Sunday, March 4, 2012

Day 3: Riyadh

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: After our first full day here, the snapshots of the city that come to mind are the cloudless, cool March weather and the massive buildings that are scattered throughout the city. As Ariel mentioned in her post, large construction projects seem to be underway throughout much of the city, and the towering glass skyscrapers stand out in stark contrast (e.g. Kingdom Tower) against the more ubiquitous sand colored buildings that characterize the urban landscape of Riyadh. Among these buildings are the university campuses that housed most of our first day activities here, which were a series of visits to two universities. Public university takes on an entirely different meaning here – the schools, at the least the ones we visited, are sprawling complexes comprised of open-air spaces, verdant lawns, and intricately beautiful arabesque design; they are the architectural marvels that house Saudi higher education. The girls were off on a separate visit for the first half of the morning, so the guys started off at King Saud University, the first university established in the country in 1957 – which stands on about 5.5 square miles of property!

The visits were a whirlwind of meetings with meetings with various deans and professors at the university. The emphasis on education in this country is impressive – one of the professors that we met with mentioned that the country spends 26% of GDP on education alone. The university dean emphasized that one of their main goals is to become a top 100 ranked university on the Academic Ranking of World Universities within the next several years (KSU is currently ranked in the 201-300 group). Certainly, the various programs at KSU that were introduced to us also reflect the importance of KSU to the greater Saudi society. The National Center for Youth Studies is a center focused on researching the issues and challenges that the youth of the country face, which to my surprise, are youth drug usage and divorce among parents. We also spoke with the professors at the Prince Salman Entrepreneurship Institute, who are focused on training budding Saudi entrepreneurs, particularly important for driving innovation in a country where most graduates seem to pursue safer careers either in the private sector or with the government. Another highlight from today was meeting with a professor who teaches a Saudi foreign policy class in the political science department. Despite being somewhat pressed for time, we were able to hear his take on the big foreign policy issues facing Saudi Arabia – the possibility of a nuclear Iran, the developments of the Arab Spring, and instability in Yemen, as well as his take on Saudi soft power in the Middle East. We also met with a professor who shared the various other programs KSU has initiated or implemented – ranging from its work in nanotechnology, intellectual property, as well as Riyadh Techno Valley – a R&D park focused on attracting investment by major companies that will help spur innovation and knowledge transfer back to these companies.

Speaking with this professor revealed, at least in my opinion, one of the many purposes behind the enormous investments in education – creating a sustainable and diversified economic future for Saudi beyond oil wealth. While wealth clearly abounds here, the professor also noted the basic facts facing Saudi Arabia – the finite nature of the oil supply. Furthermore, sustaining the city (and country) is very costly. Desalinization of ocean water is extremely expensive, not to mention the costs associated with piping desalinated water into the city from the coast, which is almost 300 miles away. The city’s energy needs are also expensive, where scorching summers require heavy air conditioning usage throughout Riyadh. In other words, it seems that many of these programs at KSU are geared towards developing a long term future beyond oil wealth, and creating a “knowledge-based economy” that will be well-prepared to face the various challenges that Saudi Arabia currently faces, as well the challenges that remain in the future. While they don’t have all the answers yet on potential solutions, such as alternative energy sources, they are definitely learning, researching, and looking forward.

Our first full day in Saudi Arabia was packed with visits to other places that I wasn’t even able to start discussing (Al Riyadh newspaper and the newly constructed Princess Nora Abdul Rahman University; a huge, amazing campus with its own internal tram system, as well as a behemoth library that holds 5 million books – with automated retrieval!), not to mention a tiring one, but it has definitely been a great start to this trip. Many thanks to the numerous faculty/staff at KSU, Al Riyadh, and PNU for hosting and speaking with us! Also – we’re belated in expressing this on our blog, but many thanks also to Professor Seznec from Georgetown for briefing us on Saudi Arabia before we left, and also a shout out to Claire and Brian for being our cultural experts as well as trip “leaders.” You are (all) awesome! More pictures to come when faster internet connection permits…

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