Dressed in caps and gowns, the college students packing a graduation ceremony in suburban Washington, D.C., acted like excited graduates anywhere in the United States.
Except, perhaps, when the men broke into tribal line dances. Or when the women, wearing headscarves, burst forth with zagareet, soaring trills of their tongues, in celebration.
The more than 300 graduates gathered at a hotel overlooking the Potomac River were all from Saudi Arabia, part of a massive government-paid foreign study programme to earn Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctorate degrees and return home to help run their country.
“You are the best of the best, and the future of our country,” Saudi Arabia’s cultural attache, Mohammad Al Eisa, declared at the May event.
In the years following the security crackdown on Arab travellers after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, tough restrictions kept most Arab students away from the country. In 2004, only about 1,000 Saudis were studying in the United States, according to the US State Department.
This past school year, Saudi Arabia sent 66,000 students to US universities, four times the number before the 2001 attacks and the fastest-growing source of foreign students in the US, ahead of China, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Saudi influx is part of a broader increase in international students in the US as American universities seek to raise tuition revenues. Some 723,277 foreign students enrolled during the 2010-2011 school year, up 32 per cent from a decade ago.
“With the financial crunch… the [US] administrators look to the international students to a degree as saviours,” said Michael Launius, vice-president of international students at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, where Saudi enrolment has jumped from a non-existent level in 2005 to about 150 this past school year.
To accommodate the new Saudi students, Washington administrators offered to provide halal food prepared in accordance with Islamic law, or set aside space on campus for a mosque. The Saudi students declined, preferring to eat at town cafes like everyone else, Launius said.
The Saudi contingent “doesn’t seem to have caused any kind of consternation and stir at all”, Launius said. “I think this is a good exposure to what these folks are actually like.”
As late as the 1950s, Saudi Arabia had a literacy rate of below 5 per cent. Today, the percentage of literate Saudis has reached 79 per cent, according to the CIA World Factbook. One-third have university degrees, the World Bank says.
Even so, religious conservatives have a lingering influence over curriculum. Critics say Saudi schooling is long on theology and short on science and math. The kingdom ranked 93rd out of 129 countries in Unesco’s 2008 quality of education index.
In the past, only upper class Saudis were educated abroad. The king’s scholarship programme, by contrast, reaches out to promising young people in all levels of society, says Ahmad al Omran, a Saudi journalist who earned a Master’s from Columbia University. At the graduation ceremony in Washington in May, Saudi degree recipients ranged from second-generation US graduates, to the first in their families to read and write.
To be eligible for the programme, students must have top grades and generally study in a field targeted by the government — such as business, engineering or medicine. Females are required to be accompanied by a close male relative. The government urges students to avoid political activity and media attention, students say.
In the US, closer Saudi ties still generate controversy. However, some of Saudi Arabia’s harsher critics have supported the scholarship programme. “If anybody is going to modernise [Saudi] society, it’s going to be people” with exposure to the West, said Elliott Abrams, a conservative policy analyst who served in two Republican administrations. “In that sense I’m all in favour of it.”
The long-term impact on Saudi society of so many students being educated abroad remains to be seen. At a coffee shop in the hotel where the graduation ceremony was held in Washington, the recent graduates spoke of eagerness to get back to Saudi Arabia as well as a wistfulness at leaving the US.
“The best four years I ever had,” graduate Dana Al Mojil said of her study at Portland State University. Dana was rueful about turning over the keys to her Pontiac to her younger sister and other relatives, who are still studying in the United States. In Saudi Arabia, women aren’t permitted to drive.
She also indicated she would miss other aspects of life in the United States. “I pay bills myself. I shop myself,” Dana said. “In Saudi [Arabia], you don’t do that.”
Munir Zaimy, a 26-year-old with a new master’s degree from Southern Methodist University, said he would return home with new ideas about education, business and other fields. When “we go back, we want things to be better,” he said. “Not American, not Saudi — better.”
Back in Riyadh, many students who have returned express satisfaction at settling back in with families and jobs and repaying their country with hard work. For others, especially some women, a foreign education is more complicated.
Deema Al Mashabi, 24, is weighing whether to accept an offer of a king’s scholarship for a Master’s degree in the US. Her mother has asked her to refuse. “She feels that I would like it so much if I do go abroad…that I would never come back,” she said.
Her mother also worries that Saudi men may be reluctant to marry not only Deema but her sisters if she brings Western ways back to the family. Deema says that many of her female friends who were scholarship students return home only to move back abroad. In Saudi Arabia, more than 40 per cent of young Saudi women job-seekers are unemployed because custom and religious code limit where they can work.
Indeed, conservative Saudi clerics have targeted the kingdom’s scholarship programme, saying it is detaching young Saudi men and women from their religious mooring. “The scholarships dragged woe onto our nation,” Shaikh Nasser Al Omar told Saudi Arabia’s Al Sharq newspaper in May.