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Volume 30, Number 3May/June 1979

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America as Alma Mater

Written and photographed by Katrina Thomas

Late one summer evening, the president of the University of Southern California drove out to the beach cottage of a prosperous business friend. He was to be a guest at an informal dinner party his friend was giving for a group of USC alumni who were thinking of setting up a new chapter of the alumni association. Nothing unusual about that in the schedule of a modern university president.

Except that the beach was not on California's Pacific coast and neither the prosperous friend nor the alumni were Californians - or even American. The dinner took place on the shore of the Red Sea, in Saudi Arabia. The host was Ahmad Abdullah al-Sulaiman of Jiddah. And his 25 guests were some of the more than 200 Saudi Arab businessmen, academics and government officials to whom USC is alma mater.

What is unusual about that story, however, is that it is not unusual. Although USC alumni in Saudi Arabia are certainly distinguished - they include, among others, two ministers of the kingdom's cabinet, the governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and the rector of one of the country's own universities - they are not unique. The University of Southern California is only one of many institutions across the United States that have been welcoming, instructing and graduating ever-increasing numbers of Arab students since World War II. Today, as a result, hundreds of the brightest and most promising leaders in the Middle East are alumni of American institutions who - almost without exception - cherish their memories of America as alma mater.

This is particularly true in Saudi Arabia where, increasingly, men with high educational qualifications - in academia, of course, but also in commerce, the oil industry and at the top levels of government as well - are graduates of U.S. colleges and universities. When King Khalid reorganized and expanded his cabinet to 26 members, four years ago, 10 of the men he selected - more than a third of the cabinet - had studied at American universities. Their portfolios include petroleum, industry, agriculture and water, commerce, information, labor and foreign affairs.

U.S. graduates are also well represented in Saudi Arabia's private business sector. Jiddah businessman Abdullah Baksh, for example, has a master's degree in business adminstration from USC. He started out in the hotel business and is now involved in insurance, construction and - in a joint venture with an American firm - prefabricated housing. One of his brothers, Muhammad, also attended USC; another, Adnan, went to Whittier College, and a third - Adil - is at San Francisco State. According to Baksh, his son will probably be next. "He's already running after me to go to the States," Baksh said, "and of course that's where I'll send him. For me, there's no alternative."

In fact, there are alternatives. European universities have been admitting Arab students since at least the days of Egypt's viceroy, Muhammad Ali And since the 1960's the Arab countries themselves, particularly in the Gulf, have been investing an impressive share of their revenues in higher education at home. (See Aramco World, November-December, 1969; July-August 1974) In the last 15 years Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have opened new universities, colleges, junior colleges, teacher training colleges and technical colleges. They have also enlarged and modernized existing institutions and the end results are impressive. In Saudi Arabia, for example, there were 23,600 university students enrolled in the kingdom's own institutions during the 1977-1978 academic year.

To accommodate the swelling numbers and needs of their students, however, governments in the Gulf have had to send more students to study abroad. From Saudi Arabia alone, according to the Saudi Educational Mission, some 11,000 students were studying in the U.S. during the 1978-79 terms, Kuwait sent 1,600, the United Arab Emirates nearly 800, Qatar nearly 500, Bahrain about 100 and Yemen and Oman approximately 250 each.

The reasons, say officials, are obvious. Foreign universities can help fill the inevitable gaps that occur in rapidly expanding educational systems in which facilities, courses and staffs fall short of the multiplying demands - particularly in technical fields. Universities abroad also provide opportunities for faculty members and graduate students to get advanced or highly specialized training for which demand is still limited in the Middle East. Equally important, officials and graduates agree, studying abroad provides students with an opportunity to broaden their cultural horizons by living, studying and working in an environment different from their own.

Abdullah al-Omar, for example, is a Kuwaiti who in 1978 was earning a Ph. D. at Harvard and writing a dissertation on the reception of Darwinism in the Arab world. But he was also fascinated by U.S. educational television and so videotaped Nova, a popular series on science, for later review. And Balkees al-Najjar, earning her doctorate in linguistics at Utah, has learned to ski in the American Rockies - as has Dawood Kamees, an undergraduate majoring in meteorology. Other examples include the Razzuqi sisters, Maha and Hana, studying industrial and biological engineering respectively, and Khadija al-Ali, a pre-med student. All three attend Syracuse University, where they may wear Kuwaiti national dress on formal occasions but wear jeans to class.

Students from the smaller Gulf states, or from Oman or Yemen, are often the sole representatives of their countries working for a degree at a given university. But this is rarely true of Saudi students. The 11,000 students sponsored by the Houston-based Saudi Educational Mission - which oversees the education of government-sponsored students and their wives - are enrolled in English-language institutes, colleges and universities in more than 550 cities in nearly every state.

In addition to the mission's count, there are several hundred children of Saudi students enrolled in American primary and secondary schools, and still other students sponsored by the Saudi Arab armed forces, by Saudia, the national airline, and by Aramco - as well as those who pay their own tuition and are sponsored, just like most American students, only by their families.

Most Saudi students in the U.S., however, are sponsored by their government which, a spokesman said, "will sponsor any qualified student who wants to study something that is not in conflict with tradition." But unless the student has demonstrated a strong interest and ability in a specific discipline, the government will direct him or her to a field of particular value to the kingdom. One third of the Saudi students, men and women, are enrolled in engineering courses and one sixth are in business and management. Other fields in which Saudi students are presently concentrated - and concentrating - are the social sciences, computer science, education, health services and psychology but they are also represented in dentistry, urban design, solar energy horticulture, poultry husbandry and forestry.

The tendency of Saudi Arabian students to seek higher education abroad goes back decades. According to A. L. Tibawi, in his book Islamic Education, Saudi Arab students began to travel abroad for a university education during the early 1940's - at first to Egypt, later to Lebanon and Syria. It was not until the end of World War II that they began to go further afield - to Europe and the United States - except for one man who went earlier: Dr. Fadil Gabani. Sent to America before the war by his family, Gabani later, in 1954, received a Ph.D. from the Colorado School of Mines. As Saudi Arabia's first Deputy Minister of Petroleum for Mineral Affairs he was responsible for initiating an extensive program of Saudi cooperation with the United States Geological Survey which continues to this day. He has also served as his country's representative to the European Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna, and last year was elected chairman of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for the 1978 -1979 term.

The second young Saudi to earn a degree in America was probably Abdullah Tariki, later the kingdom's first Minister of Petroleum and now a private petroleum consultant; he earned an M.A. in geology and petroleum engineering in Texas in 1947. Another of the very early students, and probably the first to go to the University of California, was a young man named Ali Abdallah Alireza, who was at Berkeley in April 1945, when the representatives of 46 nations met in San Francisco to draft the United Nations Charter. King Abd al-Aziz cabled the 23-year old student to take time out from his studies to join the Saudi Arab delegation at the conference, which was headed by his son, Prince Faisal, later king. Alireza accepted and immediately began to grow a beard in order to look a few years older. Today, still bearded, he is Saudi Arabia's distinguished ambassador to the United States in Washington.

In the spring of 1948 a second Saudi student enrolled at Berkeley: Salih Al-fadl. He stayed on at California to earn an M.A in economics in 1953, then returned to Saudi Arabia and worked five years for Aramco. Today Alfadl is a member of the boards of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and Petro-min (the General Petroleum and Minerals Organization), and chairman of the board of the Arabian Drilling Company.

In a way Salih Alfadl's enrollment marked a turning point, for although he was sent to the United States by his parents to study at their expense, he had only been at Berkeley a short time when he was awarded a full scholarship by his government. He joined a group of seven youngsters who in 1947 had arrived in San Francisco - where Aramco's U.S. headquarters were located at the time - as the first contingent of students officially sponsored by the kingdom. At the government's request, Aramco not only helped this first small group of "bursary students" find prep schools where they could have intensive English instruction, but also escorted them to a department store to outfit them for the unfamiliar rigors of an American winter.

Those were the first tentative but eager steps of Saudi Arabia's headlong run toward higher education in the United States. The first scholarship students returned to their homeland in the early 1950's; by the 1960's the kingdom was sending students to the United States by the hundreds and in the 1970's by the thousands. Tibawi writes that 360 Saudis were studying in America in 1964; if his figure is correct then their number increased almost exactly 10 times during the subsequent 10 years, and then more than tripled between 1974 and the end of 1978.

Although student migrations on this scale probably date only from this century, the phenomenon itself is as old as history. The bold, the bright and the ambitious have always been drawn toward the flame of invention and learning. As Arab students, justifiably proud, can be quick to remind you, nearly 1,000 years ago the great seats of knowledge were in Baghdad and Cairo, and in medieval times it was European students who flocked to study at the feet of Muslim scholars in such centers of scholarship and science as Cordoba, in Spain. (See Aramco World, September-October 1976)

Now the pendulum has swung the other way and in the second half of the 20th century an American education is seen as at least advantageous and in some cases vital. And when the Saudi Arab graduates return from America, the skills and experiences they've gained are quickly put to work. Most fill urgent needs for managers and planners; others, teaching, begin to pass on what they've learned. It is significant that seven of the 10 U.S. alumni now in the cabinet have served as teachers or adminstrators in one of Saudi Arabia's own universities after returning from their studies in America.

For those who have already studied in America and for those studying there now, the experience has been un equivocally rewarding - and not only in academic terms. As Taher Obeid, Saudi Arabia's former Deputy Minister of Agriculture put it: "In America, schools don't just plug students into a specialised field; they broaden horizons. The degree is an important element, but for the student just being there, being
exposed to the society, is perhaps equally important."

Gifts and Grants and Grateful Grads

When a bank draft arrives from an Arab country to help finance a U. S. university program, or help to fund its scholarship needs, there is little publicity given to the gift although it is invariably received with quiet rejoicing. And so it was an unusual campus event when, on a sunny October day in the fall of 1977, Arab dignitaries from the Kuwaiti delegation to the United Nations and a half-dozen photographers showed up at a Saturday soccer game inaugurating the Youssufal-Marzook athletic fields at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. A successful Kuwaiti businessman—and former campus soccer star—Faisal al-Marzook had donated $250,000 to the university to construct the playing fields named for his father. The gift, he said, was given in gratitude for his education and for the friends he had made in the community; the inscription in Arabic and English on the slate tablets at the entrance read: ".... to the encouragement of international peace through academic cooperation and interchange."

Faisal al-Marzook's gift may have been the largest made by an individual Arab alumnus to his American alma mater, but it was far from being the most important recent donation to Middle East studies in the United States. According to one professor, "There is more Arab generosity filtering into U.S. institutions than is publicized."

The gifts include:

- $1 million to endow the King Faisal Chair for Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Southern California, from the govemment of Saudi Arabia;

- $1 million to endow a medical chair at St. Luke's Hospital, an affiliate of Columbia University, from the government of Kuwait;

- $200,000 for a program of Islamic and Arabian development studies to Duke University, from the government of Saudi Arabia;

- $100,000 each to the Universities of Pennsylvania and Georgetown and to Johns Hopkins SAIS to develop Arab studies programs, and $25,000 for the appointment of a professor of Near Eastern science at New York University, given by Sultan Qabus of Oman;

- $750,000 from the government of Libya for the al-Mukhtar Chair of Arab Culture at Georgetown University, and $88,000 to help fund an interdisciplinary program on Arab development at the University of Utah;

- $250,000 from the United Arab Emirates to support a visiting professorship of Arab civilization at Georgetown University;

- A grant from the Ministry of Education of Qatar to help publish al-Arabiya, a journal devoted to the Arabic language, produced by the American Association of Teachers of Arabic.

- An annually endowed chair at Harvard University, the only chair in the history of Islamic science in the world, from the government of Kuwait;

- Two-thirds of the funding for Georgetown University's new Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, given by a group of Arab countries. The center's board of advisors includes representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

U.S. colleges and universities, many of which are fighting for their lives in the face of rising education costs and dwindling support from foundations and the federal government, are looking to alumni, both at home and abroad, and to the countries of the Middle East for support of international programs devoted to better cross-cultural communications in a shrinking world.

Bryn Mawr College, which has students enrolled from 10 Middle Eastern countries, is the first to embark on a drive for scholarship funds intended expressly for women from those Arab countries which lack the means to send women abroad for study. The college has raised enough money to enable three students - a Yemeni, a Jordanian and a Palestinian - to pursue four-year courses.

Bryn Mawr believes that bringing female students to the U.S. from the Middle East does more than provide educational opportunities for Arab women; it also enriches the learning and cultural experience of its American students. Munira Fakhro, a Bryn Mawr graduate student from Bahrain in the School of Social Work and Social Research, would agree. "We really need more cross-cultural information," she says, "I am the only foreigner in my seminar and study is pretty well limited to American problems and communities. Learning the methodology is important, but the problems of a changing society like Bahrain's need different solutions. I get extra books to read about developing countries, but the other students are rarely interested in our problems. Their concerns are strictly American."

It is possible that other students gain more from the experience of having Munira in the seminar than either she or they are aware of, and this mutual benefit is one reason why Arab countries are encouraged to send students and to help finance Middle East studies. The academics, responding to criticism that the donors are buying influence, say that the Arab governments are simply paying part of the educational costs for wider knowledge of the language, the history and the culture of the Middle East.

An Egyptian-born professor, Dr. Abdulhamid Sabra, who occupies the Harvard chair of the history of Islamic science, explains: "The Arab nations know they have a stake in American education. They are not well enough understood, and they know it will benefit them when Americans know more about them than how many barrels of oil are being imported, and what it costs."

The Princes of Princeton

By the attention and encouragement that he gave to the education of his sons, Saudi Arabia's late ruler King Faisal set a personal example that paralleled his country's policy of enthusiastic support for students seeking higher education abroad. Of the King's eight sons, seven went off as boys to the United States for preparatory work at Hun School in Princeton, New Jersey or at nearby Lawrenceville School. All seven then went on to universities in the United States or England.

The first to study abroad was Prince Muhammad, the second oldest son. He attended both Lawrenceville and Hun School, then Swarthmore College. He earned his B.S. in business administration at Menlo Park in California. Back in Saudi Arabia, he worked at the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture, became governor of the Saline Water Conversion Corporation, and then went into private business.

Prince Khalid, now Amir of Asir Province (See Aramco World, January-February 1974), graduated from Hun School and spent one year at Princeton University - where he captained the soccer team - before going on to Oxford.

Prince Sa'ud, the fourth son, also went to Hun School and Princeton. After his graduation in 1965 with a B.A. in economics, he served nearly 10 years in the kingdom's General Petroleum and Minerals Organization (Petromin) and in the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, finally becoming deputy to Shaikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister. None of King Faisal's sons served as ministers in their father's cabinet, but Prince Sa'ud has been appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government of his uncle, King Khalid.

Military careers have absorbed Prince Abd al-Rahman and Prince Bandar. Now an officer, Prince Abd al-Rahman graduated from Hun School and then from England's prestigious Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. After leaving Hun, Prince Bandar attended Pomona and Whittier Colleges in California and later, after completing Royal Air Force pilot training at Cranwell, England, went on to the University of Washington. He is now a captain in the Royal Saudi Air Force.

The sixth Saudi prince to attend Hun School was Prince Sa'ad. He too went on to Princeton University, but moved to an English university after a year and a half. Then, with a law degree from Cambridge, he returned for his first assignments: in Petromin and the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources.

Prince Turki, the youngest of the seven who studied abroad, attended Hun School and graduated from Lawrenceville. He studied at Princeton and Georgetown Universities in the United States, then at Cambridge University and the University of London, where he graduated with a degree in Shari'ah law in 1972. He now serves as an advisor to the government of his uncle the king.

As the youngest brother, Prince Turki says, he couldn't wait to join the others and constantly pleaded with his father to let him go. King Faisal eventually agreed, and, in telling the young prince, explained his views on education, especially education in America.

"I remember him telling me that although he'd prefer I were a little older - 7 was 13 - he'd decided to let me go because my brothers were there to look after me. But he told me I wasn't too young to remember that education isn't an end in itself, but a means to an end. The more you excel, the more you are able to achieve your goals"

"And he stressed that even though my brothers were there, I should make friends with my American classmates, because I would learn from them as well as from the teachers. He chose the United States for our education because he felt it was a great opportunity for us - not only academically, but also to see life there as it was actually lived by Americans...Asa result we came to know the United States, and to learn that Americans are not all rabid monsters out to exploit us..."

He and his brothers, Prince Turki went on, took full advantage of the opportunity to see an unvarnished America. He himself, for example, decided to attend Georgetown University, which simultaneously introduced him to Jesuits and national politics.

Georgetown, for Turki, was a wholly new experience after the relatively sheltered life of Princeton. Going to Washington D.C. from Princeton, he said, was a definite change. It was leaving a quiet village for a city that was, as one local radio station liked to call it, "the capital of the Free World."

The university was also a substantial change, the prince said. "It would have been for any Saudi Arab student, because it was a Jesuit school. As I gradually got to know the teachers, I was struck by a similarity in our outlooks quite different from what I'd expected beforehand from reading history. I discovered that we shared a motive in life: to serve God and, through work, to worship God."

"For me," Prince Turki added, "this means living the life of a true Muslim; learning to use modern methods and technology in order to better worship God in a modern age. Some people are anxious lest, as we adapt the technology of those who hold views different from ours, our values be eroded because they won't be portrayed as 'progressive.' But the majority in Saudi Arabia believe that our faith in God is such that it can endure the enticements of materialism."

" I had a beautiful time in the United States. I took my wife and two kids and all four of us went to school. The U.S. system really gets you to study; it's in the atmosphere. A tremendous way of teaching. You never know when there will be a quiz, you always have a paper to write, you have to learn to use the library. You have 15 or 20 people in a class, not l,000 in one room like a big movie theater where if one person coughs you miss the lecture."

Abdullah Baksh
Businessman, Jiddah
M.B..A, USC, 1967

"I learned far more than one thing from my academic and living experience in the United States. One could write an essay describing what, how and why he was influenced: efficiency, organization, a sense of responsibility, self-discipline, ambition, all coupled with hard work and the free democratic system. I also learned from the negative aspects of American life what we should be careful not to acquire here in Saudi Arabia. If you asked me to limit myself to one single positive thing, I would say self-discipline, which unfortunately I believe we lack. I brought it back with me.

I would choose to go to America again if I had to decide. In fact, that is exactly what I have done with regard to my own children, who will either do their graduate or postgraduate work there.

Saudi Arabia is working very hard to establish enough universities at home to meet our undergraduate requirements. But we must send our sons and daughters abroad for specific
branches in their postgraduate studies. The distance between us and technology is rather vast, and it still can't be shortened by our local institutions. Of course, before recommending a U.S.
university I would want to know the subject to be studied. For instance, I could easily recommend Harvard for law, business administration or medicine, MIT for engineering, and the Colorado School of Mines for mining or geology."

Ahmed Zaki Yamani
Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources LLB., University of Cairo, 7952; M. A, NYU, 2955.

" I had Hollywood cowboy impressions of the United States before I went and I was really surprised to see firsthand how law-abiding and religious Americans were. I also gained a better understanding of how people there conduct their lives and businesses, and in comparing my own way of life and thinking with that of my host country, I learned how to look at the pros and cons of issues.

When I returned to Saudi Arabia I was appointed General Manager of the Saudi Government Railroad. I'll tell you frankly, I would hesitate a moment to accept now. It was probably the best experience I've ever had, but it was a real trial by fire. I eventually moved on to head the civil service and then serve as a Minister of State before coming to SAMA as Governor. Of course it will take a bit longer for a graduate to climb the ladder now, but the opportunities today are even greater than in the past, because with our present Development Plan there is so much activity in every sector, government and private.

In my mind the lack of enough skilled manpower is still the number-one problem in this country. Our problem number one, two and three. We have Saudi Arabs who are highly qualified, but not yet in sufficient numbers. We need quantity as well as quality. To build a port, for example, it takes maybe a year or two. To begin to develop a nation, with a pool of technocrats, you need a minimum of 30."

Abdulaziz al-Khuraishi
Governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency M.B.A., USC, I960

"Being subjected to a new atmosphere is extremely important in the making of a man. A student gets away...from dependence on his parents. He rents a room...deals with a landlord...buys and cooks his food...deals with problems. Suddenly he finds himself...

I remember being extremely happy during my university days in California. I was active in various club activities, in writing for the student newspaper, in the International Club, the Model United Nations. I was really active, and I enjoyed it tremendously, making speeches all over the place-though I wouldn't want to remember what I said then. Part of my happiness there was the ease of getting along with fellow students, the professors, people in the Santa Monica community... The contrast of two cultures! I feel I learned to look at things objectively, to act realistically, to appreciate the value of debate.

I don't know any Saudi Arab who has studied in the United States who has come back with a feeling against it. As a matter of fact we've been accused here in Saudi Arabia of favoring America. One former ambassador of a European country called us the California Mafia because so many people in the decision-making process have studied at various California institutions... I don't think that is necessarily true. Of course, there is no doubt that in a variety of fields America is the most advanced country. That's just a fact we have to recognize. U.S. business has won many projects in Saudi Arabia - but on merit. And merit shall continue to be our criterion of selection."

Hisham Muhyi al-Nazer
Minister of Planning
2957; M.A., UCLA,1958

"The academic degree is only part of the experience of studying in America. You gain perspective. You find out you are only a small part of this big world. You learn about Americans' work ethic and their forthrightness.

Saudi Arabia has two big problems, manpower and infrastructure. We are trying to solve the first by training and education, the second simply by building. There is a great role for America here."

Dr. Soliman Solaim
Minister of Commerce M.A..USC; Ph.D., School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins

"Nowadays the role of agriculture is becoming appreciated. And it seems the people who are enthusiastic, who are putting themselves out, are the grads from the U.S. It may be a
coincidence, but they seem more adventurous, more willing to go into the field and get their hands dirty. They've seen it and they're used to it.

Taher Obeid
Former Deputy Minister of Agriculture
B. A., Chico State University

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the May/June 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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