RIYADH, Jun (Reuters) - Wearing the black face-covering veil favored 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 in Riyadh.
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 a UK university 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, from Medina, clutching a flamingo-pink handbag stuffed with job fliers.
Mazyad’s own way of thinking shifted after she took part in a scholarship program sponsored and paid for by Saudi Arabia that 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 Program 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 the United States, said James B. Smith, the U.S. ambassador to Riyadh.
The stated goal of the program, 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 making Saudi Arabia a 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 in Washington, 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 from New York, London, Toronto and Sydney, the strategy is working, Saudi academics and political and social analysts say.
What has really made a difference, the analysts and program 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 the United States, where Americans became especially leery of the kingdom after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
Scholarship winners studying at colleges across the United States now form the third-largest group of foreign students, after Chinese and Indians, at universities like Kansas State.
They are also getting attention: when Saudi women at Marshall University in rural Huntington, West Virginia, held a session explaining why they wore headscarves, the first meeting was so crowded the organizers had to arrange repeats.
Later, Muslim students staged a dormitory skit about reaction to their coverings.
“It’s been really enriching for our students to be exposed to that kind of diversity,” said Clark Egnor, executive director of the university’s Center for International Programs.
“Most of our (American) students are first-generation college students, and meeting students from other countries is an important part of their education. It helps prepare them for the world they’re going to live and work in.”
Some organizations have criticized the program, with lobby groups like U.S. Border Control complaining that it “had the potential to bring more terrorists” into a country “they have grown up hating.”
But educators working with the students reject these concerns and point to the stringent visa procedures involved.
“International students coming to America are probably the most closely screened, closely vetted group that cross our borders,” said Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education in New York.
Reformist officials in Saudi Arabia have long accused the kingdom’s education system, with its heavy emphasis on religious instruction, of teaching intolerance and failing to prepare generations of young people for the rigors of a modern economy.
Some religious textbooks taught that violence against non-Muslims was acceptable. Modern languages and science subjects often fell by the wayside.
After the September 11 attacks and a subsequent string of bombings inside the kingdom, the government implemented reforms.
But the changes have been only partially successful in overcoming entrenched resistance from bureaucrats and conservative clerics, leaving study abroad the best option for those reformists who seek to fast-track change.
Critics writing in online articles and twitter posts and speaking on satellite television chatshows have held up the scholarships as the insidious influence behind every vice from increased cigarette smoking to a trend of women shedding their traditional veils and baring their faces, which is unacceptable to many conservative Saudis.
Ultra-conservatives have denounced “the scholarship danger”.
“If the scholarships westernize our sons, imagine how much they will westernize our daughters,” Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, a leading conservative cleric, was quoted saying in al-Sharq newspaper in May.
“The scholarships dragged woe onto our nation.”
“I understand the fear,” said Faisal Kattan, 24, who is a year into a three-year course in public and economic policy at the London School of Economics. “Stability is something that is valued in Saudi Arabia.”
He said even conservatives tended to soften their criticism after hearing from scholarship graduates themselves, however.
The idea of studying overseas is not new to Saudis. After the Second World War a steady flow of students boarded propeller-powered planes for the long flight to the United States from what was still a largely nomadic society.
Many of the kingdom’s top businessmen, academics and other figures owe their educations to Western institutions. But as the population boomed, a foreign education was no longer affordable to any but the wealthy.
“It was more tolerant and liberal in the seventies than in the nineties. I think it’s started to change again,” said Bandar al-Showair, 29, an executive manager at a large telecom company.
Showair was in the first batch of students to be sent abroad under the King Abdullah scholarship program in 2005 and did a masters in information technology in North Carolina.
“When I compare myself to those who have not studied abroad, you can see the difference,” he said.
“It’s not about getting the degrees, it’s about getting the culture and the new ideas and new ways of life.”
Additional reporting by Arlene Getz in New York; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall