Time: March 26, 2018
NEW HAMPSHIRE: From 4,000 miles away, Saudi students in the US have been watching a political transformation unfold in their homeland with a renewed sense of hope for their own futures — and for the future of a country in a region beset by turmoil.
Since becoming crown prince in June, Mohammed bin Salman has embarked on a series of bold policies designed to curb corruption, push back against religious extremism and confront an expansionist Iran.
Domestically, social reforms have been high on the agenda, including the headline-grabbing decision to allow women to drive. Prohibitions on women driving had consistently been invoked by Saudi Arabia’s overseas friends and critics alike as an unacceptable restriction on civil rights.
“When I came to the US, the first thing I did was get my driving license and get my own car to drive,” said Siham Karkaah, a 33-year-old Saudi student from Riyadh. She arrived in the US in August, and is studying for a master’s degree in education at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).
A month after she arrived, the crown prince issued a decree that means she will be able to drive when she returns to Saudi Arabia after completing her studies, something she plans to do.
“I have always been supportive of women’s rights, and I definitely believe in that and women’s freedom, and doing what you want to do as a woman.
“I fully support the changes that have been made. When I do go home, it will be to a different country,” she said.
Karkaah’s enthusiasm was echoed by other young Saudis studying in the US, who believe the crown prince understands their dreams and aspirations far better than previous leaders.
“It’s really important that the crown prince is close to our age; it means he understands our generation. We have a new way of thinking, and he does, too,” said Abdullah Al-Mutairi, 26, another SNHU student from the Kingdom.
He also supported the crown prince’s anti-corruption drive, which included seizing assets from some wealthy members of the Saudi royal family and prominent businessmen.
The crown prince’s methods have provoked concern in the US about respect for property rights and due process, although there is a widespread belief among US experts and Saudi expats that serious action against financial corruption was needed.
“I wasn’t expecting the crown prince to do what he did, but I’m glad he chose to,” Al-Mutairi, a business studies student, said.
Although supportive of the decision to let Saudi women drive, Al-Mutairi said the measure would run up against a strong strand of conservatism in Saudi society.
“Women may now be legally allowed to drive, but if there are men in their family who don’t want them to, that is a real barrier. The women could go to court, and they could win, but it might mean breaking ties with their family, which would be a huge sacrifice,” he said.
Saudi students typically come to the US to benefit from a learning environment they say is more open, supportive and of higher quality than they are able to get at home. Fees are usually paid by a Saudi government-funded scholarship fund, which also covers living costs.
SNHU, in the New Hampshire city of Manchester, is considered one of the most innovative higher education establishments in the US and has long been popular with Saudi students.
Another SNHU student, Hussam Samir Al-Deen, said he had longed to visit the US and had learned a great deal from his time there. He hopes to find work in the US after graduating, but expects to return home one day.
The 28-year-old from Jeddah said he tried to be a good ambassador for his nation. “Most Americans I’ve met have been very nice, but some have the wrong impression about Saudi Arabia and about Islam. I hope I have helped to improve their view,” he said.
Al-Deen said he and friends had suffered isolated cases of racism, or had been called terrorists by people in the street.
“I just ignore them, they don’t really understand what they are saying — most people are very kind,” he said.
His years studying in the US had changed him and some of his views on culture, he said. If there was one social reform that could be added to the list of those underway in Saudi, he hoped it would be a shift in the nature of personal relationships.
“In Saudi Arabia, it is more difficult to be friends with women, or to work alongside women, and it is not always accepted that you get to marry the woman you love. Instead you are supposed to marry and hope you fall in love with your wife afterwards. I would like to see those things change one day,” he said.