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Wider world opened to Saudis studying abroad
"Now lots of girls go abroad to study and broaden their horizons. There's been a big change in attitudes among my girlfriends over about the last three years."
June 7, 2012 6:55 by Reuters
Wearing the black face-covering veil favoured by Saudi women, Maha Mazyad looked through leaflets for prospective jobs with some of the Islamic kingdom’s largest companies at a recent career fair inRiyadh.
A few years ago she would have worried about the disapproving reaction of friends and parents to the notion of a young woman working in an office without family supervision, but a stint at aUKuniversity has propelled her to seek a career.
“Now lots of girls go abroad to study and broaden their horizons. There’s been a big change in attitudes among my girlfriends over about the last three years,” said Mazyad, 27, fromMedina, clutching a flamingo-pink handbag stuffed with job fliers.
Mazyad’s own way of thinking shifted after she took part in a scholarship programme sponsored and paid for bySaudi Arabiathat has sent hundreds of thousands of young people overseas in the past seven years to improve their job prospects and open the conservative kingdom up to the outside world.
Those accepted for the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme are given a monthly stipend, and the government pays for them to take family with them. Women who receive the awards must travel with a male companion.
This year alone about 130,000 Saudi students are studying abroad, half of them in theUnited States, said James B. Smith, theU.S.ambassador toRiyadh.
The stated goal of the programme, which the Arab News daily in December reported cost more than 20 billion riyals ($5.3 billion), is to prepare Saudi nationals to replace expatriate workers in better-paid technical jobs in the kingdom, reducing unemployment.
But a secondary ambition of makingSaudi Arabiaa more open society has always been more or less explicitly acknowledged by the authorities.
Mody Alkhalaf, director of social and cultural affairs at the Saudi Cultural Mission inWashington, told a 2010 conference that scholarship students were not just studying, but learning about the societies of their host countries and “breaking stereotypes and building bridges.”
King Abdullah wanted young Saudis “to know the world and for the world to know them”, she said.
As a legion of 20-something Saudis of both sexes returns fromNew York,London,TorontoandSydney, the strategy is working, Saudi academics and political and social analysts say.
What has really made a difference, the analysts and programme participants say, is that the scholarships have been awarded not only to the privately educated elite of large cities but also to bright young people from poorer, smaller towns.
It also appears to be paying dividends in theUnited States, where Americans became especially leery of the kingdom after the Sept. 11 attacks onNew YorkandWashington, given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
Scholarship winners studying at colleges across theUnited Statesnow form the third-largest group of foreign students, after Chinese and Indians, at universities likeKansasState.