Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Greatest Kind of Diplomacy

By Sabria S. Jawhar

Two California universities have signed partnership agreements with Saudi Arabia to bring faculty members to the Kingdom to develop research programs and help hire and train professors. A third university is finalizing its agreement.

The University of Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley plan to be part of the $10-billion King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Jeddah. California Polytechnic State University, a nationally ranked, four-year comprehensive public university in San Luis Obispo, and more commonly known as Cal Poly, will help design engineering programs for the University College of Jubail.

This is an extraordinary opportunity for both American and Saudi educators to benefit from the partnership. The universities will profit handsomely from the deal. Cal Poly will receive $5.9 million over five years to develop engineering studies at Jubail. Cal Poly faculties will also build laboratories and train professors, although only men will be able to participate as either students or teachers.

Berkeley stands to earn $28 million in a five-year agreement to create a mechanical engineering department, while Stanford will receive $25 million to design the math and computer science departments at KAUST.

KAUST, in fact, will be an island unto itself with a co-ed system, complete with American and European professors and academic freedom.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, all three US universities received harsh criticism from students, advocacy groups and even fellow faculty members for the deals. Critics cite Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the seemingly never-ending argument of women’s rights and allegations of restrictions of academic freedom.

I will be the first to admit that what Saudi Arabia needs probably more than anything is to improve its human rights track record. I have complained enough about women’s rights in the past, so I certainly understand the concerns of the Americans.

Cal Poly in particular has been hit hard by critics, who claim that partnering with Saudi Arabia means an endorsement of discrimination against women. These critics proudly proclaim themselves to be liberal thinkers who must take a stand to side with Saudi women in what they claim is their fight for equality.

But these so-called academic liberals entirely miss the point of what the three universities are attempting to do.

First, let’s consider the argument that American universities should not participate in academic programs in a country that allegedly denies women their rights. The question is whether students and university professors think that isolating that country will actually work. I would think that the US has realized by now that isolation and sanctions almost never work. They’ve been isolating and placing sanctions on Cuba for more than half century now, and yet Fidel Castro stepped down – voluntarily, I might add – only this year, outlasting no less than nine US administrations, and handed the island over to his brother, of all people. So there you go.

Then there’s Iran. No matter how the US keeps tightening the screws, now, almost three decades later, there is still no sign of the Revolution coming undone.

Look at the Palestinian-Israeli struggle for a more glaring example. For the Israelis, who seem to have an inbuilt incapability to learn from the long history of their mistakes, the attempted isolation of the Gaza Strip has resulted in absolutely nothing but endless violence.

For Saudi Arabia, though, it will all simply be business as usual, since the country was founded without any help from the United States.

The lesson learned from all the boycotts installed and partnerships rejected on the basis of an affected country’s conduct is that spreading knowledge, exchanging ideas and having mentors teach the willing is perhaps an exercise in the greatest kind of diplomacy.

King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, has made it perfectly clear that Saudi Arabia needs to improve its academic curricula. The fact that Saudi Arabia’s universities are so far down the global list of educational quality is embarrassing. And we can’t send enough students abroad to earn their post-graduate degrees to quell the shortage of quality professors. We should feel fortunate enough that these universities want to help us achieve our goal of providing a quality education.

Allowing Stanford, Berkeley and Cal Poly the opportunity to provide us with quality curricula means invaluable help to bridge some of our shortfalls. By educating our professors and students, the US will achieve what isolation has failed to do: Demonstrate the value of equal rights among men and women and the importance of diversity among different cultures and religions. If these three universities are denied that opportunity, Saudi Arabia will not be the only loser. And the so-called liberal academics who are so determined to demonstrate their solidarity for Saudi women will actually hurt their cause by denying Saudis – both men and women – the opportunity to make use of what the West has to offer. And as always, Saudis will base their acceptances or rejections on their own beliefs, whatever values the West has to offer.
I must admit I am troubled that the engineering program in Jubail is only available to men. However, I can’t help but think that Cal Poly’s high professional presence will eventually loosen some of these restrictions and perhaps open some doors for women.

Those who protest that a university should not enter into partnerships in a country that is still struggling with the issue of equal rights among men and women, as well as cultural and religious issues, are perfectly within their rights. But it’s a question of whether it is better to just sit there and do nothing or seize the opportunity to make a difference. The answer is obvious. Yes, the difference may not be felt in the immediate future, but wait and see. The dividends from becoming partners with Saudi Arabia will be of benefit to everyone involved.


~Aishah Schwartz said...

Assalamu Alaikum Habibti,
Oddly enough, I just found your article today through a Google Alert that just landed in my email! Very nicely written. Insha'Allah all will go as you have projected.
`Aishah Schwartz

Anonymous said...

I was interested to compare this article to the opinions you expressed in a later article. In that article, you strongly advocated that people boycott companies from countries with policies you don't agree with as a way to express your disagreement. That action may have a negative effect on many "innocent" people -- affecting their livelihoods, their educational opportunities, and their futures in general. On the other hand, you think it's important for US and UK educational institutions to overlook the objections of people to Saudi Arabia's policies, and open educational institutions there -- because not to would affect "innocent" people.

I see a bit of a paradox here. Either you support the right of people to object to doing "business" (and believe me, education is a business) with firms from countries that enforce policies we feel have negative consequences, or you don't.