Every year for the past 3 years, Riyadh has hosted an enormous international exhibition and conference on higher education. The main goals are to build relationships and collaborations between Saudi and international universities. It also serves as a ground for international universities to recruit Saudi undergraduate and graduate students, with both sides no doubt wanting to take advantage of the generous King Abdullah Scholarship Program. Most if not all Saudi universities are in attendance and are represented by elaborate booths, such as the ones pictured here:Dammam University even had a waterfall set up in front of it, which caught the eye of some future students:
In addition, I was amazed to see that there were more than 400 universities from all around the world in attendance. Certain institutions were invited as formal guests of the Ministry of Higher Education, and as such, these institutions got to send three delegates who were flown first class, put up in the very new, very ritzy, Ritz Carlton Hotel, and got to have their booths on the red carpet-lined main corridor of the exhibition hall. Our university was one of the Ministry’s invited guests so we got a prime location for viewing the activities of the exhibition. This included being subjected to the barrage of people, security, and TV cameras who followed the Minister of Higher Education everywhere he went when he was at the exhibition on the first day to open the activities.
All the universities were organized by country and certainly it looked like the major areas of interest for prospective Saudi students were the US, UK, Australia, and Canada. Japan had a strong presence too.
And tucked away in a far corner of the exhibition hall, I was pleasantly surprised to find a university from as far-flung a place as Azerbaijan. (I wonder how many international students they manage to recruit to Baku?)
But perhaps the most interesting (most alarming?) booth was the one for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, also known as the religious police (mutaween), or ‘haia’ (arabic for ‘commission’). They were planted in a prime location right in the heart of the exhibition hall.
When I first saw them listed among the list of Saudi institutions, I thought that maybe they ran a sort of religious police academy? Perhaps a religious university? But no, they were there to promote virtue and prevent vice. Indeed, I heard from some of the delegates from other Canadian universities that they had been going around the exhibition on the first day to let all the foreigners know that women should cover their hair. As such, I found myself in the surprising situation of giving these women mini lessons on how to properly wrap their scarves around their head. Seems like I’ve come a long way since the days of my two-slitted head coverings!