Saudi professor urges communication, travel

by Beacon Staff • September 20, 2006

Khuthaila, a leader in Saudi Arabian women's rights and professor of higher education administration at Kind Saud Universty in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, stressed academic and cultural exchange as the most important tools for improving Saudi-American relations.,Before a group of Emersonians last Thursday, Dr. Hend Al-Khuthaila encouraged American students to travel to the Middle East in order to better understand issues between the two cultures.

Khuthaila, a leader in Saudi Arabian women's rights and professor of higher education administration at Kind Saud Universty in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, stressed academic and cultural exchange as the most important tools for improving Saudi-American relations.

"The best place to start is the universities," she said.

"Academics have fresh minds and will be the future."

The event, which was organized by the Communications, Politics and Law Association, the Model United Nations, and the organizational and corporate communication graduate program, is part of a grassroots effort to increase communication between Saudis and Americans.

Dr. J. Gregory Payne, associate professor of organizational and political communication, had this idea in mind when he founded the Saudi-Global Exchange with then-Emerson student Faisal Al-Saud in 2002.

Payne said he and Al-Saud wanted to keep the gates of communication open after Sept. 11 strained relations between the nations.

The organization was initially called the Saudi-American Exchange but has changed its name to the Saudi-Global Exchange to reflect a worldly, cosmopolitan attitude, Payne said.

The Exchange, which is planning a trip for this March, has taken 600 students of various nationalities from Emerson, Yale, Boston University, the University of Illinois and other schools to Saudi Arabia.

"I want those involved to see my country-its beauty and its promise-for what it truly is, rather than a backdrop for another sensational story in the media," Al-Saud wrote on the Exchange's Web site.

Both Payne and Khuthaila voiced concern about the American media's portrayal of Saudi Arabia.

In remarks after Khuthaila's speech, Payne described one of the organization's previous trips to the country, which he said demonstrated the need for improved Saudi-American relations.

At one point, Payne said, Barbara Walters was in the same area as students from the Exchange.

She refused to interview them, however, because she was looking for students who were supportive of al-Qaida.

During one trip to the United States, Khuthaila said she read blatant inaccuracies concerning her culture in an Iowa newspaper.

"I read that if a Saudi woman walks in the street without a man, she will be killed," Khuthaila said. "But look at me."

Khuthaila, in addition to being the first female dean at a university in Saudi Arabia, also serves as a consultant to the Shura, the Saudi legislature.

"A lot of people have stereotypes about Saudi Arabian women," she said. "But we do have jobs."

At the same time, Saudis have a distorted view of America, Khuthaila said.

"[Saudi women] think they will get off the plane [in America] and someone will rape them," Khuthaila said. "There are a lot of people abusing information."

In an interview prior to the speech, Khuthaila spoke of the importance of visiting the Middle East in order to gain perspective on issues in the region.

"People are often uptight about [issues] at first," Khuthaila said, "but seeing it and knowing the people there changes views. It's different from what the media portrays."

Students who have participated in past trips have gone to the cities of Jeddah, Riyadh and the Eastern Province. They have also visited Saudi Aramco, which is Saudi Arabia's national oil company and the largest oil producer in the world. Additionally, students have met with Saudi journalists to discuss how both countries are portrayed in the media.

Vanessa Becks, a class of '02 marketing communication major, said she was slightly skeptical about the welcome Saudis would give Americans before she attended the first trip in March of 2002.

Once she arrived, she was impressed by the Saudis' hospitality.

"They gave us tours of their homes, they fed us, they spoke with us," she said.

Becks urged students who go to Saudi Arabia to tell people about their experiences there.

"Muslims are portrayed in such a negative light," Becks said. "It's so hard to change a population's view. At the end of the day, word of mouth is more valuable than what Newsweek says."

"I see this as an opportunity to be a young American ambassador," said senior marketing communication major Chanterelle Butler, who plans to attend the trip. "We can build communication between families and people."