18 Jun 2011

Arab Spring Maybe but It's a Saudi Summer in Canada

It was a violent and tense spring in much of the Arab world and in Syria and Libya in particular, it promises to be a hot, even more tenuous summer.

With so much of the Middle East flung into a tempest of revolution and counter-revolution, many are wondering why the citizens of the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia aren't throwing their hats into the ring.

In fact, there are those, especially in the so-called western world, that aren't just wondering, but encouraging Saudis to join their Middle Eastern compatriots in revolt against their oppressive dictator. Barack Obama has even been criticized by Americans and others for his seemingly passive attitude towards Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah.

In the same vein, thousands have taken up the cause of Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman made both famous and infamous (depending on your geography) by the online publishing of a video of her driving a car in Saudi Arabia. The video was filmed by Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a prominent Saudi feminist who made a similar video of herself in 2008. Not surprisingly, a Facebook group or several have sprung up in support of al-Sharif and her bid to have women permitted driving licences in Saudi Arabia.

I get all of this, especially the driving bit, but as they say, perspective is everything. My perspective, well, it's widening.

Did you know that in 2005, King Abdullah introduced a foreign Scholarship Program for his citizens to study at post-secondary institutions overseas? Did you know that three months ago, not only did he pledge more money for the Program but he offered grants to those who were already studying here and paying their own way. Did you know that this year, 2011, will see more than 45,000 Saudi men AND women come to study in the U.S.? While the numbers in Canada are elusive, my boots on the ground suggest they are significant and comparable.

And before you go somewhere spectacularly weird and conspiracy-minded, these Saudi students are not enrolled at flight-training schools, nor are they all under-30 males. In fact, this immense student body is made up of men and women, some wives and husbands, some sisters and brothers, even young families, and they are studying everything from English as a Second Language to medicine to journalism. Egads. Education? For men and women? Overseas? King Abdullah, exactly what kind of dictator are you?

I'm not suggesting that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is perfect, nor that it doesn't violate some of the basic rights we westerners consider non-negotiable. I am just conceding that perhaps my western perspective is just that: mine, and western.

You see, this summer I've returned to teaching after seven years and my initiation has included a class full of Saudi students. Male and female. Young and medium. Niqab-ed and not. They are smart and funny and engaged and, while they feel uncomfortable discussing current affairs in Syria, are eager to share their culture and language.

They're not embarrassed that they don't vote. They're not mad that my city bans smoking but not short skirts and booze. They laugh uproariously when the textbook instructs them to repeat: Q: How often do you eat ham? A: I sometimes eat ham. But they repeat it nonetheless, in their best Canadian accent. Perhaps it is the indoctrination.

Saudi Arabia or King Abdullah's record may be questionable and perhaps I am ignorant to the human rights abuses that have supposedly been perpetrated but the King has sent his serfs forth and they seem about as oppressed as I am. My widened perspective comes from the front row and not the front page.

There is a chance that Obama is not hedging nor dodging but instead marvelling at King Abdullah's war on terror. This dictator is educating his people and winning hearts and minds, home and away. This is my kind of revolution.

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