I spot Talal — clean shaven, wearing sunglasses, looking athletic in a tracksuit. He walks towards me and offers his hand. I am momentarily thrown. As a teacher I’ve learned not to shake hands with male Muslim students because some Muslims believe unrelated men and women should not touch.
Talal Almarshoud, a 27-year-old Masters of Accounting student at Monash University, is one of more than 6000 Saudi students in Australia on the Saudi Government’s scholarship program.
Since 2005, more than 60,000 Saudi students have been sent abroad on full scholarships at the cost of 7 billion Saudi riyals, the equivalent of AU$2 billion.
The Saudi Government’s official reason for the overseas scholarship program is to give Saudis the qualifications and skills they need to enter the job market back home, a process called Saudization. Currently foreigners make up three quarters of the workforce and only one quarter of the population.
But Talal disagrees that Saudization is the main goal. "I think the government is trying to open the people’s minds," he says. That will be no easy task. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most closed and conservative countries in the world.
"The King Abdullah Scholarship Program is a difficult social experiment," agrees Dr Fiona Hill, an anthropologist and cultural consultant who works with clients in Saudi Arabia. "People in power have recognised there are citizens who haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to other ideas, unlike the wealthier citizens." To break out of the Saudi scene and improve his English, Talal has chosen to live alone in student accommodation. He is anxious to make Australian friends but worries that people think Saudis are terrorists.
Haifa Alsaiari, a 34-year-old Masters of Information Systems student at Melbourne University, believes one purpose of the program is to change Saudis’ ideas about how males and females relate to each other. "At the beginning it was a bit difficult to communicate with males," says Haifa, "but I have a stronger personality now after studying with men".
For the majority of scholarship students, this is the first time they have studied with the opposite sex, and some never become comfortable with it. "It’s limiting for me," says Nora Hakami. "I feel shy asking questions. I do it, but I don’t like it."
However, like a lot of Saudi female students who are used to being accompanied by male relatives at home, Nora has started to feel more independent since studying in Australia. "I was afraid to go out alone but now I’m braver."
The female students are also breaking the mould by taking on traditionally male-dominated subjects like IT, business and medicine. "We want to change the old ideas that women are just wives or teachers," says Haifa.
Many Saudi students study full time while caring for young children. Haifa has three boys and found the fasting period of Ramadan especially difficult. In the evening when it was time to break the fast with her family, she was often in lectures.
Religion and daily life cannot be separated for Saudi students. "Islam in Saudi Arabia is the real Islam," says Haifa. "It is the only country which follows Islam from the book." With its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia funds the promotion of its style of Sunni Islam throughout the Muslim world.
Students struggle to leave religion out of academic life, sometimes using the Quran to support their views. Talal was told to leave religion out of his essays. "With topics like euthanasia we don’t have opinions," Talal tells New Matilda. "We don’t have meetings with scientists to get their views. We go directly to the Quran. Now sometimes I write the argument that’s in the Quran, but I don’t mention where it comes from."
Other Saudi students, though, have welcomed secular academic life.
A 30-year-old medical fellow at Monash Hospital who I’ll call Khaled, savoured the chance to voice his opinions in English classes. "I like debate. In Saudi Arabia we are not allowed to debate or question the clerics." He had clashes with relatives over his progressive views on Saudi society and women’s rights when he returned home for holidays.
My interview with this medical student turned into a dinner party, the first Saudi social event I’d been to involving both women and men. "When I first moved here my neighbours thought I was famous," he says. "There are always people coming and going, but this is just our culture."
All the couples here are Shia, a minority group in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. "We can probably have more chances here, away from the discrimination," says Khaled. Intentionally or not, the scholarship program has brought many Sunnis and Shias together for the first time.
At Monash, the students are learning new approaches to their professions. Naturally, the intention of the scholarship program is to transfer skills learned abroad to the workplace in Saudi Arabia. But they predict they will face resistance.
That resistance will come from conservative Islamic forces that have an interdependent relationship with the Saudi monarchy. "The students have to go home and be completely frustrated with what is before them," says Fiona Hill. "The set up at home is not going to be conducive yet to using all the skills they have learned abroad, though things are changing extraordinarily rapidly."
Even so, Khaled thinks he will be able to make changes because Saudis respect qualifications. "People who come back from Western countries will have a high ranking in society and others will see them as role models." But not all the students are as keen on change as he is. He has seen many Saudis "go to one of the mosques that’s just like the mosque in Saudi, go to university and go home. The problem is Saudi people think they are the best and practise the best Islam. They don’t want to open their minds."
Here, though, sitting on the floor eating with young Saudi students who are busy making plans for a different Saudi Arabia, it is a totally different story.
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