Nine Days in Riyadh

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — This Friday afternoon finds me in the Saudi Arabian capital city of Riyadh, a city of approximately 7 million people in the middle of one of the largest deserts and oil deposits in the world. Today is a moderate day of approximately 36 Celsius (95F)… and this isn’t the hot season yet, which average in the low 40s (around 110F) during June to August.

I am here on behalf of my organization, the Educational Policy Institute, which was awarded a contract by the US-based AMIDEAST organization, in partnership with the Saudi-based King Faisal Foundation (KFF), to evaluate the University Preparatory Program (UPP) at Al Faisal University. The UPP was created in 2007 to identify and prepare talented high school graduates in the Kingdom (as it is called) for matriculation to Al Faisal University and other esteemed universities around the world.

I thought it might be interesting, perhaps mostly for me and less so for readers, to detail my experiences in a nation that is little known in North America, with the exception of an old, old movie and occasional news pieces. Saudi Arabia has been a fairly closed society since 1932, when the current configuration of the country was established. Thus, insider looks have been few and far between. Starting today, I will be filing occasional updates to this piece over the next 10 days, so please stay tuned. The blog will serve as part travelogue and part description of the experiences with students, faculty, and instructors at the UPP.

Part One – Getting There to Here

There are further places to travel to in this world, but Riyadh is pretty far for my experience. It starts simple enough: a 30-minute flight from Norfolk to Washington-Dulles Airport to catch my 12-hr flight to Kuwait. In this case, because of delays in Norfolk, I had just enough time to catch the United flight to Kuwait at 9:45pm. Nothing like that comforting notion of making your flight and believing that your luggage didn’t. That would only be so bad if my first meeting wasn’t upon arrival at the airport…

I luckily was able to upgrade, so I can’t complain too much about the flight. I remain thankful I was able to sleep; 12 hours is a long time in any tin can. Not quite disconcerting, but certainly of notice is flying over Baghdad. Not that I could see anything, but knowing that much is happening 31,000 feet below makes this seem like anything but a normal flight.

I spoke with a US-army serviceman in Norfolk and then again at Dulles who had done more of his share of tours in the Gulf, starting back in 1990. He spoke mainly about Afghanistan, which he said was once a beautiful, lush country before the “wars.” Now it has “no color” and is “dismal and sad,” according to his account. He had had the opportunity to visit several schools over the years, and said it was heartbreaking to see the conditions that Afghan children had to endure to learn, if what they were doing was actually learning. He said that he kicks his kids’ collective butts in if they start complaining about school. His comments reminded my of the presentation by best-selling author Greg Mortenson at Old Dominion University last November. Mortenson detailed his chronicles building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the book Three Cups of Tea.

I landed in Kuwait early on Monday evening. Not much to see in the airport, but the first thing I noticed coming out of the jet way was — McDonalds and Taco Bell. No joke, I even had to snap the shot below of Ronald McDonald greeting us. And in my head I can hear that Disney song, “It’s a small world after all.” The reality is, these US products are ubiquitous around the world now. I found the same thing in Prague during my original travels there in 2002, and I am currently sitting in a Seattle’s Best Coffee in Riyadh next to my hotel. In fact, I can walk 30 seconds out the door in one direction to the Starbucks or 30 seconds in the opposite direction to the Dunkin Donuts. On the other side of the hotel is KFC next to, yes, a Taco Bell, with Applebee’s Chili’s, and TGIFridays just down the way.

I was picked up at the Riyadh airport on Monday night by John Aydelott, the Director of the UPP. A Tennessean by birth and education (and former opera singer), John has lived in the Middle East for over 30 years. John and I drove in from the airport and had dinner at the Hotel Al Khozama, a nice accommodation in Riyadh owned by the King Faisal Foundation, as are many of the buildings around it, including the state-of-the-art Faisaliah Tower (see photo). I believe we are having dinner there tomorrow night. Over dinner, at an outside restaurant at the hotel (the weather in the evening is quite comfortable), John was able to provide me with an idea of education in Saudi Arabia and also the UPP.

Part Two: The Program

This research project originated relatively quickly. Don Heller at Penn State suggested to AMIDEAST that EPI might be a good fit for this work, with our background in transition programs and also a solid understanding of international education issues. Within 24 hours, we had a proposal on their desk, and shortly thereafter a signed contract (not without its challenges, of course; contracts are never that seamless). Although we were finalized, we had to pass the scrutiny of the funder, the King Faisal Foundation, and also get our Visas processed. Less than a month after the contract is signed, I’m on a plane to Riyadh to be followed by our Vice President, Alex Usher, who arrives tonight.

The UPP program was inaugurated in Fall 2007 with its first entering class of high school graduates. The UPP is designed to prepare students for the high-level studies at Al Faisal University, a new (opening in Fall 2008), private university in Riyadh. Private universities are a relatively new concept in the area, and is also charging tuition of 96,000 Riyals/year, or about US $25,000. This is big coin in Saudi Arabia; a land of immense wealth and great poverty, side-by-side.

Al Faisal is designed to be the “MIT” of Saudi Arabia, although the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a brand-new, also yet-to-be-opened university north of the city of Jeddah on the Red Sea, is also laying some claim to that title. But Al Faisal also understands that it needs to prop up the nation’s students for such high-level learning. Enter the UPP.

The UPP is, effectively, a one-year academic bridge program between high school and matriculation to Al Faisal University to bring students up in their English-language learning and also support a greater utility of mathematics and science. Without such support many students, especially Saudis, would not be able to succeed at the level anticipated at Al Faisal University. Thus, the UPP program, as is the university, is part of a grand social, if not economic, experiment to change the way higher education works in the Kingdom. The Saudi public education system is not known for its academic prowess. In fact, the public system provides most of its coursework in Islamic studies, with very little emphasis on mathematics and science. As anticipated, the studies are in Arabic, with limited cultivation of English. Private schools provide more opportunities, including studies in English, but they are available only to those who have the finances to afford private schools, just like in most other countries.

King Abdullah and other members of the Royal Family have come to understand that the future of the Kingdom depends on its ability to diversify from the oil business into other global issues. And to do that requires a highly-educated citizenry, one that can learn in English-speaking universities to be able to participate in the global economy. Thus, again, comes Al Faisal University and the UPP.

UPP began in September 2007 and has 91 students in its inaugural run, who will graduate late spring. Twenty-four instructors from around the world, most from the US and Canada, provide instruction in English, mathematics, and science, with additional focus on business application for those in the business section of the program.

The program is divided into three areas, or “pathways,” which include medicine, engineering, and business. Within those areas, students are divided by their academic and English proficiency into appropriate levels.

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