I thought I would share my experience of being in Saudi Arabia recently. Some people on Facebook were deriding me for going, saying going was tantamount to supporting the regime and that we, in the West, should be boy cutting such countries. I disagree for two reasons. Firstly, how can you make a judgment on somewhere you have never been? OK being there for only three days only gave me a bit of an insight into the culture, but at least I now have a better understanding of it. Secondly, why should the people there be deprived of international ideas, particularly the women? People are people, irrespective of the regime and culture in which they live. I found the people lovely, really hospitable and friendly. We were put up in the Sheraton Hotel in Dammam, I had an amazing big room, practically a suite! The food was fantastic and lots of it. I was given an Abaya when I first arrived, it is a requirement to wear one when in public, although Western woman don’t have to cover their hair, which was good. It was very frustrating seeing a lovely outdoor swimming pool and not being able to use it (men only). It felt strange having to wear the Abaya, but I have to say it was surprisingly comfortable and elegant.
There were over 1000 delegates at the conference, mainly from Saudi Arabia. Men and women were segregated; the men in a nice airy room, the women in a dingy room underground. The sessions were video conferenced into the ‘ladies quarter’. I was allowed into the men’s section when I was doing my talk and was then escorted back to the ladies quarter. They were not happy as the cameraman refused to focus on me, instead showing shots of the men in the audience. We were constantly offered food, dates and tea. The organizers couldn’t have been more helpful. I found the people lovely, particularly the women, who were really interested in the talks and were keen to find out more. It was good to have the chance to chat to many of them between sessions. The atmosphere in the two sections of the conference was very different; in the men’s section it was sober, with many falling asleep, whereas the atmosphere was more lively in the ladies quarters, not been seen by the men meant that we were free to move around and chat.
Many of the women were interested in doing Masters and PhDs and I even met one lady who is coming to do a PhD with us in the Autumn and after hearing me talk she wants to focus it around our 7Cs of Learning Design framework, which is great! Also there is a chance that I will get invited back there, would be nice to run some Learning Design workshops.
So on reflection I am very glad I went, I now feel I have more of an understanding of the Saudi culture. It is an interesting country and it is clear that Education is a fundamental priority for them.