In 1957, the first modern-style university on Saudi soil opened its gates. It was founded by and named after King Saud, the first of now five consecutive kings and sons of Abdalaziz Al-Saud. Sauds regency from 1953 to 1964 presents a problem for official Saudi history, since his name is connected to notorious mismanagement of the country´s resources and his blatant unislamic drinking habits. He stands in stark contrast to his half-brother and successor Faisal who is widely credited for the economic boom of the 70ies and revered in the country and abroad for his sober pragmatism and moral integrity. Wherever the past and present rulers of modern Saudi Arabia are depicted, on the streets or in official buildings, Saud´s picture is almost everywhere absent.
The establishment of Saudi Arabia´s first university, however, is the single achievement Saud is credited for and one of the very few instances one encounters his name.
Today approximately 70,000 students are enrolled, making it the largest university in the country ,as well. We arrive at the main campus at 10 in the morning and are stunned by the building´s gigantic dimension. The present campus replaced the original one, in the mid-80ies, when the Saudi government awarded the American contractor Blount International with its redesign, spending some 2 billion dollars. The main building bears some resemblance to the huge malls that have been mushrooming for the last years in all major Saudi cities. Indeed, along the long hallway, one frequently passes by small shops and cafeterias that cater all the students´needs.
What makes this trip a rather surprisingly pleasant experience is the group of Saudi students who welcome and accompany us throughout the campus. The 7-8 young men greet us with "Hallo, wie gehts?" and introduce themselves in a very fluent German. They belong to the small group of students who opted to learn a European language other than English and attend the country´s sole German course. Their German teacher, who´s been living in Saudi Arabia for almost 10 years, recounts his difficulties in teaching a foreign language: "The main flaw is that most students lack motivation and a willingness to spend a significant amount of time and committment. That´s because they don´t feel any kind of economic pressure, since prestigious jobs are seldom the reward for hard learning and excellency in class. That´s why the academical standards are rather mediocre."
Those Saudi students we are now encountering, however, make for the exception of the rule. Most of them already have visited or even lived for some months in Germany. They show a great deal of knowledge in German society and stun us with their excellent German language skills that far surpass our Arabic. What is even more remarkable is not only their interest in our daily life in Germany, but their readiness to discuss any topic we suggest. Actually, for us it is the first real opportunity to get an insight into students´life. Whereas at Jeddah´s King Abdelaziz University contacts were restricted by the official and formal outlook of the meetings, we now casually stroll through the campus and eagerly discuss with our counterparts. Besides, the fact that we talk with each other in German allows us to freely converse without paying too much attention to "political correctness".
Be it the issue of women, the inhumane treatment of guest workers, the narrow-mindedness of the Wahhabi creed or the current political system in general, we find a lot of common ground. Basically sharing our views, they still remain very pessimistic about change in the future.
"We are only a small minority. We have seen the West and we know that not everything other than their technology is immoral and decadent. Here we have to live a double life, always being cautious not to offend the public morale. They even get suspicious when you are not wearing a thaub and a shmagh all the time, so how can there be any room for change?"
Interestingly, it soon turns out that one of our new acqaintainces is a Shii and we feel secure enough to ask him about this otherwise public taboo. From the start he makes a clear distiction concerning between the official depiction of Shiism and the treatment of Shiis in daily life. He acknowledges that during the last years, job discrimination has significantly decreased. This is due to the rather pragmatic attitude prevailing with local administrations in his home Eastern Province. However, freedom of religious exercise is still largely absent. The Shiites´main religious event, the Ashura procession in the month of Muharram, is in its character an open and outward ritual, during which the first three caliphs, revered (with Ali) in Sunnism as "Rashidun"(=The Rightly Guided), are publicly cursed, and therefore the procession is prohibited. What is of even greater importance is the deep-seated resentment against the Shia, whose roots are planted throughout a Saudi´s basic religious education. "Ín the schoolbooks they not only depict us as unbelievers, they don´t even consider us as human beings.", laments our Shii companion,"Imagine how you would feel as a little boy if you would hear something like this in school."
Although we are touching quite sensitive issues, the general atmosphere of the conversation is very casual and the Saudi students frequently reveal their sense of humour. However, after maybe one and a half hour we arrive back at the Main Gate and have to leave for the next trip. We exchange email adresses and get back to the bus, still excited about this unconventional meeting, that precisely because of that turned out to be so insightful.