An American Teacher in Saudi Arabia

It could easily have been mistaken for a scene from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights: woven carpets spread under the open night sky with a crescent moon setting on the late night horizon of the Red Sea; warm breezes blending sweetly with soft waves on the beach; traditional musicians and dancers in baggy trousers, embroidered doublets, and tasseled turbans—performers still faithful to the culture of their Hejazi forefathers; and servants offering cardamom-infused coffee and moist dates, while the sweet-scented “hubbly-bubbly” made its rounds among the guests reclining on sofas.

We, the honored guests, were 25 American social studies teachers and media specialists, selected as members of the Aramco Educators to Saudi Arabia Program by the Institute of International Education to participate in a 10-day study tour in November 2006. Our host was Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s largest oil corporation. Our itinerary took us to Dhahran, Jeddah, and the capital of Riyadh; there were extended visits and open exchanges in schools, a women’s business college, private homes, medical centers, cultural and educational organizations, and the Saudi Aramco headquarters in Dhahran. It was a rare opportunity and a most remarkable experience.

But that starry night with the Hejazi musicians and dancers at a resort on the sea was not without a counterpoint that most certainly was not from the Arabian Nights.

Across from the space reserved for our private party, there was a large video screen showing a program for other guests at the resort, mostly all Saudis. They watched contemporary music videos with scantily clad women, muscular men in torn jeans and t-shirts, explicitly sexual and provocative dancing, and split-second special glamour effects. The irony was not lost on several of us in the private party audience: the dichotomy in which Saudi Arabia is caught, the frisson between the traditional and the modern.

How are the twain to meet, we wondered.

It was a theme that surfaced frequently in question and answer sessions with our numerous hosts who invited us to ask “the hard questions.” That the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is rapidly and irreversibly changing, there is no doubt. It is not so far removed in time from its nomadic and tribal past and has a deeply patriarchal society; its foundation in a very conservative interpretation and legalistic application of Islam is firm. As guarantor of the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has a pivotal role in the world of Islam; and it is a major player in Middle Eastern and Arab politics. Yet the Kingdom is facing what sometimes appear to be conflicting and contradictory demands as it adapts to the wider world.

How will the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia maintain its conservative faith yet allow for diverse and differing points of view? Will the royal family allow Saudi citizens, including women, to have a greater voice in their own futures? What are the consequences of having so many non-Saudi guest workers, either as highly trained professionals or as the menial underclass? How will the expectations and demands of many Saudi women for increased educational, professional, and employment opportunities and fewer social restrictions be met? How will the mutually intertwined roles of mosque and state continue to negotiate the dynamic relationship between religion and politics?

Regionally and in the wider world, how will the Saudis balance the country’s production of oil to meet global needs, its protection of the sacred Muslim sites for all of Islam, its relationship with Arab and non-Arab nations in the region, and its wider international role?

While I cannot speak for all of the teachers in the program, I don’t think any of us came back with answers to these questions. Nor should we have, since these are issues that the Saudis themselves must engage and resolve; it would be facetious to think that American visitors could have the answers. But what I think we returned with was a greater understanding of the complexity of the issues, the diversity of opinions, the empowered voices of women, the pride in traditions, and the compelling challenges that change demands.

On the last day of the tour in Riyadh, we were welcomed as the first foreign delegation to attend an open session of the Shura Council, the consultative body that advises the King. That honored and most unusual invitation itself is certainly evidence of the greater openness of the Saudis. During that session the appointed ministers discussed and debated issues of human rights; to me, this was an indication of the Kingdom’s willingness to place its own policies under public cross-examination and to define its international positions.

That visit helped me to refine the contrasting impressions left from the night under the stars when traditional musicians performed on woven carpets as ultra-modern music videos played on the enlarged screen nearby: Saudi Arabia is indeed negotiating hesitant but confident pathways between the traditional and modern worlds; it is not “if and when” change will happen but “how”; and that, as social studies teachers, it is not our role so much to have the right answers for our students as it is to lead them to be critically engaged with the hard issues that are, in essence, manifestations of our shared humanity.