I had the privilege last week to be a delegate at the Saudi International Conference at the University of Surrey in Guildford, which is just south of London. The conference reinforced what I already knew: Young Saudi minds are poised to make great contributions to their country.
The conference was supervised by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau in London. It’s a multidisciplinary scientific conference that focuses on disciplines in the humanities, engineering, health and biomedical sciences, natural sciences and information and communication technologies.
More than 200 papers were presented from graduate students and professors from universities in Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, France, Malaysia, Australia and the United States. My humanities paper focused on the role of teachers’ language in promoting classroom interaction. But papers presented in the health and biomedical services and engineering were breathtaking in their complexity and thorough examination of those fields.
What makes this conference stand out from the run-of-the-mill white paper exchanges is to the degree that Saudi graduate students can flourish in an academic environment that promotes – no, a better term is “insist on” – the free exchange of ideas and the emphasis on growth of young people.
It also demonstrates the commitment Saudi Arabia has towards its students to obtain the necessary skills abroad and then return home and implement those skills. The Saudi government accentuated this support by having Saudi Arabian Cultural Attaché Fawzi Bokair and Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, attend the conference.
Prince Nawaf noted in his address to students that the pursuit of knowledge is a challenge that can’t be met successfully without a distinctive set of values. The students are part of King Abdullah’s vision of Saudi Arabia’s future, he said.
By endorsing these kinds of conferences, the government’s long-term goals will be accomplished. That goal is to reduce Saudi Arabia’s role as a consumer society in which most of our goods are imported and our only valued export is oil. If the six economic cities currently under construction are to succeed on a level in which it offers the international community valued expertise in the field of health sciences, engineering and bio-medicine, then it starts with its
graduate students abroad. Western academics and scientists will be imported to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to help implement programs and technologies that will lead Saudi Arabia to an economy independent of oil revenue. But Saudi Arabia can’t hope to achieve long-term independent economic prosperity without its sons and daughters taking over and ultimately leading the way.
Yet little of this can be accomplished unless students are given the necessary tools to flourish. The conference at the University of Surrey is dramatically different than any conference held in Riyadh or Jeddah. First, the participants were treated as adults. There was absolutely zero time spent on supervision or ensuring that social etiquette was enforced simply because there was no need.
Saudi men and women worked together, attended sessions together and socialized. There were no partitions in conference rooms, but both men and women kept a respectful distance while in the audience to hear speakers or while working or taking a break. This is taken for granted by Westerners. And those Westerners attending the conference more than likely never thought for a second what a novel environment it is for Saudis not to be distracted by arbitrary rules of personal conduct.
The issue is not whether a single man and single woman can have lunch at the same table or stand side by side in the university courtyard to watch Saudi dancers and singers perform. The issue is that the conference, and by extension the university campus in the United Kingdom and other European countries, is conducive to a learning environment. Just the idea of getting through a two-day conference without interruptions, threats and admonishments from moral authorities can be exhilarating without one even thinking about it. In other words, a lot of work is accomplished. And it was only after it was all said and done that Saudi participants probably realized just how the conference was a unique and productive experience.
I certainly have a bias when it comes to teaching. The top-down authority of the teacher/student relationship doesn’t work as a teaching method. That’s part of my studies at the University of Newcastle. Collaboration between mentor and protégé develops skills not seen in Saudi Arabia. Couple the lack of collaboration with a strict social environment, which could result in severe consequences if the rules are broken, only suppresses the young Saudi mind.
The Saudi International Conference illustrates the need to rethink the restrictions Saudi education officials place on our academic environment in Saudi Arabia.