Visiting Saudi academics speak at PSU

Academics from King Saud University took diplomatic roles for a day-long public relations forum Monday in Portland State University’s Smith Memorial Student Union ballroom.

“Saudi student enrollment in American institutions dropped dramatically since the events of Sept. 11, 2001,” Assistant Director of PSU’s Middle East Studies Center, Dr. Jean Cambell said. “We’d like that to change, and to see more U.S. students learning abroad as well.”

The group’s presence in Portland was premeditated. “They intentionally chose campuses which would not be hotbeds of (anti-Arab) hatred,” PSU history professor Dr. John Mandaville said. “They’ve done Chicago, San Bernardino, New York, and will end in Georgetown, but they’re definitely more relaxed here.”

Delegates addressed attendees through a series of chaired panel discussions followed by question and answer sessions. Some speeches were dynamic and tackled pertinent, sensitive issues. Others towed a party line, which evoked audience responses like, “What about muttawas’ (religious police) attacks on women who do not cover themselves?”

Though professors – including Dr. Siham al-Suwaigh, an alum of Oregon universities – presented promising growth statistics for Saudi educational programs, many seemed restless to hear promises of real change.

Representatives rose to defend their faith, country and curriculum from detractors, explaining that for children, Islam instills hygiene, honesty and gratitude. Adults, too, need reminders to pray and to exercise the universal values of flexibility and tolerance.

Dr. Abdul Rahman Alorabi said that U.S. media have unilaterally condemned Saudis on the grounds that 15 of the 19 terrorists participating in the 9/11 attacks were Saudis.

“This is a gross generalization which negates the common rule that an act by an individual cannot be construed as one of an entire nation,” he said. “Saudi Arabia is not a breeding ground for extremists, as its detractors have accused.”

Alorabi cited New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times articles that vilified Saudi Arabia. The articles, which used inflammatory terminology such as “regime” and “enemy,” were influential in various political campaigns and in Congress.

The forum provided an opportunity to consider the visiting educators’ views on cultural and diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

“Understand that Saudi Arabia has a homogenous population – all Muslim. You cannot separate the teachings from social norms. It (public school’s religious curriculum) is not theology, but a way of life,” a delegate rose from his seat in the audience to speak out-of-turn.

Significantly, the role of women in the future of the Kingdom (as natives of Saudi Arabia call their home) was an issue of debate.

“There is a deficiency in women’s decision-making on the macro level,” al-Suwaigh said.

“There is equal educational opportunity for women,” Dr. Hend al-Khuthaila said. “There is free transportation and textbooks too.”

Speaking of pursuing higher education, al-Suwaigh said, “without the support of her family, a woman could not make it.”

“If a woman works, her wage is her own. No one has a right to it but her, but her husband supports her,” al-Khuthaila said. “Likewise, she is guardian of the children and dignifies the poor by anonymous charitable donation.”

“You have to understand that speaking openly this way, about these things, is revolutionary,” Mandaville said. “Sure, they’re proud of their culture and tradition, but they value their relationship with the U.S. so they’re under pressure to defend themselves against the scrutiny and accusations of this community.”

The program contained both assurances of reform as well as the unabashed endorsement of values underlying long-held Islamic traditions.

“If there were a blanket statement to sum up the symposium,” Mandaville said, “it’s, ‘We’re reforming, but on our own terms.'”