My Year of Teaching Saudis

It’s not often that I feel I’ve gotten out more than Nicholas Kristof. In fact, before April 20 of this year, it had never happened. But Kristof’s New York Times column that day, entitled “Obama in Saudi Arabia, Exporter of Oil and Bigotry,” allowed me to feel, for a fleeting moment at least, that my corner of northeastern Pennsylvania is not so small after all.

Kristof’s column is a polemic. “Saudi Arabia should be renamed the Kingdom of Backwardness,” he writes; it “legitimizes Islamic extremism and intolerance around the world” and “is also a wellspring of poison in the Islamic world.” These are fighting words, but alas not mere empty provocations. As any reader of the news knows, there are plenty of reasons to question whether Saudi Arabia has become a dangerous ally to the United States; and like it or not, the once-durable U.S.-Saudi alliance has become strained. (Some might say: About time! Others might be more circumspect.)

Kristof knows, of course, that Saudi Arabia exports more than oil and bigotry. What was behind my fleeting feeling of being nearly as worldly is that, over the last fifteen years, the Kingdom has also been exporting increasing numbers of students. Saudi students started arriving in numbers at Catholic institutions toward the end of the last decade. At King’s College, there were none when I arrived in 2012, then a handful in 2013, thirty or so in 2014, now around ninety, with another twenty-five expected in the fall. As total enrollment at King’s is about 1,800 students, come the fall, Saudis stand to constitute more than 6 percent of our student body—a remarkable leap in so little time.

Nationwide, there are now more than 70,000 Saudi students at American colleges and universities. Some schools have rushed to recruit Saudis “to fill seats, not to meet standards”; other schools have experienced some significant problems with “fit.” Given current conditions in Saudi Arabia—“low oil income, open-ended war in Yemen, terrorist threats from multiple directions and an intensifying regional rivalry with its nemesis Iran,” a former C.I.A. officer recently observed—there is reason to worry that this boom in students might soon come to an end. As it happens, in February, the Saudi government announced plans “to tighten the rules of the $6 billion King Abdullah Scholarship Fund [established in 2005], limiting it to those attending one of the top 100 universities globally, or studying [in] a program rated in the top 50 in its field.” It’s not clear at the moment, however, just when these plans will be implemented. It’s also unclear what these plans will mean for institutions like King’s, which can’t claim to be among the top 100 globally, but has some programs, like say its graduate program in healthcare administration, that might make a case for top 50. (To what authority, with what competence to judge, is another matter.)

In any event, I’m coming toward the end of my first academic year of teaching a decent number of Saudi students: over two semesters, nearly twenty in a master’s-level course on healthcare organizational ethics—more or less business ethics for hospitals. While this experience hasn’t been all peaches and cream—I’m pretty sure that only one year of language instruction, which is all some of my students had, wouldn’t have me ready for graduate studies overseas!—it’s been fascinating and on the whole heartening.

Coming to know the students has been heartening. Some news outlets can’t report on the increasing number of Saudi students in the U.S. without reminding readers, within the opening paragraph, that one of the 9/11 hijackers came here on a student visa. As a rule, my Saudi students have been courteous, respectful, diligent, and thoughtful. Some are funny, others are earnest, none are one bit scary. Surprise: they’re not all that different, in many ways that count, from my other students. If, as I imagine, one reason the Saudi government sends students abroad is to cultivate improved public relations and greater good will, it’s succeeded with me.

But there are some fascinating differences. Anyone who has read about the lives of Saudi women back home also won’t be surprised that, well, male-female interaction in the classroom has nuances and constraints that faculty here don't typically see. The greater number of Saudi women in my classes wear the hijab, one wears a niqab, and a handful wear neither, though they dress still conservatively, as compared anyway to many U.S. college women. There are, of course, myriad individual differences among the Saudi women. Some talk regularly in class, others hardly do. Those who talk are all soft-spoken, but some are much bolder than others in what they’ll say. So far as I can recall, however, not once has a Saudi woman spoken directly to a Saudi man in my classes. [UPDATE 4/27/16: See the postscript below.] When we discussed a case at a Texas hospital involving abortion, the Saudi women all fell entirely silent, whereas the Saudi men had a lot to say. On occasions when we’ve broken into groups for discussion, I’ve noticed that some of the women avoid groups with Saudi men, though these same women will join groups with non-Saudi men. In my class this semester, there is only one Saudi man whom, for some reason, the Saudi women feel comfortable sitting close to. Otherwise, the Saudi women are clustered on one side of the room, the Saudi men on the other side. The quieter, more conservatively-dressed women sit behind, which is to say buffered by, the more outspoken women. For a final example, at a recent panel discussion on what it’s like to be Muslim at King’s, two Saudi men participated, but no Saudi women. When I asked one of the men, afterwards, why not, he told me that no Saudi women wanted to speak to an audience including Saudi men.

In brief, though 6,000 miles separate the women from home, they remain bound by some of its customs. But it’s hard to overstate how liberated they are at the same time. By way of example, the women all speak freely with me; they even come, unaccompanied, to my office hours to discuss the course. At the end of last semester, several asked for a picture with me, which was a first in my years of teaching. Contrast this picture of life in Saudi Arabia, from an article in the New Yorker:

"For a Saudi man with traditional values, the names of the women in his family are private, not to be spoken aloud. He never refers to his female relatives in public. Even between members of a close-knit family, these matters can be sensitive. In conservative Saudi circles, a man is unlikely ever to see the face of his brother’s wife or hear her voice. In 2008, King Abdullah, who died last January [2015], appalled some of his subjects when he announced that the Riyadh University for Women would be renamed Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University, in memory of a favorite aunt."

Against this background, the Saudi government’s sending hundreds of thousands of students, men and women, to the U.S. since 2001 constitutes a daring social experiment. The women, as well as men, who have lived here are test cases for the celebrated transformative power of study abroad. Some, I suppose, might react against American decadence, but I haven’t seen any such indications among my students. Instead, they’ve gotten along quite well with the American students, male and female, in my classes. What I wonder is how these Saudi women and men will get along with spouses, parents, siblings, and all the rest once they’re back home. After all, Saudi Arabia, exporter of adventuresome students, is also importer of those same students. In Kristof’s terms, I don’t believe they’ll be bringing “poison” back home, but they might, in years to come, help bring significant change.

UPDATE: In our last class of the spring semester, Tuesday, April 26, Saudi women and men interacted directly with one another and even argued a bit. So much for that barrier.

Bernard G. Prusak is professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. His co-edited volume, with Jennifer Reed-Bouley, Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Thought, will be published by Paulist Press in February 2023.

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