Late one summer evening, the president of the University of Southern California drove out to the beach cottage of a prosperous business friend. He was to be a guest at an informal dinner party his friend was giving for a group of USC alumni who were thinking of setting up a new chapter of the alumni association. Nothing unusual about that in the schedule of a modern university president.
Except that the beach was not on California's Pacific coast and neither the prosperous friend nor the alumni were Californians - or even American. The dinner took place on the shore of the Red Sea, in Saudi Arabia. The host was Ahmad Abdullah al-Sulaiman of Jiddah. And his 25 guests were some of the more than 200 Saudi Arab businessmen, academics and government officials to whom USC is alma mater.
What is unusual about that story, however, is that it is not unusual. Although USC alumni in Saudi Arabia are certainly distinguished - they include, among others, two ministers of the kingdom's cabinet, the governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and the rector of one of the country's own universities - they are not unique. The University of Southern California is only one of many institutions across the United States that have been welcoming, instructing and graduating ever-increasing numbers of Arab students since World War II. Today, as a result, hundreds of the brightest and most promising leaders in the Middle East are alumni of American institutions who - almost without exception - cherish their memories of America as alma mater.
This is particularly true in Saudi Arabia where, increasingly, men with high educational qualifications - in academia, of course, but also in commerce, the oil industry and at the top levels of government as well - are graduates of U.S. colleges and universities. When King Khalid reorganized and expanded his cabinet to 26 members, four years ago, 10 of the men he selected - more than a third of the cabinet - had studied at American universities. Their portfolios include petroleum, industry, agriculture and water, commerce, information, labor and foreign affairs.
U.S. graduates are also well represented in Saudi Arabia's private business sector. Jiddah businessman Abdullah Baksh, for example, has a master's degree in business adminstration from USC. He started out in the hotel business and is now involved in insurance, construction and - in a joint venture with an American firm - prefabricated housing. One of his brothers, Muhammad, also attended USC; another, Adnan, went to Whittier College, and a third - Adil - is at San Francisco State. According to Baksh, his son will probably be next. "He's already running after me to go to the States," Baksh said, "and of course that's where I'll send him. For me, there's no alternative."
In fact, there are alternatives. European universities have been admitting Arab students since at least the days of Egypt's viceroy, Muhammad Ali And since the 1960's the Arab countries themselves, particularly in the Gulf, have been investing an impressive share of their revenues in higher education at home. (See Aramco World, November-December, 1969; July-August 1974) In the last 15 years Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have opened new universities, colleges, junior colleges, teacher training colleges and technical colleges. They have also enlarged and modernized existing institutions and the end results are impressive. In Saudi Arabia, for example, there were 23,600 university students enrolled in the kingdom's own institutions during the 1977-1978 academic year.
To accommodate the swelling numbers and needs of their students, however, governments in the Gulf have had to send more students to study abroad. From Saudi Arabia alone, according to the Saudi Educational Mission, some 11,000 students were studying in the U.S. during the 1978-79 terms, Kuwait sent 1,600, the United Arab Emirates nearly 800, Qatar nearly 500, Bahrain about 100 and Yemen and Oman approximately 250 each.
The reasons, say officials, are obvious. Foreign universities can help fill the inevitable gaps that occur in rapidly expanding educational systems in which facilities, courses and staffs fall short of the multiplying demands - particularly in technical fields. Universities abroad also provide opportunities for faculty members and graduate students to get advanced or highly specialized training for which demand is still limited in the Middle East. Equally important, officials and graduates agree, studying abroad provides students with an opportunity to broaden their cultural horizons by living, studying and working in an environment different from their own.
Abdullah al-Omar, for example, is a Kuwaiti who in 1978 was earning a Ph. D. at Harvard and writing a dissertation on the reception of Darwinism in the Arab world. But he was also fascinated by U.S. educational television and so videotaped Nova, a popular series on science, for later review. And Balkees al-Najjar, earning her doctorate in linguistics at Utah, has learned to ski in the American Rockies - as has Dawood Kamees, an undergraduate majoring in meteorology. Other examples include the Razzuqi sisters, Maha and Hana, studying industrial and biological engineering respectively, and Khadija al-Ali, a pre-med student. All three attend Syracuse University, where they may wear Kuwaiti national dress on formal occasions but wear jeans to class.
Students from the smaller Gulf states, or from Oman or Yemen, are often the sole representatives of their countries working for a degree at a given university. But this is rarely true of Saudi students. The 11,000 students sponsored by the Houston-based Saudi Educational Mission - which oversees the education of government-sponsored students and their wives - are enrolled in English-language institutes, colleges and universities in more than 550 cities in nearly every state.
In addition to the mission's count, there are several hundred children of Saudi students enrolled in American primary and secondary schools, and still other students sponsored by the Saudi Arab armed forces, by Saudia, the national airline, and by Aramco - as well as those who pay their own tuition and are sponsored, just like most American students, only by their families.
Most Saudi students in the U.S., however, are sponsored by their government which, a spokesman said, "will sponsor any qualified student who wants to study something that is not in conflict with tradition." But unless the student has demonstrated a strong interest and ability in a specific discipline, the government will direct him or her to a field of particular value to the kingdom. One third of the Saudi students, men and women, are enrolled in engineering courses and one sixth are in business and management. Other fields in which Saudi students are presently concentrated - and concentrating - are the social sciences, computer science, education, health services and psychology but they are also represented in dentistry, urban design, solar energy horticulture, poultry husbandry and forestry.
The tendency of Saudi Arabian students to seek higher education abroad goes back decades. According to A. L. Tibawi, in his book Islamic Education, Saudi Arab students began to travel abroad for a university education during the early 1940's - at first to Egypt, later to Lebanon and Syria. It was not until the end of World War II that they began to go further afield - to Europe and the United States - except for one man who went earlier: Dr. Fadil Gabani. Sent to America before the war by his family, Gabani later, in 1954, received a Ph.D. from the Colorado School of Mines. As Saudi Arabia's first Deputy Minister of Petroleum for Mineral Affairs he was responsible for initiating an extensive program of Saudi cooperation with the United States Geological Survey which continues to this day. He has also served as his country's representative to the European Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna, and last year was elected chairman of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for the 1978 -1979 term.
The second young Saudi to earn a degree in America was probably Abdullah Tariki, later the kingdom's first Minister of Petroleum and now a private petroleum consultant; he earned an M.A. in geology and petroleum engineering in Texas in 1947. Another of the very early students, and probably the first to go to the University of California, was a young man named Ali Abdallah Alireza, who was at Berkeley in April 1945, when the representatives of 46 nations met in San Francisco to draft the United Nations Charter. King Abd al-Aziz cabled the 23-year old student to take time out from his studies to join the Saudi Arab delegation at the conference, which was headed by his son, Prince Faisal, later king. Alireza accepted and immediately began to grow a beard in order to look a few years older. Today, still bearded, he is Saudi Arabia's distinguished ambassador to the United States in Washington.
In the spring of 1948 a second Saudi student enrolled at Berkeley: Salih Al-fadl. He stayed on at California to earn an M.A in economics in 1953, then returned to Saudi Arabia and worked five years for Aramco. Today Alfadl is a member of the boards of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and Petro-min (the General Petroleum and Minerals Organization), and chairman of the board of the Arabian Drilling Company.
In a way Salih Alfadl's enrollment marked a turning point, for although he was sent to the United States by his parents to study at their expense, he had only been at Berkeley a short time when he was awarded a full scholarship by his government. He joined a group of seven youngsters who in 1947 had arrived in San Francisco - where Aramco's U.S. headquarters were located at the time - as the first contingent of students officially sponsored by the kingdom. At the government's request, Aramco not only helped this first small group of "bursary students" find prep schools where they could have intensive English instruction, but also escorted them to a department store to outfit them for the unfamiliar rigors of an American winter.
Those were the first tentative but eager steps of Saudi Arabia's headlong run toward higher education in the United States. The first scholarship students returned to their homeland in the early 1950's; by the 1960's the kingdom was sending students to the United States by the hundreds and in the 1970's by the thousands. Tibawi writes that 360 Saudis were studying in America in 1964; if his figure is correct then their number increased almost exactly 10 times during the subsequent 10 years, and then more than tripled between 1974 and the end of 1978.
Although student migrations on this scale probably date only from this century, the phenomenon itself is as old as history. The bold, the bright and the ambitious have always been drawn toward the flame of invention and learning. As Arab students, justifiably proud, can be quick to remind you, nearly 1,000 years ago the great seats of knowledge were in Baghdad and Cairo, and in medieval times it was European students who flocked to study at the feet of Muslim scholars in such centers of scholarship and science as Cordoba, in Spain. (See Aramco World, September-October 1976)
Now the pendulum has swung the other way and in the second half of the 20th century an American education is seen as at least advantageous and in some cases vital. And when the Saudi Arab graduates return from America, the skills and experiences they've gained are quickly put to work. Most fill urgent needs for managers and planners; others, teaching, begin to pass on what they've learned. It is significant that seven of the 10 U.S. alumni now in the cabinet have served as teachers or adminstrators in one of Saudi Arabia's own universities after returning from their studies in America.
For those who have already studied in America and for those studying there now, the experience has been un equivocally rewarding - and not only in academic terms. As Taher Obeid, Saudi Arabia's former Deputy Minister of Agriculture put it: "In America, schools don't just plug students into a specialised field; they broaden horizons. The degree is an important element, but for the student just being there, being
exposed to the society, is perhaps equally important."