The Magazine

Big Saudis on Campus

American universities can't solve the Kingdom's education problem.

Jan 1, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 16 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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A similar example of new Saudi blandishments operates in the opposite direction. A branch of the Saudi petroleum monopoly, Aramco Services Institute--part of the historically anti-reformist Saudi establishment that opposes King Abdullah--has created a program with the Institute for International Education called "Educators to Saudi Arabia." The hosts recently took 25 American middle school instructors to the kingdom for a Communist-style indoctrination tour. One participant, Sara Darnell from Michigan, was, like other American women visiting Saudi territory, forced to wear the full body cover known as the abaya. An interview she gave her hometown paper concluded with an absurd--if not disturbing--declaration. She had met Saudi women who were said to be oppressed, but, according to her, "The [American] news media sometimes does not portray Saudi Arabia that well. . . . The women we spoke to didn't necessarily reflect those sentiments." Apparently Darnell did not notice or understand the meaning of the abaya she was compelled to wear.

The confidence gap between the United States and Saudi Arabia is not a product of any historic lack of Saudis studying at U.S. colleges, but of continued Saudi backing for violent jihadism. To suddenly encourage up to 15,000 Saudis to come to America to study seems destined only to clog or stymie any process of background and security checks. Sources in the U.S. government already express doubts that the vetting of Saudi students will proceed with the efficiency necessary to accommodate such an ambitious program.

Wouldn't it make more sense for King Abdullah to cut the links between his government and the Wahhabi ideology, to reform the kingdom's own political and educational systems first, to allow for religious liberty and free expression--and only then to ask that thousands of Saudis be accepted on trust into the U.S. higher education system? Even if they pass security examinations, Saudi students heading for America will still be products of the old, Wahhabi-based Saudi schools. Saudis already have plenty of ways to learn American values: via satellite television, the Internet, and reading. And younger members of the American elite would no doubt eagerly build relationships with their Saudi counterparts if the kingdom opened its borders to normal tourism.

For now, it seems absurd for the United States to bear the security burden of a risky immigration experiment involving a country whose status as a friend, ally, rival, or enemy seems as changeable as the desert sands.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.