs value about America: Open, visionary, scientific, leading the way and opening minds for development.”
Ricciardone served as US ambassador to Cairo from 2005-2009, and to Ankara from 2011-2014, in addition to holding other diplomatic roles.
He said he loved the feeling of service and bringing people together, but wanted to try something different.
So he joined the world of think tanks at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, where he did a study with former US diplomats Madeline Albright and Stephen Hadley.
“We came a year ago to Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, and I came here (Saudi Arabia to discuss) a new American strategy with partners in the region under a new American administration that would take off as we knew in 2017,” Ricciardone said.
Everywhere they went, people emphasized the importance of education. “Education is the way, and the AUC is the vehicle that brings together Arabs and Americans. I wanted to do something catalizing,” he said.
“I didn’t come to Egypt and this region despite the problems. I came because of them, at a time when there are bigots and fanatics, people building walls,” he added.
American education focuses on problem-solving, not simply answering questions. “It’s easy to find the answer to a question. You need to have the ability for critical creative thinking, communicate it in ways that interlock, and complement with people who can fill in the gaps in your knowledge.”

Collaboration with Saudi Arabia
Ricciardone’s visit to Jeddah and Riyadh is the first in his new capacity as AUC president. He is set to run meetings at the Education Ministry to explore the potential of collaborating at an educational level.
The AUC wants to collaborate with Saudi universities as well as lower schools. “The Kingdom has a vision, you have a reformist minister and the resources,” he said.
“Even in a time of budget restraint, the Kingdom is allocating recourses to education. If we can partner, we might be able to do great things together.”
He added: “You have energy now in the Kingdom. It’s remarkable and getting attention. You have energy in the Arab world. There’s a youthful energy here yet to find its expression, in business, art, science, and it’s finding its way. The AUC is part of it.”
He said the institution connects Egypt and the US, and aims to encourage internationals who are afraid of going to Egypt after the revolution to study there. Last year, 52 students from the Gulf enrolled, 21 of them Saudi.
“Historically, we opened the doors to young Egyptians, Palestinians and people from the Gulf,” Ricciardone said.
“We helped open the world to Egyptians and Arabs from the region by teaching in English and applying inquiry-based education and research. We (also) serve as a global university to bring Westerners to the East.
“It’s not always easy, especially now. There are bigots in the West and the East who want to build walls and paint each other as fanatics and murderers. Sadly, they’re having some success and they’re causing fear.”

Cairo then and now
Ricciardone first encountered the AUC as a tourist in 1977. He was a young schoolteacher in Iran. In the 1980s, he came back as a diplomat, met some of the professors and deepened his knowledge of the AUC.
In 2008 there were 681 Americans, accounting for about 15 percent of students. Now there are only 80 Americans.
“The revolution made people afraid to come to Egypt, but I think they’re wrongly afraid. A big part of my challenge as president, and our challenge as a faculty, is to bring back Americans to faculty. We used to have 45 percent American faculty members, now they’re about 30 percent,” he said.
“I want to bring more international students, more Saudis, more from the Gulf, more from Egypt. I want to re-internationalize, re-globalize the AUC.”
He said the US government approving the Fulbright scholarship program and other US study programs would signal to American academia that it is good to go back to Egypt and the Arab world, and “that the Arab world is welcoming” to Americans.
“American globalized audiences are concerned about America’s place in the world, and want to do something about it. The answer is come study and learn the true story about Islam and Muslims. Come learn Arabic in the Middle East, and have Middle Easterners say who they are and what their dreams are for the future,” he said.
“Don’t allow Daesh to hijack the personality and presentation of the Arab world. (They are) criminals. People in the Middle East know it.”
Today, AUC is home to 6,559 students — 95 percent of them Egyptian.