A group of 15 students from Harvard recently made their first trip to Saudi Arabia to further their knowledge of a country they have heard a lot about, but up till now never had the chance to visit.
Their visit to Saudi Arabia came just a few weeks after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman toured Harvard during his recent visit to the United States. While he was on the Ivy League campus in Boston, Prince Mohammed met with teachers at Harvard who focus on Saudi Arabia and reforms outlines in Saudi Vision 2030. He also held a meeting at the University’s Faculty Club which Mark Elliot, Vice Provost of Harvard’s International Affairs said, “He’s very interested in the connection between research, entrepreneurship and innovation and how they fit together to fuel the economy,” Elliott added.
The sense of entrepreneurship and the evolving role for women and new areas of business in Saudi Arabia, was of great interest to three of the female students on their inaugural trip to the Kingdom. In a series of interviews with Arabia Now, three of the Ivy League female students on the trip recalled their impressions of Saudi Arabia.
One those on the trip – organized by Gateway KSA – was, Julie Ahn, who’s taking a Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She told Arabia Now, “My academic interests have always focused on the Middle East. Though I have visited several countries in the region, I have never been to Saudi Arabia. Visiting the Kingdom was an amazing opportunity for me to deepen my understanding of Saudi Arabia’s important role in the region by interacting with Saudis and witnessing the country firsthand. Right now is such a unique time to visit and hear Saudi perspectives as the country is undergoing many changes with Vision 2030.”
Another person on the visit was Anna Thomas, who’s taking a Masters in Public Administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She told Arabia Now, “Saudi Arabia is one of the most frequently discussed countries in our coursework, but also one of the most difficult to access. I think it’s absolutely necessary to try to get firsthand engagement with our topics of study – so the opportunity to actually come to Saudi Arabia was amazing.”
It was also a unique opportunity for Oula Alrifai, who’s taking a Masters at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. She told Arabia Now, “Visiting Saudi Arabia is highly important especially at this current juncture as the region is going through turmoil; politically, economically and socially. Saudi Arabia is an important key player in the Middle East and therefore having an open dialogue about the future of the region with the Kingdom’s leaders and policy experts is crucial. As a Syrian I have a responsibility to engage in development efforts and change in my region. Studying at Harvard I’m confident that I can use my expertise and skills to help empower and develop our human capital in the Middle East for a better future for all.”
Like everyone on the trip, each of the Ivy League attendees had read a lot about Saudi Vision 2030, and the rapidly changing developments in the Kingdom. Anna Thomas said, “I knew the country was modernizing at an accelerated pace, but seeing such impressive economic, social, and intellectual progress on the ground was very exciting. The facilities at KAUST rival those of MIT. Many of the conversations we shared with our Saudi peers sounded very much like those we’d have on campus at Harvard. Even the sushi was as good as any I’ve had in Boston!”
Each of the 15 Harvard participants on the tour of were very practical in their thinking of challenges of putting a trip together like this, telling Arabia Now, “The fact that Saudi Arabia is newly opening up to foreign tourists is both exciting and promising, but it’s also daunting. A program like Gateway KSA, in partnership with the King Faisal Center, makes the decision to visit that much easier. The difficulties of such an ‘untouched’ destination – newer tourist infrastructure, complicated logistics, more limited access to quality speakers and meetings – are all addressed behind the scenes, which means we get to experience the best of the country without the stress of navigation or coordination.”
Others told Arabia Now, they are hoping to return soon as “there was not nearly enough time to fully appreciate all the Kingdom has to offer.” That’s good news for Saudi Arabia, and great news for students around the world who want to form a stronger understanding of the Kingdom and now thanks to Gateway KSA have a chance to do so.