In early August, a diplomatic dispute erupted between Canada and Saudi Arabia when a Canadian government official criticized the kingdom’s human-rights record and the Saudi government swiftly responded with unexpected sanctions. The Saudi response included expelling the Canadian ambassador and halting new business activities with Canada.
Government officials and businesses were not the only ones affected by the rift, however. It is estimated that more than 15,000 students funded by the Saudi government were swept into the dispute when they were suddenly withdrawn from Canadian universities and relocated to higher education institutions in other countries.
When students’ educations are disrupted, it is not only progress toward degrees that suffers. Many Saudi students, both at home and abroad, are presented with opportunities to gain exposure to companies and work environments while attending a university. These opportunities, which include internships and networking events known as meet-ups that bring students together with industry professionals, are also lost when governments pull their students from universities. These opportunities further illustrate why countries should make every effort to maintain educational ties despite their disputes.
Opportunities that bring foreign companies and Saudi university students into contact with each other are found worldwide. For example, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the United States created its Center for Career Development to help connect talented Saudi students studying in the United States with companies offering internships and training.
For those studying at universities in Saudi Arabia, there are programs like one offered by the Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation (MiSK) and the German-Saudi Arabian Liaison Office for Economic Affairs that places Saudi students in internships with German companies operating in Saudi Arabia. Companies with sites in Saudi Arabia also conduct their own recruiting as graduation nears for students. Tetra Pak, a food-packaging company with headquarters in both Sweden and Switzerland and a branch in Saudi Arabia, is one example of a company focusing on the development of young Saudi talent.
Companies that offer international students the chance to experience what it is like to be one of their employees report that learning through experience, and not just academics, is integral to the students’ business success.
In addition, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the United States’ Center for Career Development explains that both companies and students benefit from internship programs for international students. For companies, benefits include lower hiring and training costs and the opportunity to get to know potential employees prior to offering permanent positions. Both companies and interns can learn more about the other’s culture, furthering understanding that can improve workplace interactions.
Saudi students in particular can initially find it challenging to accomplish tasks in workplaces that do not operate through a hierarchical chain of command. Early exposure and training for communication to work through differences is helpful for all involved.
Not only do internships and other workplace experiences connect employees with potential employers—they also connect resources and networks to help innovative ideas become a reality. Saudi students gain new sources of expertise and tools to develop ideas they might introduce in Saudi Arabia, and foreign firms gain insight into markets and potential trends there.
Students desire such opportunities. In a recent survey conducted by the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, 90 percent of the Arab students surveyed deemed internships important, despite formal internships being a relatively new concept across the Arab region. If education ties are disrupted because of disagreements between countries, workplace experiences for students become casualties as well.
Meet-ups between industry professionals and students studying abroad or attending university in Saudi Arabia offer another avenue of connection. The face-to-face exchanges that occur during meet-ups offer opportunities beyond networking. Students can demonstrate their strong language skills and adaptability to new experiences.
Such was the experience of German industry representatives participating in a meet-up with approximately 80 Saudi students studying in Germany, arranged by the German-Saudi Arabian Liaison Office for Economic Affairs and the Frankfurt Chamber of Commerce. The chance to observe these strengths in potential employees can be an important factor in hiring decisions.
At the same time, these meet-ups serve to inform university students of potential markets available for employment in Saudi Arabia. Rifts between countries that affect business and education exchange mean meet-ups are no longer available.
Maintaining Educational Ties
Saudi Arabia has indicated a desire to modernize and diversify its economy through foreign direct investment. Such investments have the potential to have ongoing positive effects on production and innovation there.
Foreign firms, too, that seize these opportunities can expand their market presence as well as enhance their own financial stability. Beyond bottom lines, there is demonstrated potential for the environment and social context of Saudi Arabia to benefit too—as when, for example, companies that open there utilize green technology or employ certain corporate guidelines in their operations.
Workplace experiences and meet-ups are avenues for connecting these investments and businesses with students from Saudi Arabia. They offer the chance for students to build skills, know-how, and networks with those who may very well become their employers and co-workers.
Beyond business, they offer the chance for individuals to get to know each other personally. Such connections should not be dismissed, as criticism by governments may not always be the most effective way to spur change. Canada is the latest of several countries, including Sweden and Germany, to experience diplomatic rifts with Saudi Arabia. The potential for limiting or cutting ties in response to criticism needs to be weighed carefully in diplomatic decision-making.
Education does not occur in a vacuum. It is accompanied by many new opportunities and chances for interactions. Students’ participation in workplace experiences and meet-ups during their university years offers alternate means of achieving gains individually, nationally, and in terms of bilateral relations. These additional possibilities reinforce why education should not be a casualty in diplomatic disputes.
Elizabeth R. Bruce is an independent consultant working in research and editing and has been part of a number of projects focused on Middle East education.