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June 8, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

The Kingdom

We are nearing the end of our first full day in Saudi Arabia. I knew going into this that the experience would be eye-opening, but I think that so far it has been different than anyone had expected. The reality of the trip fully set in as I pulled my abaya on over my clothes on the plane. When we arrived at the airport, we walked off the plane not knowing who would be meeting us, where they would be taking us, and what we would be doing for the next few days. The customs lines were worryingly long and slow moving, many people were sitting down on the floor they had been waiting so long. When we alerted someone that we were guests of the Ministry of Higher Education, however, we were shuffled to the front of the line and got through customs relatively quickly by a man who spent more time texting on his cell phone than he did looking at us. The men had to give fingerprints and have a picture taken; the women didn’t.

The special treatment we received in customs did not end there: the guide who met us promptly informed the group that the Ministry had made reservations for us at the Al Faisaliah Hotel, one of the nicest in the kingdom, and that the Ministry would be taking care of all costs. He also informed us that the group would be making a quick trip to Jeddah, which was very exciting. Driving through Riyadh to the hotel was surreal…there was sand everywhere!  When we got to the hotel, we were greeted by an entourage of friendly staff who offered us coffee, dates, and mango smoothies. Everyone seemed so excited to see us, I got the sense that they do not receive foreign visitors there often. The rest of the evening was spent oogling over all the amenities the hotel offered us, paid for by our hosts, the Ministry.

The next day was wonderful. First the men and women split up to visit the respective campuses of King Saud University. We met the dean of the arts school, who brought five of her colleagues to field our questions. They were all very open and comfortable with us, and spoke about how they believed that the “Golden Age” of Saudi women was upon them, with new opportunities springing up in many places. We saw the university’s Disability Services center, which offers more help for deaf, blind, and physically and learning disabled students than I think Johns Hopkins does. The women all wear western clothing, but put their abayas and headscarves back on before leaving the campus gates.

Speaking of abayas, we love wearing them. They are very comfortable. It feels almost like a uniform, you fit in and feel at ease when walking around. The headscarves are a different issue; none of us know how to wrap them and they are constantly slipping off. We talked a lot about the gender issue throughout the day. Even at our hotel, which is extremely Westernized, we have seen men and women turn away or wait for another elevator when the current one is occupied by someone of the opposite sex.

After our visit to the school and a short trip to the King Faisal Islamic Studies and Research Center, we had a short break during which we visited the top floor of our hotel, which offered a 360 view of the entire city. Unfortunately, I think it may be the closest we will get to Riyadh’s residential areas…our movements seem fairly tightly controlled by the Ministry. Rafee’s uncle graciously offered to take us all to his home and downtown Riyadh tonight, to show us where the kids our age hang out, but our Ministry guide informed us that it was “not permitted.” I am disappointed that we won’t be walking around, but I am also just grateful to be here at all. As Professor David reminded us, the Saudi’s have no need for tourism money, and neither tourism nor student visas exist. This was made clear during our travels today. There was no one else up on the roof of the hotel, even though it was probably the best view of the city. There were also no other visitors at the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center, a huge museum which would have most likely been packed in the United States. Although we wondered if the Ministry’s restriction was an attempt to shield us from Saudi society, and perhaps vice versa, the American foreign service officer who visited with us at the hotel that night explained that it was instead probably a liability issue. Because we are here as the Ministry’s guests, they are responsible for us and anything that might happen to us outside of the hotel would be on their shoulders. Anyway, I am just thankful to be here, as limited a view as it is. It is not a bad place to be cooped up in, after all. I believe I’ll go summon my butler to draw a bath for me. You think I’m kidding!

-Hannah Elson


One Comment

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  1. Osamah Halaoa / Jun 8 2011 9:23 pm

    Welcome Welcome To KSA!
    I see that you are wondering why there is no one neither in the museum nor the Hotel roof, because it’s exams time here in KSA for all schools.
    by the way, what does “oogling” means ? >> actually it is new word for Google translator too lol
    anyway, I hope you’ll have a wonderful time and to see how is the real life in KSA and our culutres!

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