Americans Must Do More to Welcome Saudi Scholarship Students

Scholarships for Saudi students to study at U.S. universities foster understanding between the West and the Islamic world more broadly.

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Saja Kamal of Saudi Arabia speaks to the Associated Press at her apartment in Boston Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009. Saudi women are coming to American universities in unprecedented numbers, thanks in part to scholarships now available from the Saudi government. Kamal, a 20-year-old student at Northeastern University, did what would have been unthinkable five years ago: she came without a guardian.

Richard LeBaron is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and Stefanie A. Hausheer conducts research on the Gulf and Yemen.

Through the King Abdullah scholarship program, young Saudi women are seizing new opportunities, Saudi family dynamics are changing, and there is potential for the emergence of a new cadre of leaders in Saudi society. Eight years after President George W. Bush and Saudi monarch Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud launched the scholarship program, it may be too soon to tell how this massive support for Saudis to study in the United States will influence U.S.-Saudi relations, but it presents a phenomenon worth watching, alongside other modest reforms instituted in Saudi Arabia in recent years.  In part to improve U.S.-Saudi relations in the post-9/11 era and reduce negative Saudi perceptions of the United States, Bush and Abdullah launched a massive international scholarship program in 2005 that offers young Saudi students a good education and promotes U.S.-Saudi understanding, which would in turn help combat extremism—a goal that both the Americans and the Saudis share. The program also provides American universities with thousands of students whose expenses are paid entirely by the Saudi government.

The scholarship program has become immensely popular among Saudi youth and is expanding. When it began, the program had 6,000 students in the United States; eight years later there are more than 71,000 Saudis studying in the United States. This exponential growth underscores several developments. First, young people and their relatives are spreading the word about the program via social media platforms, as well as word of mouth, and encouraging one another to apply. Second, the Saudi government is promoting and expanding the scholarships, allowing a virtually unlimited number of applicants to be absorbed into the program. Efforts are made to ensure that the program reaches a diverse cohort of students: There is outreach to attract individuals from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, women comprise 24 percent of Saudis studying in the United States, and anecdotal evidence indicates that Shia students are also well-represented.

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Assessing Broader Impacts Vital but Not Simple

The first graduating class of the King Abdullah Scholarship program returned to Saudi Arabia in 2008. With each successive year witnessing a larger graduating class set to return home, it is vital to assess the socio-economic impact of the program, and whether it is meeting the objective of improving U.S.-Saudi relations. Undoubtedly, Saudi students are changed by their experience in the United States, since many spend up to five years living in a society very different from their own.

Any trends suggesting a shift in beliefs or expectations will emerge years from now as former scholarship students return to Saudi Arabia in large numbers. The nature of these shifts and changes remain to be seen, but raises important questions about how their experience in the United States has shaped these graduates. Will attitudes about America change at a popular level in the Kingdom? Will graduates of the scholarship program become business and government leaders? Will their incomes and status be different from peers who did not study abroad?  Will they desire greater participation in economic and political decision-making? Will female graduates play a greater role in Saudi society and advocate for reforms?

What we know already from some Saudi sources is that the scholarship program has had an interesting impact on Saudi family and gender relations. A number of Saudi women who participated in the program reveal that they consider themselves more independent and self-sufficient.  Like their American peers, Saudi women are also performing better academically than their male counterparts. The fact that Saudi families are permitting their daughters to study abroad in large numbers is also significant—allowing an unmarried woman to live abroad for a number of years is not insignificant in Saudi society. Clearly, a growing number of Saudi families are rejecting stifling conceptions of propriety and allowing their daughters to pursue educational advancement and exposure to other cultures, which suggests shifting norms in Saudi society.

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But We Need to Do Better

Although we may not know with certainty the impact that the King Abdullah scholarship program has had on the proverbial hearts and minds of Saudi youth, one thing is certain: Americans should do more to take advantage of what is essentially a strategic opportunity for dialogue and cultural exchange.

Anecdotal evidence and conversations with Saudis participating in the program indicate that Saudi students are often ghettoized during their time in the United States. It is easier for them to live with and befriend people who speak Arabic, and to form friendships with other Saudis. Many live with siblings, making it even more difficult for them to immerse themselves fully in American culture. Recent conversations confirm that many Saudis want to socialize with Americans but are shy or do not know how to engage with them. Women face particular challenges in this regard: Since most Saudi women cover their hair, they feel marked in public and vulnerable. When Americans stare at them or ask them questions about why they cover their hair or face, this only makes them feel more self-conscious and may discourage them from developing friendships.

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Rather than allowing this situation to persist, with a sizable contingent of Saudis on a number of American campuses and English as a Second Language centers, the sensible response would be to work to develop initiatives and programs to more effectively connect these Saudi students to Americans. This would involve not only university communities, but local service organizations, schools, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses. Perhaps one component of these initiatives should be connecting Saudi students to American host families. Living with a host family would encourage Saudis to practice their English while at the same time immersing them in American culture. Ideally, this experience would forge lasting friendships and enhance cultural awareness between Saudi students and their host family. Such exchanges, though not without challenges, would also help alleviate American misconceptions about Saudi Arabia.

If we genuinely want the scholarship program to facilitate U.S.-Saudi understanding and friendships, which can also help to prevent the spread of violent, extremist ideology, we should not pass up this opportunity to reach out to these students to ensure that they get a full and largely positive view of their host country. Moreover, when these students graduate, universities need to do a much better job of keeping in touch with their alumni in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. It is in both the universities' interest and in the U.S. national interest that these valuable networks remain open and active. Social media can help maintain links, but U.S. institutions also need to send more administrators and faculty to visit their alumni in Saudi Arabia to nurture a strong two-way connection over the long term. Passing up this opportunity would be a loss for both Americans and Saudis who see the value in building greater tolerance, understanding, and perspective not only between the United States and Saudi Arabia, but between the West and the Islamic world more broadly.

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