Tuesday, 27 November 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar
SINCE arriving in the United Kingdom two months ago for my studies at Newcastle University I have had the opportunity to meet many different people from around the world who have the same ambitions that I do: To get the most out of my Ph.D program and all that I can from British culture and return home to give my countrymen the benefit of what I have learned. In my circle of friends and colleagues I am fortunate to know the British, of course, but also Americans, Canadians, Colombians, Egyptians, Libyans, Kuwaitis, Bahrainis and a young woman from Luxembourg.
I am amazed and pleased with the number of Saudis on campus and in my own program. And as Saudis we are acutely aware of how we are portrayed in the media and perceived by our peers on campus.
Although all of our classmates, professors and university staff are polite and gracious, if not very friendly when talking to us, in a way we feel as if we occasionally have to explain ourselves.
The tragedy of the "Qatif Girl," the Saudis' anticipated role in the Israel-Palestinian peace conference this week at Annapolis and King Abdullah's visit to London earlier this month has put Saudi Arabia in the headlines quite a bit.
I took an informal sampling of Saudis on campus about their observation of Western perceptions and the West's perceptions of them as well. I found Saudis hopeful, encouraged and they consider their stay in this country a pleasure.
I also found an underlying sense of anxiety, mostly about how we are perceived by Western media. And that causes perhaps the most concern about my colleagues.
"The media move according to a perceived agenda to achieve their political goals regardless of the credibility of what they say," said Sultan Al-Amri, a student at Newcastle University and chairman of the Saudi Club and the Saudi Association of Newcastle.
"But, unfortunately, the Arabic media are still unable to portray the real picture to the West in order to correct their misconception."
It was particularly evident during King Abdullah's visit, which was marked by some discord over alleged human rights abuses, including Vince Cable, leader of the opposition party, the Liberal Democrats. Cable boycotted the visit claiming that Saudi Arabia's human rights record, specifically its death penalty laws, its anti-terrorism efforts and women's rights needed improvement.
Al-Amri observed the media coverage does not reflect British attitudes towards Saudis. He noted that Saudis have generally been free of stereotyping.
"The good and deeply rooted relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom can never be reflected in a way better than having 7,000 Saudi students receiving their education at UK universities without any kind of harassment," Al-Amri said.
"They (the British government) have international experience in dealing with different people from different countries since the time of the Great British empire, which is reflected in the way British people deal with minorities among them."
Ali Al-Qahtani, a doctorate student at Northumbria University, said it saddens him that "Western countries look at Islam as if it's a religion of terror," and blames Western journalists. He said Muslim students need to educate non-Muslims.
"The media are the only window through which they can have an idea about Muslims and their culture," Al-Qanti said.
"However, those studying abroad have a role to play about changing the picture of Islam and Muslims by representing the true Islamic values."
Manal Al-Hakami, who is studying for her master's degree at Newcastle University, said the difference between reality and media perception is evident in the way the British government treats Arab and Muslim students. She noted the British government is quick and efficient in issuing visas for Saudi students.
"It's a reflection on the good relationship between the two countries in the way Saudis are dealt with by British government officials and university employees, as Saudis don't face discrimination or ill-treatment, even in the classroom."
Like Al-Qahtani, she wants to see Saudi students should increase their participation in social activities in a way that it best represents Islamic values.
Naif Al-Sharif, a doctorate student at Newcastle University, said he has seen some discrimination.
"Sometimes Saudi students face harassment from the British because they correlate between terrorism and Saudi people," he said. "However, not all of the people think about that, at least the people in the street don't."
While Saudi university students are concerned about the Kingdom's image abroad, their worries are somewhat closer to day-to-day living in the United Kingdom and whether King Abdullah can effect changes that would make living abroad more comfortable.
Al-Hakami said living on a students' allowance provided by the Saudi government is difficult at best. She said Arab students form other countries, such as Libya, Kuwait and Qatar, have a more generous living allowance.
"Saudis get the smallest allowance," she said, adding that the understaffed Saudi Cultural Attache's office in London makes it difficult to have student issues resolved.
"Some of the students have difficulties in communication with Saudi supervisors at the Cultural Attache's office because the number of office personnel is too low for the number of students," she said.
Zaid Al-Otaibi, a Saudi doctorate student at Newcastle, said there is an increase in the number of Saudis holding leading positions in both government and private industry who are graduates of British universities. Being a graduate of a British university he is a good motive for students who want to succeed as a professional.
"The UK is the best place where students can receive education away from the harassment that our Saudi compatriots face in other countries where politicians get easily confused every time a new political issue takes place," he said.