Tag Archives: university

Riyadh Higher Education Conference and Exhibition

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!

girls leading the charge?

Yesterday, there were news reports here of several female university students injured following a protest at King Khalid University in the city of Abha, located in western Saudi Arabia. There were apparently around a 1000 students who gathered to protest against corruption and deplorable learning conditions at the university, including garbage allowed to accumulate around the cafeteria and insufficient seating in lecture halls despite repeated complaints from students. At least 50 students were injured and several had to be sent to hospital. Some reports stated that a student died following an epileptic seizure and another suffered a miscarriage, but not all the coverage reported the death, so that fact is uncertain.

This university protest is just the latest among a few that have occurred over the last year – all but one, to my knowledge , by female university students. I should also point out that any sort of public demonstrations are banned in Saudi Arabia, making these university protestors even that much braver. Last year, there were protests by female students at Princess Nora University when apparently 70% of the class failed the English exam. You can be pretty sure that when a majority of the students fail an exam, there’s something wrong with the exam … and the instructor! And also last year, female university students at Umm Al Qura University in Mecca stormed the university’s administration building protesting the institution’s admissions policy that unfairly considered family and personal connections (“wasta”) over actual merit and academic grades.

Change and revolution is often seeded by the youth, as seen by so many examples throughout history. For Saudi Arabia, will it be the women who will lead the charge?

Saudi women – between yesterday and today

I reflected a couple of posts ago about my induction into camelmum’s circle of trust. While that was a significant step forward for my social standing among the family, I was actually more struck by the amazing generational divide represented by the women in the hareem that evening.

Imagine a large living room with sofas lining the perimeter. Large coffee tables are situated in the middle of the room and smaller side tables positioned between every 2 to 3 seats. Arabic coffee and dates are abundant, and large platters full of chocolates in fancy wrapping are served. When the guests enter the hareem, they first circulate among all the women who are already there, greeting them with handshakes and kisses on the cheek. The closer you are to the person, the more kisses you get. The older women, the matriarchs of their families, are the first to be greeted, followed by the person sitting next to them and so on until the round is complete. Then they choose a seat, generally according to their age group. Naturally, once everyone has arrived, a generational grouping is evident across the room. At the far end of the room, furthest from the door, sit the matriarchs. These are the women of camelmum’s generation – her sisters, sisters-in-law, and cousins, and maybe an aunt or two. Next are the women in their forties and fifties, mixed in with us thirty-somethings (camelmum’s daughters, daughters-in-law, and nieces), followed by  camelmum’s older grandchildren (the teens and twenty-somethings). The little kids (both boy and girls attend) are typically running around the house.

The generational divide between the groups is evident even by their appearance. Most of the matriarchs have a thin black scarf wrapped around their hair, even though there are no men around. I think this signifies their respect to each other and status within the family. They might have some henna adorning their fingernails and hands and their style of dress is typically more conservative and traditional (long, floor-length cotton dresses). Next the 30-50-somethings have got a bit more modern-style clothing – silk blouses and long skirts, or something along those lines. The younger generation sport more modern clothes, from shops like The Gap; jeans, t-shirts, and shorter dresses (although generally still below the knee).

When I look across this hareem, I am amazed by the societal change across the last 60-70 years represented by these women. Camelmum, and the women of her generation, would have gotten married when they were very young – around 14-16 years of age – invariably an arranged marriage, perhaps to a first cousin or more distant relative. Perhaps they had their first couple of children when they in their teens. They probably didn’t have much schooling and may still be functionally illiterate. But they worked hard for their family and raised hard-working, studious kids. Infant mortality rate was high too (even in 1976, after camelman was born, it was high at 90 per 1000 births); camelmum herself lost 5 out of the 11 babies she gave birth to. They would have witnessed the immense change brought on by the rise of the oil economy in Saudi Arabia. Camelmum grew up in a small village called Al Ghat, about 260 km from Riyadh. Her sister, who still lives in Al Ghat, can remember when the Canadian engineers (from Bell Canada) came to install the telephone lines there and when electricity was hooked up to her house.

By the time her kids were growing up, all of camelmum’s sons and daughters had the opportunity to attend university and even study abroad (for the boys), thanks to the growing wealth of the country. All of my sisters-in-law completed university, although they were generally relegated to becoming teachers, social workers, or administrators. Marriage trends were changing too, with  the age at marriage slightly increasing (all of camelman’s sisters and sisters-in-law got married when they were between 18 and 25 years old). Once they became full-time mothers, though, it was generally accepted that they stop working to stay at home and raise the kids, an attitude, I should point out, that is still not unheard of, even in some present-day western societies.

The really interesting jump is evident with camelman’s older nieces, the ones who are just starting university now. I watch them interacting with each other much as  young women in the West do – with their iPhones, sharing photos and the latest jokes from the internet and videos from Youtube, talking about Facebook, recent blockbuster movies they watched in Dubai, and the latest fashions and wonders of MoroccanOil. These bright young women are all in university, studying science, dentistry, pharmacy, and related fields. One of them is attending Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University – a huge new university (complete with its own monorail system) aiming to be the largest female-only university in the world. They have ambitions to go on to graduate degrees and even go abroad to for post-graduate studies – and most tellingly, all this with the support of their parents. Ask them about marriage and they brush the topic aside. No time to think about it – education and career comes first!

As for the little girls running around the house, singing and chattering on about SpongeBob SquarePants – well, I can’t even imagine what their futures will look like, but am sure it will be open to even more amazing opportunities.