Sunday, November 22, 2009

Can Ben Frevert change Saudi Arabia?

To answer this question, let me borrow an expression from one of my Saudi friends:

"When the cows preform Hajj walking on their horns."

The New York Times published an article about KAUST last week in which Ben Frevert, my friend and colleague, was unexpectedly presented as a hero - of sorts.

I was a little embarrassed at the cultural insensitivity of the New York Times in this article. The title, "A Saudi Gamble," does injustice to the people and to the King who have invested so much time, energy, and money to make KAUST a reality, and is ironically insulting to our host country which sees gambling as immoral and illegal.

Next time I go to Jeddah, I half expect someone to ask me, "Is it true that you have gambling at KAUST?" Thanks a lot, Times.

The article's title and opening were crafted to sell papers more than to look seriously at the complexity of Saudi culture or the nuance of KAUST's situation in Saudi Arabia. I though that the article's overall tone either reflects the writer's sever Western bias, or a general unawareness of Saudi society and politics. Mr. Slackman does, however, address a few points about KAUST well and the article is worth a quick read.

So, can Ben Frevert (or any American graduate student) change Saudi Arabia? Not likely. First, US students are a minority at KAUST. We are outnumbered by Jordanians, Egyptians, Indonesians, Chinese, and Mexicans. Second, even all of these students together will not "change" Saudi Arabia. This country is very complex, and I agree with Saleha M. Abedin's answer to Slackman's question: "You cannot bring change from the outside, you have to build from within."

Something else to think about: change works both ways. KAUST's detractors in Saudi Arabia are paranoid about KAUST's influence on Saudi Society, but what about KAUST's influence on the rest of the world? The question: "can Saudi Arabia change Ben Frevert (and all of the others who come to KAUST?)" is just as valid. For students who have never left their home countries before, even just three months at KAUST and a few trips to Jeddah are a tremendous perspective-altering experience.

There are still some Westerners (and maybe some Western newspaper writers) who wrongly think all Saudis drive camels and carry AK-47's. KAUST, an aspiring multinational research institution, will slowly change these prejudices too.


  1. Dear Nathan,

    I am a frequent follower of your blog, you are doing an excellent job in describing what KAUST is really about and what is really happening on the grounds of this university. From what I read in your blog, I can say you provide an honest unbiased reflection on your experience at KAUST.

    This here is my first comment on your blog after I have been following it for a couple of months now. I decided to specifically comment on this blog because I believe what you wrote above is very well written, precise, and to the point. You have raised important questions and have intellectually responded to the NYTimes article in a very professional manner - and I do agree with almost all what you mentioned above. I really hope your blog reaches out more to both Saudis (supporters and non-supporters of KAUST) as well as non-Saudis in general.

    As an average Saudi who never visited KAUST and resides in the Eastren Province of the Kingdom, I have been hearing a lot about KAUST from here and there every now and then, your blog here answers almost many of the concerns that are raised at the various discussions I have with my friends, colleagues at Saudi Aramco, and neighbors.

    Well done Nathan!

    Keep it up & I hope to meet you soon.

    Khalil Alnammari
    Penn State Class of 2008
    Financial Analyst
    Saudi Aramco

  2. I remember when I first met my husband and we were goofing around and I called him "silly." He was offended because he thought I was insulting his intelligence, which was obviously not what I meant. "Gamble" was not the best word the writer could have used in the title of his article...

  3. I don't feel the article was too extreme or that Slackman has a camels and AK47 viewpoint of Saudi Arabia - although KAUST has a much better armed front gate than my previous university. I did greatly appreciate that it was one of the few articles to do something other than recycle KAUST press releases. Gamble was not the most appropriate word, but the success of KAUST is not written in stone.

    The ultimate challenges of KAUST to be administrative. The requisitions process is not one that supports ongoing scientific research. The discovery scholarship program was ended prematurely. KAUST needs to succeed in a time when the world needs science to answer many immediate problems so that humanity can sustainably coexist with the environment.

    I do agree that I can't change Saudi Arabia except perhaps in a butterfly flapping his wings kind of way. I never really felt culture shock. Perhaps the Lingonberry jam I got at IKEA helped ease the transition. I didn't spend the first 22 years of my life with my head buried in the ground - I read the new york times!