Japan: Fast becoming Saudi students’ favorite destination

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This file photo shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives at his residence in Tokyo a group of Saudi students studying in Japanese universities. (SPA)
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This file photo shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives at his residence in Tokyo a group of Saudi students studying in Japanese universities. (SPA)
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This file photo shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives at his residence in Tokyo a group of Saudi students studying in Japanese universities. (SPA)
Updated 30 June 2019

Japan: Fast becoming Saudi students’ favorite destination

  • Misk Foundation and Manga Productions have sponsored several trips for Saudis of varying ages and levels of education to partake in courses at various Japanese institutions
  • Saudi students share their experiences and what they love best about living in the land of the rising sun

TOKYO: Japan is one of the most popular foreign countries for young Saudis. A love of anime and manga, a myriad of cultural similarities, and a surge in the popularity of J-Pop, cosplay, and Lolita fashion are all reasons why Japanese culture has such strong roots in the Kingdom, so it is no surprise Saudi students are studying in Japan.
Prior to 2007, Saudis wishing to do so could only apply independently to study at Japanese universities, provided they could fund it themselves. Then came the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, making the process not only easier, but also more affordable.
Due to the highly competitive nature of Japanese university entrance exams, the limited number of seats allotted to foreign students, and even the completely foreign nature of the language, gaining entry to a Japanese university is notoriously difficult.
However, Arab News reported in 2014 that at least 600 Saudi students had enrolled in Japanese universities since the scholarship program began in 2007. And in 2016, a survey conducted by the Japan Student Services organization put the number of Saudi students across Japan at 533.
Arab News spoke to several students who offered a glimpse into the highly coveted world.
Abdulhadi Mubarak, currently studying for a master’s degree, told Arab News that he found living in Japan very pleasant, though the experience was not without its drawbacks and communication issues.
“You can draw parallels between Saudi and Japanese society. For example, it is hard to make local friends here. People in Saudi Arabia and Japan communicate indirectly. For example, in some regions in Saudi Arabia if you get served coffee after lunch or dinner, it means you should drink it and leave. In Japan, people don’t explicitly say ‘no,’ if someone says ‘it’s difficult’ then it means ‘no,’” he explained.
However, he finds the experience refreshing, especially being able to correct people’s misconceptions of what the Kingdom is really like. “I like to ask Japanese people what image they have of Saudi Arabia; half probably don’t have any idea at all, the first response is always about oil or having a strong football team, the second is camels, and a few ask about how things like marrying four women works.”
Omar Al-Ghamdi is a student at the Kanagawa Institute of Technology, studying computer science. He finds living in Japan “comfortable” though he also finds forming significant relationships challenging.
“Japan is a very comfortable place to live, from services provided to all kinds of transportation, to how you get treated as a customer, but building relationships with the people here was hard even for a fluent Japanese speaker. It’s like they have emotional walls put up against strangers, so to get to talk to them and ask them out to hang or become friends is a little harder than others.”
The relative difficulties with communication do not stop there. Saudi Muslims, and indeed Muslims in Japan in general, face some degree of difficulty in connecting with each other due to the relatively small size of the community.
The number of Muslims in Japan stands at about 185,000, according to the Pew Research Center, accounting for about 0.1 percent of the population of 126.8 million, reported by the World Bank. The number of mosques in Japan is about 200, most of which are situated in Tokyo, making it difficult for those in rural areas of Japan to visit one on a regular basis.
Khalid Al-Otaibi is currently working toward a master’s degree in management at the Nagoya University of Business and Commerce. He moved to Japan in the summer of 2016 to work with a company for breast cancer awareness, and was accepted as one of the King Abdullah Scholarship students in 2018.

FASTFACT

• Saudi Arabia ranks third in the world in terms of anime popularity, second only to Japan and the Philippines.

• In 2016, a survey conducted by the Japan Student Services organization put the number of Saudi students across Japan at 533.

• Japan is home to around 185,000 Muslims and 200 mosques.

Al-Otaibi told Arab News that despite the lack of documented numbers, he met many Japanese Muslims himself. “The Muslim community in Japan is small, but I am surprised to face many Japanese people who either study Arabic or have embraced Islam. I volunteer sometimes to teach Arabic.”
However, despite his relationship with the community, he prefers to spend Islamic holidays back home. “I try my best to spend Ramadan in Saudi Arabia and not in Japan. Japan’s work culture is busy and work time there is almost considered natural. Fasting there while everyone is working and with the summer heat is a bit tough. But Eid holidays are better; we pray at the local mosque and greet the people there.”
Sara Taha Noor, 30, received her master’s degree while living as a scholarship student in Japan. She spoke to Arab News about how the Islamic community helped her cope during her years there. “When I visited the Turkish mosques there I met a lot of Muslims from different nationalities. I would mostly spend holidays alone, but from time to time during Ramadan, I would gather with my Muslim friends, both Arab and non-Arabs, for iftar.”
However, she still maintains contact with her Japanese friends, and thinks back on her time living in the country with great fondness. “I had virtually no difficulties while I was there — the Japanese people were so kind and respectful.”
In recent years, more and more options have been made available to Saudis wishing to travel to Japan to study, and not just for university degrees. The Misk Foundation and Manga Productions have sponsored several trips for Saudis of varying ages and levels of education to partake in courses at various Japanese institutions.
With areas of study ranging from automotive engineering to video game development, with all costs covered, the programs are useful for young Saudis contemplating the experience but wanting to know what it could be like first.
Mashael Abualnaja works in the hotel trade and signed up for the Misk game development program.
She says her experience in Japan has been amazing so far, and she would definitely consider moving there in the future. “People think of Japan as almost a planet on its own due its uniqueness, but it’s actually full of people like us, which you can see just by walking the streets and interacting with them.”
For Mubarak, Tokyo’s rich cultural atmosphere is the best part of living in Japan. “My favorite thing about Tokyo is how many subcultures and hobbies there are. The music scene, fashion scene, food scene and the otaku (anime) stuff.”
Taha Noor, however, just kept it simple. “I just love Japan. I love Japanese people, and I love communicating with them.”


Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

Updated 18 November 2019

Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

  • Agreement between agriculture ministry and Dubai's ICBA aimed at conserving natural resources
  • Kingdom's biosaline agriculture research and systems stands to benefit from ICBA's expertise

DUBAI: Agricultural development and environmental sustainability in Saudi Arabia will receive a boost in the coming years, thanks to a new agreement between the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai and the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture.

The agreement aims to enable Saudi Arabia to achieve its goal of preservation and sustainable management of its natural resources by raising the quality of biosaline agriculture research and systems.

The ministry says that the agreement will make use of the ICBA’s expertise in capacity development besides agricultural and environmental research, especially in the fields of vegetation development, combating desertification and climate change adaptation.

“It also includes training programs for Saudi technicians and farmers,” the ministry said. “In addition, it will localize, implement and develop biosaline agriculture research and production systems for both crops and forestation, which contributes to environmental and agricultural integration.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, the ICBA’s director general, told Arab News: “The agreement had been in the making for about two years. That was when we were approached by the Saudi government.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA Director General, at the center's Quinoa fields in Dubai. (Supplied photo)

She said: “We put forward a proposal to demonstrate how the ICBA can help the Saudi government to implement its Green Kingdom Initiative, through which the ministry is trying to restore green coverage in the country and revive old conservation practices.”

Geographical features and climatic conditions very greatly from one part of the country to the other.

In the past, experimentation with such crops as potatoes, wheat and alfalfa proved detrimental to the Kingdom’s environment and natural resources due to faster rates of groundwater withdrawal.

“The ministry wanted to put a halt to over-abstraction of water, so they went through different policies,” Elouafi said.

“They made sure, for example, that farmers stopped producing wheat because about 2,400 liters of water is consumed to produce 1 kg of wheat. It was a huge amount,” she added.

“The new strategy is to find more appropriate crops for the farming community, which is quite large in the Kingdom.”

Saudi Arabia has been trying to grow its own food on a large scale since the 1980s. 

The objective of the Green Kingdom Initiative is to reduce the agricultural sector’s water demand by finding alternatives to thirsty crops.

The agreement will require the ICBA, over the next five years, to build for Saudi Arabia a new biosaline agriculture sector. 

As part of this shift, cultivation of a number of crops, notably quinoa, pearl millet and sorghum, will be piloted in high-salinity regions and then scaled up.

“The crops did very well in the UAE,” Elouafi said. “We’re looking at Sabkha regions, which have very high salinity and wetlands, and are on the ministry’s environmental agenda.”

Another objective is “smart” agriculture, which will involve raising water productivity, controlling irrigation water consumption and changing farming behavior.

Elouafi said that getting farmers in the Kingdom to stop cultivating wheat took some time as they had become accustomed to heavy government subsidies. In 2015, wheat production was phased out, followed by potatoes a year later and then alfalfa. 

“Farmers were provided everything to the point where they got used to a very good income and a very easy system,” she said.

“Now farmers are being asked to start producing something else, but the income won’t be the same, so it’s very important at this stage that the ministry has a plan and it’s fully understood.”

The agreement envisages preparation of proposals for ministry projects that involve plant production, drought monitoring, development of promising local crop and forestation varieties, and conservation of plant genetic resources.

“We’re also discussing capacity building because the ministry is big and has many entities. Because Saudi Arabia is a large country and has the capacity to meet some of its food requirements internally, what’s required is a better understanding of the country’s natural capabilities in terms of production of the crops it needs, like certain cereals,” Elouafi said.

“The way the authorities are going about it right now is more organized and more holistic. They’re trying to plan it properly.”

Elouafi said that having a better understanding of Saudi Arabia’s water constraints and managing the precious resource is essential.

 

Although almost the entire country is arid, there is rainfall in the north and along the mountain range to the west, especially in the far southwest, which receives monsoon rains in summer.

 

Sporadic rain may also occur elsewhere. Sometimes it is very heavy, causing serious flooding, including in Riyadh.

“They (the government) are very interested in drought management systems. The Kingdom has a long history of agriculture,” Elouafi said.

“It has large quantities of water in terms of rainfall, and certain regions have mountainous conditions, which are conducive to agriculture.”

Clearly, preservation of water resources is a priority for the Saudi government. But no less urgent is the task of conversion of green waste to improve soil quality, increase soil productivity and water retention, and reduce demand for irrigation.

The Kingdom is one of at least three Gulf Cooperation Council countries that are taking steps to develop a regulatory framework for the recycling of waste into compost.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman are respectively aiming to recycle 85 percent, 75 percent and 60 percent of their municipal solid waste over the next decade, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) entitled “Global Food Trends to 2030.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE rank in the bottom quartile of the 34 countries covered by the EIU’s Food Sustainability Index, with low scores for nutrition and food loss and waste. 

The answer, according to many farmers, policymakers and food-industry experts, is a shift toward more sustainable management of each country’s natural resources.