American Praising of Saudi Despots is Counterproductive


Oct 13, 2009

By Kate McMahon

Washington DC – I am perplexed by the level of excitement surrounding the opening of King Abdullah University this week. The silliness reminds me of the contestants in the TV program, “The Price is Right.” Where the contestants scream excitedly for no reason besides the fact that they are receiving media attention. This behavior is  similar to the reaction of some of our political leaders and the opening of the university.

The facts are simple. The Saudi king wanted to open a university that bears his name, and enforce his overwhelming presence in the kingdom. There are already numerous buildings, schools, roads, hospitals, military bases and other public buildings carrying his name. In Saudi fashion, the king has decided to show off his wealth to the world by buying the most lavish and expensive amenities. Behind all of the glamour, the press does not see the thousands of Asian laborers that were imported illegally for the project. Nor, do they see the Bin Laden Group’s vans that have roamed the streets of Jeddah in search of illegal workers to build the university for the past three years.

The problem with the university is that it does not address the core problems of Saudi Arabia. The real problems are in the elementary and secondary educational system, and in the economical and political systems. The king has spent $ 3 billion on a shiny new university to distract the world, while the core problems are far from being addressed. Unfortunately, the world continues to praise the king for building a university that will educate mostly international students.

Detractors may claim they are merely praising a world-class university. If so then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad and his government deserve praise as well for their successful university system that produced thousands of scientists in a mix-gender environment. One example of that success is Sharif University which graduated the best and the brightest internationally in science, and yes the university – as most universities in Iran- allow for gender mixing. Sharif’s graduates rival MIT in the United States, Tsinghua in China and Cambridge in Britain and are considered “science superstars” according to Newsweek magazine. Ahmadinejad’s country has outstanding universities, even though Iran similarly has problems in their educational, economical and political systems. By no means am I supporting Ahmadinejad. I am just trying to understand the logic in praising the Saudi king who leads a corrupt and extremist regime that continues to teach hatred of other faiths and cultures in its government run schools and universities.

If the king can build a university like this in three years, why didn’t he reform the educational system and its vial textbooks until now? The textbooks that teach to: hate the West, hate Jews and Christians i.e. “infidels”, to accept child marriage as a way of life and that women do not count as full citizens. Why is the elementary school system so poor that Saudi Arabia is ranked as one of the lowest  by the State Department?

Why are only 15% of the students from Saudi Arabia? Why does a country in need of educational reform want to instruct students from other parts of the world instead of their own?

The answer is simple, and follows on par with the rest of the Al- Saud policies. The aim of this university is to satisfy the ego of king Abdullah, and not the national interest of the people. This is crystal clear and right before our eyes! We choose not to see that over 60% of government schools, the basis of education that forms a nation, are rented buildings that are not suitable or safe for students. In addition, over 80% of Saudi subjects who are citizens of the world oil superpower are unable to buy a home in a country that is vast in size and has a relatively small populace.

Saudi Arabia currently has over five million poor people! This number is larger than the poor population of the other Gulf States combined. To highlight the widespread poverty in the Saudi kingdom, a local TV company aired a clip of a grandmother living in Riyadh. She showed the interviewer her  four-room house she rents and lives in with 30 other people on $4000 a year. Some of the thirty include her 5 daughters, their kids, and her elderly mother-in-law. If you can understand Arabic watch the interview on YouTube, she says on the video “Give us some meat, even if it is donkey meat.”

$3 billion dollars towards a university in Saudi Arabia that primarily benefits international students is an injustice to the people. King Abdullah, is not interested in the best for the people of his country, but rather he is concerned in receiving international praise. We can see this through his forking of tens of millions of dollars to fly in over 3,000 foreign dignitaries to attend the opening ceremony.

The international community should look past the smoke and mirrors of King Abdullah, and challenge him to address the core issues in his country that actually affect the citizens. The king and his family must pay attention to issues such as despotism, poverty, lack of human rights, religious oppression, government corruption and extremism among other pressing challenges.

The world cannot continue to shower King Abdullah with praise while he continues to clinch his fist and abuse his own people. It is not only hypocritical, but it also carries a huge cost to the millions of people in that desert nation, and ultimately to the western nations.

KateMcMahon is an associate analyst at the Gulf Institute. 

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