Covering Up

Niqab-less Norah al-Faiz

Norah al-Faiz is supposed to be a symbol of progress in Saudi Arabia. She was appointed deputy minister of education by King Abdullah in February 2009, making her the kingdom’s highest-ranking female official. At the time, many observers hailed the move as a sign of reform.

But controversy has dogged Faiz since the beginning of her tenure. Continue reading at Foreign Policy

Update 6/27/2012: Saudi state press agency published this new photo of al-Faiz, reportedly taken in Riyadh last night during her visit to an Aramco cultural event. She is the first from the left in the black abaya.

Norah al-Faiz in Aramco cultural event in Riyadh

Advice to KASP boys & girls, letter to King Abdullah, more families only

  • Fouad al-Farhan wrote a very good blogpost, analyzing the different types of Saudi students abroad, and offering some invaluable advice to the boys and girls of KASP. What I find incredibly disheartening and slightly funny is how some commenters there totally ignored the whole gist of the post and focused instead on Fouad’s choice of words, despite the fact that the words they found objectionable were not meant for a specific person(s). It just shows you how some people here can be extremely oversensitive, unbelievably easily offended, and absolutely thin-skinned.
  • Last week coincided with the fifth anniversary of King Abdullah’s ascend to the throne. Many congratulatory ads have been published in newspapers. Many overly praising items have been written and broadcasted. But leave it to fellow blogger Ahmed Ba-Aboud to put things in perspective. “King Abdullah, don’t listen to them,” he says.
  • Two guys at the grocery store checkout counter. Their groceries include a large soda bottle aka “family size” bottle. They are told they can’t buy it because, like many other things in the country, it’s for families only. Hilarious, but I won’t be too surprised if it happens in real life. It is exactly this kind fanaticism we are particularly good at.

    The video was created by the awesome Malik Nejer. More of his work can be found here.

Why KASP is Flawed?

King Abdullah Scholarships Program (KASP) is an impressive undertaking. More than 70,000 Saudi students have been sent to many different countries around the world to continue their education. The program is fully paid for by the government, and it is said to be designed in a way to cover the demands of the job market in the country. Although it has been deemed mostly successful, the program has some issues. These issues, however, are usually dismissed by officials at the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) as minor.

For example, 1073 students on KASP have been recently sent home for reasons related to their behavior, religious observance, or academic performance. And there is a fourth reason related to the nation that I don’t quite understand. The ministry says this is such a small number compared to the overall number of students who study abroad, but I think the fact that they had to return more than a thousand students indicates a problem with the selection process.

A friend of mine was recently traveling to the US. On the plane, he met with 15 Saudi students going on scholarships. Only one out of the fifteen could actually read English, and was able to fill out the customs form.

I think some of the problems with KASP have to do with the philosophy behind the program which I believe is flawed. Limiting the program to a small set of technical and medical majors just to supply to the demand of the job market is not the right strategy to develop a modern state. Yes, our country needs engineers and doctors. But we also need artists, philosophers, linguists, sociologists, and graphic designers.

Unfortunately, MOHE is highly allergic to criticism. When a student wrote a blog post about the Saudi Cultural Commission in Canada last year, he had to take it down few hours later. Mohammed al-Khazem, who wrote a book about higher education in the country, says MOHE is seeking attention at the expense of doing what is really important. That is, to help the 20 universities in the Kingdom to become better institutions.

There are high hopes that KASP will transform Saudi Arabia. The students who studied abroad are expected not only to come back with degrees, but also with a change in mindset that will push the country to the next level economically, socially, and culturally. But there is also fear that these high hopes might turn out to be false. We sent thousands of students in the ‘70s and ‘80s to study abroad and when they came back they did not change much. Is it going to be any different this time?