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Walking Atop History: A Journey to Saudi Arabia Pt. 7

Since yesterday, we’ve been in the city of Jeddah, and we’re going to spend the next few days here visiting various parts of the city. Jeddah is very different from the city of Riyadh, where we had previously been staying, and these differences reveal the fact that different regions of Saudi Arabia have different cultures and perspectives. This is the case in the United States as well: there is a major different in culture, beliefs, and political attitudes between the East Coast and the West Coast, for example, or the North and the South. Recognizing that there is a difference in how the Saudis of Jeddah think compared to the Saudis of Riyadh think is an important step in realizing that this culture, though not necessarily pluralistic yet, is beginning to open up to new perspectives and new ideas.

Some background on the city is important for understanding why it has the character that it does. Jeddah is the second largest city in Saudi Arabia and is situated on the coast of the Red Sea. It is the largest sea port on the Red Sea, making it an important commercial hub and cosmopolitan center. Even more importantly, it is the principle entrance point to Mecca, and serves as the starting point for Muslims who are making their pilgrimage to the holy shrine. Because of its importance as a center of commerce and as the starting point for pilgrims, there are many different nationalities and cultures present in the city. This cosmopolitan atmosphere has made Jeddah a much more open and liberal place than other parts of Saudi Arabia; indeed, the Saudis we have talked to have said that Jeddah is their most liberal city, akin to San Francisco in the United States. Compared to our experience in Riyadh, this is definitely apparent: couples openly walk around holding hands, women can be seen not wearing their restrictive garb, and parties and festivities occur outside into the late hours of the night. Interestingly, Jeddah seems to be a center for art: everywhere you go, there are sculptures and public art displays on show. This attitude is very different from Riyadh, and is a different reality from the commonly held American perspective that Islamic Arabs are restrictive on displays of art, music, and culture.

Today we took a visit to Al-Balad, the “old city” of Jeddah and its primary historical area. It was founded in the 7th century and served as the center of Jeddah. Once ringed by walls and a serving as the bustling center of commerce, today it is slowly being replaced by the modern skyscrapers and urban sprawl which are encroaching on its location. However, much of the historical character of Al-Balad remains, and once inside the massive difference between the modern, cosmopolitan city and the traditional feel and architecture of the old city is instantly apparent.

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Many of the buildings are very old, and indeed some date back many hundreds of years. The layout of the old city is what I always perceived Middle Eastern cities to be like: cramped and crowded, with tight alleyways and shops lining every street. The buildings are mostly built out of stone or coral, instead of the modern building materials used to construct the modern portions of the city, and many feature ornate and complicated wooden facades and designs. We were told by our tour guide that these wooden buildings were demonstrations of wealth, as wood can only be had by importing it from Africa or India. Wealthy Arabs in the past who had buildings of wood were clearly wealthy enough to afford importing it, a bit like how overweight Europeans in the past were clearly wealthy enough to afford to eat lavishly.

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Among some of the more fascinating buildings we saw was a many hundred years old mosque, dating back to the earliest years of the city and which is still standing to this day. We were taken up into one of the tallest and oldest buildings in the old city, which is currently under renovation but whose rooftop provided a beautiful view of both Al-Balad and the modern city surrounding it. While on this rooftop, we were treated to tea and a pleasant discussion with our tour guide, who has been giving tours of the old city for decades. We were also shown an aquifer dating back to the Portuguese attack on Jeddah hundreds of years ago, and the old gatehouse which provided the entrance to the city when the walls still stood.

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Shops line the walls of the buildings in the old city, selling a wide variety of things. Some of the shops we visited included a date shop, selling the delicious Middle Eastern fruit, a shop full of spices and herbs which filled the entire street with a strong aroma, and shops serving Muslims going on their pilgrimage who pass through the old city. Because it is Friday, most of the shops were closed for prayer and the streets were empty. While this was unfortunate for us because we couldn’t experience the bustle and true feeling of the old city, it did allow us to more greatly appreciate its layout and architecture.

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Walking around in Al-Balad was an incredible experience. It really demonstrated the difference between modern Saudi Arabia, with its glitzy and futuristic skyscrapers and modern city planning, and the historical and traditional character of the Saudi city. Even more important to me was the recognition that I was walking on thousands of years of history. The same streets I walked on and buildings I went into were the ones that Muslims going on the pilgrimage half a millennium ago walked on and visited, and knowing that is a really incredible feeling. Though our program is trying to teach us about the contemporary character of Saudi Arabia, being in the old city exposed us to the rich, vibrant, and extensive history of the region and its people. We in the United States cannot have that same sort of experience: our oldest cities are only 300 or 400 years old. Here, you can literally walk on top of thousands of years of human settlement, development, life and progress. I’d have to say that, because of all this, our trip to the old city was my favorite experience in Saudi Arabia so far.

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The Chamber of Commerce: A Journey to Saudi Arabia Pt. 6

On Wednesday, our last day in Riyadh, we were taken to the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, the agency officially responsible for overseeing and coordinating the Saudi economy. Our visit provided use with some deep insights into the functioning of and current challenges facing the Saudi economy, as well as a candid look into how the members of the chamber, all important and influential Saudis, feel about their culture, their society, and the current relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. I felt that our visit also revealed some important differences between the older generation of Saudis and the younger generations, something which was apparent during the meeting and which I will talk to in further depth later. The fact that we were taken to such an important agency demonstrates that the Saudis want to reinforce the importance of their economic success and growth on us; obviously, it is a source of pride for them, as well as something that they feel will continue to serve them well in the future.

IMG_0750[1]The Chamber of Commerce in Riyadh

We learned during our visit, which consisted of a roundtable discussion with the chairman and leading members of the Chamber of Commerce, that the chamber helps Saudi business achiever their objectives and grow stronger financially. It serves as the primary lobbyist for Saudi businesses and entrepreneurs to the government, relaying their concerns and desires directly to the leading policymakers in the Kingdom. The Chamber collaborates heavily with the Saudi government and Saudi businesses in order to develop policies which will resolve business concerns, obstacles, and problems. It accomplishes this by both developing and helping implement different economic policies and plans. Additionally, the Chamber of Commerce represents Saudi economic interests abroad, coordinating and conducting international trade and fostering greater international economic cooperation. In many ways, the Saudi Chamber of Commerce represents our own, and it is obviously a very important element in the growth and success of Saudi business. Institutions such as these are important in developed and developing countries as they serve as conduits between businesses and entrepreneurs and policymakers, and the Saudis clearly felt it was important that business concerns are responsively met by their government policies.

The chairman of the Council spoke at length about the success of the Saudi economy, as well as the current challenges it faces. He said that a major factor in the rapid growth of the Saudi economy has been that the Saudis invest much of their oil wealth in their own country as opposed to spending or investing it abroad. This has, according to him, helped spur economic development in the Kingdom, as it has kept money circulating within its borders. It has also provided Saudis with better standards of living, further contributing to economic activity and, in turn, growth. The Saudi economy, as it starts to diversify, increase its exports because of new and lucrative trade deals, and continues to develop more advanced, will only continue to grow, according to the members of the Chamber. Though they mentioned a number of challenges that lay ahead, they made it clear that there is much optimism about the continued success of their economy. For an observer of this optimism, it is clear that the Saudis feel that they are in a position of economic strength, and that they feel that their economic success will propel their country towards a greater and more successful future. The members of the council all seemed very proud of their work, and committed towards increasing the development of their economy. Though I am relatively ignorant of macroeconomics and the specifics of the Saudi economy, it seems as though this country is one which is economically growing, and that perhaps a greater economic relationship with them would be a good course of action for both of our countries.

Some of the challenges that they mentioned lay ahead include the need to increase entrepreneurialism in Saudi society. They talked at length about how most Saudis do not create their own businesses or are especially involved in capital pursuits, and that this has prevented a further growth in the economy. Furthermore, without this entrepreneurial attitude, the diversification of the Saudi economy and expansion of its various sectors will struggle to take place. This diversification of the oil is another challenge they mentioned. Right now the economy relies heavily upon the export of oil, and such reliance upon a single export leaves the economy vulnerable to volatility in its price. The members of the Chamber talked about how they have not yet succeeded to the degree they were hoping to with the diversification of their economy, but how this is one of the most important goals they currently have. Another problem mentioned was the high rates of unemployment among Saudis, and how they are trying to find a solution to this. One solution that has been implemented is forcing Saudi employers to pay higher salaries to Saudi citizens, in order to incentivize citizens to go to work. With such a large foreign labor force present in Saudi Arabia but high rates of unemployment among Saudi citizens, the members of the Chamber were concerned that something was going wrong in how they were developing their economy. Though these challenges will be tough to overcome, they are part of economic development. The Saudis seem committed to overcoming these problems, and it appeared as though they recognized that these problems exist in part because their economy is strengthening. It will be interesting to see the policy approaches that the Chamber develops in order to combat them, and whether these problems will actually create serious issues for the Saudis in the future.

Our discussions with the members of the Chamber of Commerce did not only touch upon economic issues, however. We talked in depth about the Saudi perceptions of their country and the United States. This provided an interesting look at the Saudi perspective of the world, and also revealed some interesting things about the Saudi leadership. The main person who talked was the chairman of the Chamber, a conservative-leaning member of the older generation. His name is Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Zamil, and he is one of the richest men in the Kingdom, having built a fortune off of owning air conditioning factories. His background and beliefs allowed us to see how the policymaking leadership in Saudi Arabia feels and approaches issues and, contrasted against what some of the younger and apparently more liberal members of the Chamber were saying, showed the generational gap which is currently so pronounced in the Kingdom.

He first talked about the issue of terrorism, saying that Saudi Arabia has never sponsored terrorists nor has it ever contributed to the growth of radicalism in the Islamic world. Indeed, he said that the United States has played a much larger role in the growth of terrorism by its actions in Afghanistan in 1989. Talking about corruption, a major issue facing Saudi Arabia today, he similarly said that his country has some corruption issues, but that corruption is also rampant in the United States and is an integral part of the American business culture. With regards to the role of women in Saudi society, he clearly reflected the conservative perspective, saying that women were “too shy” to take on major roles and jobs. However, he did note that Saudi society is slowly evolving, and that new roles for women are being found as that evolution is made. Still, he argued, any change will need to come slow, for rapid change will damage the order and stability of society. He pointed to the Shah’s Iran, its rapid Westernization, and the subsequent Islamic revolution as evidence of this belief. From these statements, he clearly held a belief that many of Saudi Arabia’s problems are the result of American meddling in the region. He further demonstrated the more conservative perceptions of women’s roles in society and the need for society to hold onto it tradition. As someone in a high position of leadership in the Kingdom, and as a member of the older generation currently in power, his statements reflected the current political outlook for the Saudi leadership. Though what much of what he was saying was perhaps not fully correct or was contradictory to our own beliefs, it was a candid and revealing look into the current character of the Kingdom, and these beliefs are important to understand in order to understand how the Kingdom operates and how it is going to evolve. The younger members of the Chamber took a rather different stance from him, stressing the importance of our program’s mission in fostering intercultural communication and understanding, and arguing that the Kingdom is indeed evolving and that change is coming. They were obviously in damage-control mode, trying to present an alternative perspective from what the chairman had been saying. This contrast in views revealed the large generational gap between young and old Saudis, and further revealed the reality that Saudi Arabia is a Kingdom whose population is in transition. As the younger generations, which make up much of the Saudi population, start coming into positions of higher leadership and power, perhaps we will start seeing their more liberal and progressive views turning into more liberal and progressive policies.

Preserving the Past: A Journey to Saudi Arabia Pt. 5

Yesterday we visited the King Faisal Foundation, a foundation established in 1976 by the sons of the late king in his honor. It is one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the world, and during our visit we were given a description of its purpose and a tour of its fantastic collection of historical manuscripts. These manuscripts are kept in the facility we visited, the King Faisal center for Research and Islamic Studies. Our visit to the foundation and the facility was very interesting, as it revealed the Saudi commitment to preserving its cultural and historic heritage as well as its leading role in providing charity work across the Islamic world.

IMG_0742Upon arriving, we were first given a description of the foundation’s charity work. The foundation presents an annual award, called the King Faisal International Prize, which honors individuals who make a positive contribution to human progress. The prizes are awarded in various categories, which include service to Islam, Islamic studies, Arabic language and literature, science, and literature. The people we talked to tried to reinforce the point that these awards, as well as this foundation, is intended to highlight the importance of Islamic culture and heritage while also showing that the Islamic world is committed to the further betterment of all of humankind. Seeing how committed the people working in the foundation were to awarding good works was refreshing, as it demonstrated how the people of the Kingdom are thinking about humanity at large and about the improvement of not only their own culture but the culture of the entire globe.

IMG_0732They also discussed the work the foundation does in preserving and making accessible historical manuscripts and the Islamic cultural heritage. The foundation works hard to locate, authenticate, acquire, and copy all of the known Islamic manuscripts in the world. Presently, there are more than 250,000 historical works in the foundation’s library. Working with other libraries and universities across the world, they share and trade the manuscripts and historical works so that they can be accessed and be known everywhere. They then hope to make these manuscripts available to researchers and students, and they discussed the process someone interested in accessing a manuscript would go through to do so. The library the foundation possesses is technologically advanced, so that one of the many manuscripts and works available can be quickly accessed and made available to the researcher. We were shown this library, and I was very impressed by the ease of access to the vast collection that their advanced library allows.

IMG_0737A major part of collecting and preserving these historical works, some of which are thousands of years old and come from fascinating periods of time such as the Abbasid and Mamluk periods of Islamic history, is working to restore them. We were shown this restoration process, which takes place inside the facility. It was exciting and fascinating to see this restoration process. I am very interested in old historical works, so seeing how they are kept in top quality peaked my curiosity. First, the manuscripts are put in a freezer which deep freezes them, killing any microorganisms which might damage or destroy the paper the manuscripts are written on. Then, the pieces of the manuscript which remain are glued onto acid-free paper, which will be able to last a very long time. These pages are then bound in a book, so that the manuscript is restored into its original book form. From there, the manuscripts are either put in the library or put into the showroom.

IMG_0719Our visit to the showroom was perhaps my favorite part of the trip. It showcased some of the most important, beautiful, and ancient cultural works of the Islamic world. Among what we saw was a thousand year old Koran and beautiful and intricate works of calligraphy. There were ancient works on astronomy and medicine which came from the Islamic “golden age.” One of the most fascinating artifacts they had was, in my opinion, a complete collection of Napoleon’s surveys of Egypt made during his campaign in Egypt. It was amazing looking at these pieces of work and knowing that they came from thousands of years ago, that some calligrapher or scientist living in a center of learning and knowledge many generations ago was putting the very same ink on the very same page that I was directly staring at. Looking at these cultural artifacts was literally looking directly into the past, which was amazing for someone who is as interested in history as me. The incredibly artistic quality of these manuscripts was mind-blowing as well. Each one of them was a beautiful work of art, and I was incredibly impressed by the fact that someone produced them. I would never be able to achieve the level of skill needed to produce these works of art, so it was amazing to know that someone in the distant past did.

IMG_0722Preserving humanity’s historical heritage is vitally important for our future development. Only by recognizing and admiring the past can we move into developing the future. Not only this, but acknowledging the incredible achievements of the distant past allows us to realize that humanity has always been achieving incredible things. For a culture like Arabian culture where tradition and Islamic heritage is a key part of society, keeping the memory of the past alive is necessary. For me, I think preserving the past is important if only because losing it means that we have lost the achievements and memory of the people who came before us. It is very reassuring to know that foundations such as this are dedicated to ensuring that the works of the past will not be destroyed, so that their memory can continue far into the future.

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