10923822_10152888023255845_3482696736966375069_oby Miranda Beggin

Traveling to the Middle East for the first time this past December, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. As one of the most tumultuous regions of the world, often depicted as outdated, traditionalist, and repressive, I can’t say that I expected to meet some of the most brilliant, innovative, and driven young men and women with whom I’ve ever come into contact with. In the 10 days I spent in Saudi Arabia, hosted by the Ministry of Education, I was continuously inspired by the innovation and societal progress I encountered. Compared to some of its neighbors in the region, Saudi Arabia is unique in its conservativeness. While other nations’ youths have joined forces in the last four years and overthrown repressive regimes, Saudi Arabia remained stable, its population instead choosing to approach policy reform gradually. This has often provided Saudi Arabian youths with a reputation of being ambivalent towards the problems of their own country and the prospects for their own futures. After spending 10 days chatting with and learning about the country from a number of Saudi Arabian young men and women, I can say, with confidence, that this portrayal is far from accurate.

The purpose of this exchange fellowship, sponsored by the National Council for US-Arab Relations in Washington, D.C., was to foster positive relationships between American college students and our counterparts in Saudi Arabia. In order to do so, we spent a lot of time at educational institutions, mostly state-run universities. At King Saud University, in Riyadh, I talked to female students studying everything from linguistics and English to dentistry, computer science, and marketing. These women, who only in the last several years have been permitted to acquire degrees in all forms of study, were not taking their educational opportunities for granted. They were excited for the future, passionate, and proud of their accomplishments, those of which were not in short supply. The marketing and computer science students I spoke with had completed competitive internships in their field. One of the women had started a program, called ‘My Business is My Talent’, to help coach young girls who wished to start their own business ventures.

At King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), in Dhahran, I learned that the innovative research done at this institution yields more patents than most private universities in the U.S., ranking #19 in the world in the number of patents granted every year, producing 198 patents in 2014. In the last three years, KFUPM has developed a ‘Techno Valley’ modeled to be the Saudi Arabian version of Silicon Valley, where students can develop innovations and receive funding to commercialize their ideas through an on-campus venture incubator program, which is the first of its kind in the Kingdom. When I inquired about the types of businesses that came through this program, I learned that they ranged from businesses focused on energy technology to social enterprises solving a range of social issues in the Arab world.

At Effat University, an all girls’ college in Jeddah, I heard brilliantly ambitious young women stand up and speak honestly and optimistically about their futures. In a country full of limitations placed upon women, one girl spoke eloquently about her own personal aspirations, believing that impossible was no longer an option, or an excuse for Saudi Arabian women. In a conservative culture, one where cultural barriers could easily result in the ambivalence I expected to see, I was instead struck by undeniable tenacity and reformist attitudes. The Saudi Arabian women that I spoke to were able to see beyond the existing limitations of their culture to a future in which many of these restrictions would no longer exist, and they had the drive to push the envelope until these changes were made.

The young men and women I met in Saudi Arabia are undoubtedly representative of a new generation of innovators and change makers in the Kingdom. The youths of Saudi Arabia may not be as radical as their youth counterparts in other Arab states, but they are anything but ambivalent towards the future of their country and the rest of the world. As the Kingdom continues to make economic diversification and educational reform a priority, I have no doubt that the current generation of Saudi Arabian youths will be empowered to develop themselves, strive to define their own successes, innovate for the future, and push for changes that will impact the future of life in Saudi Arabia for years to come.



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