Any young Saudi studying abroad for the first time will tell you about the stress they are under to adjust to a new country, finding a place to live, and to navigate the confusing world of a new university.
Acclimating to a university in the United States or the United Kingdom is even more difficult. It’s an alien culture for most of us and we confront this world with trepidation.
That’s why when I arrived in Newcastle, United Kingdom, in 2007 to begin my postgraduate studies I was not looking forward to working with the Saudi office of the Cultural Attaché. The reputation of the Cultural Attaché in England was legendary among Saudi students for its complete lack of empathy for our struggles and the seeming inability to conduct any business that didn’t require undignified begging, pleading and racking sobs to get someone to return a phone call.
Towards the end of my first year at the university, I took a deep breath, picked up the phone and called the Cultural Attaché office to make arrangements to get a plane ticket to visit my sick mother in Madinah and to get details about the Saudi Excellency Performance Awards. Walahee! My 1-year-old niece, Alia, is more responsive and willing to answer my questions. She’s even more articulate over the
My supervisor, a Saudi woman, didn’t even feign interest in my questions. She told me she couldn’t help with the airline ticket and told me to call the ticketing department. She didn’t know a thing about the Excellency Awards and told me to check the website. She didn’t even bother giving me the website address. I was a nuisance to her. She confirmed the office’s reputation in a phone call that took less than three minutes.
I sent faxes to the Cultural Attaché office make arrangements for my flight to Madinah. No response. I called on the telephone. No answer. I paid for the tickets out of my own pocket for my brother and myself.
But what a difference a semester makes. The following semester I got an unexpected call from my new supervisor, Hany Ahmed, who introduced himself. He was friendly and polite but professional. He asked for my student details because he had none. He gave me his contact telephone number and e-mail address that I thought was only given by his office to the Saudi secret forces and to selected leaders of foreign
countries. I felt so special I thought it might be a prank call.
The next time I asked for plane ticket, I got one in less than two days. I then got an unsolicited phone call from Mr. Ahmed congratulating me on my performance review from my academic supervisor. He was encouraging and told me I was entitled to a
one-month allowance award for my performance.
At a workshop and conference in Surrey last year I finally met and the Saudi Cultural Attaché Dr. Ghazi Al-Makki and Saudi Ambassador Prince Mohammed Bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz. These men continually expressed their commitment to Saudi students studying in the UK.
I can’t speak for other Saudi students in the United Kingdom, but in less than a year the Cultural Attaché office transformed itself from a secret American-style black operations site to an agency designed for the purpose of student support.
My new supervisor is obviously dedicated to the job, but the Ministry of Higher Education’s new system also fits perfectly with dealing with students’ needs. What is even more surprising is that as a student I am permitted to evaluate my supervisor’s work representing the Cultural Attaché. This is an unprecedented experience for me with the Saudi government. The new system and the performance evaluation policy demands accountability. If this system is applied throughout the Saudi government, performance will improve.
We’ve already seen signs of a new order in Saudi government following the Jeddah floods. Those responsible for the city’s failed infrastructure that led to so many deaths are now being held accountable. While some people may see the connection between the improved performance of the office of the Cultural Attaché and the
demands for accountability in Jeddah’s government, the reality is that it appears the Saudi government is recognizing that deadwood in its ranks do nothing but obstruct the people it’s supposed to serve.