Western Promises

By Saudi Arabian standards, Trad Bahabri, a 21-year-old from the capital city of Riyadh, may be a good driver. By Vancouver standards, however, he is not. One afternoon during Eid, the holiday that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Bahabri is driving north on Knight trying to get to Richmond. This is the wrong direction. He eyes oncoming traffic, slams on the brakes, and makes an abrupt U-turn in his Chrysler 300, a hulking new sedan with an imposing metal grille. “Saudis like American cars,” he explains. “We don’t have to worry about the gas.” By the time we finally crest the Knight Street Bridge, other drivers have begun to stare. It’s not just his driving skills that are attracting attention. To mark the holiday, Bahabri is in traditional Saudi dress: a flowing white robe known as a thobe, which he stayed up late ironing, and a brilliant red and white-checked head scarf, or shemagh. The shemagh spills over the headrest and flaps around when the window is rolled down.

Bahabri stops in an industrial part of Richmond near Ikea and parks behind a drab cinderblock building with a sign strung above the doorway: Saudi Students Society of British Columbia. Later in the day there will be a feast to commemorate the end of Ramadan. A small crowd of men—some in thobes and shemaghs, and just as many in jeans and hoodies—is already gathering out front.

They file inside, remove their shoes, and climb the stairs to a room decorated with posters of King Abdullah. The group is having trouble sourcing enough pita bread to feed the 300 guests expected. Someone hands Bahabri, who has volunteered to help cook for the party, a tiny cup of strong Arabic coffee and a paper plate of Timbits. “At home, Ramadan is the best month of the year,” he says, pausing to give a friendly salaam alaikum (peace unto you) to a new arrival. “But it’s hard to get in the spirit here.”

Since 2007, Saudi Arabia has been exporting something besides oil: its brightest students. The King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program sends young Saudis abroad to earn bachelor’s and advanced degrees at universities around the world. There are already 62,000 Saudis studying in 24 countries. The Saudi government has a few criteria: it encourages coursework in areas like math, engineering, and physics; students must return home after they complete their degrees; and men can come alone, but women must be chaperoned by male relatives. As might be expected from an oil-rich country, the Saudi government has spared few expenses. Along with tuition, a full year of language training, medical insurance, and yearly trips home, students get a monthly stipend of $2,700.

After the U.S. and Britain, Canada has emerged as the most popular destination, with more than 10,000 Saudi students already here and another 5,000 or so spouses and children. Sixty more students arrive each day, and many of them choose Vancouver, thanks to mild weather and a strong university system. More than 4,100 Saudis now study here under the scholarship program, which gives a hefty financial boost to local language schools, not to mention our cash-hungry universities. “This is very big news in the ESL business,” says Michael Weiss, director of UBC’s English Language Institute. Weiss estimates that the language institute alone receives more than $1.5 million a year from Saudi students. Indeed, the sums gushing into Canada are staggering: this year, the Saudi government will spend an estimated $420 million on the scholarships, up from $380 million last year. By 2015, that figure is expected to top $700 million.

Officially, this baby boom generation will bring Western expertise back home to the Gulf. “Upon graduation, returning scholars will represent a blend of the very best academic knowledge the world has to offer, as well as an understanding of a broad variety of the world’s many different customs and traditions,” Dr. Faisal Mohammad Al-Mohanna Abaalkhail, the cultural attaché to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Ottawa, wrote in an email. Unofficially, there’s another motivation: to lessen Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil. Even the most optimistic estimates predict crude reserves will last only 50 years. “The Saudi regime realizes the need to prepare for a future in which their country won’t be able to rely on exporting massive amounts of oil, either because they run out or because climate-change policies take the global economy away from fossil fuels,” explains Michael Byers, a UBC political science professor who focuses on international relations

Besides the homesickness endemic to foreign students, Saudis face unique hurdles in Vancouver. University admission standards are more exacting than Saudi equivalents, and years after arrival many students remain stuck in
English-language and college-prep classes.

Saudi students face another challenge: going home. Twenty-year-old Abdulaziz “Zizo” Almohammadi arrived in January. He just started a bachelor’s in marketing at Kwantlen University and works out at Steve Nash
Fitness World. In a text from his BlackBerry, he explains: “We can’t imagine how we used to go outside when it’s 50 degrees! Or feel weird talking to strange women! Or not be able to go to the mall any time cuz sometimes it’s ‘women and families only.’” Intended to show young Saudis the world, King Abdullah’s program has also brought their homeland into sharper focus, leaving many students in an uneasy limbo between cultures and countries.

Back in the kitchen at the Saudi Students Society in Richmond, Bahabri, who’s in his second year of a computer science degree at SFU, lifts the lid off an industrial-sized pot on the stove. “This is the real stuff. You can’t get this here,” he says, stirring a simmering blend of spiced eggs, cheese, onions, and tomatoes, a Saudi staple called shakshouka. The kitchen is crowded with a platoon of volunteers chopping, mixing and shouting instructions in Arabic. A student lugging a stockpot of ground beef elbows Bahabri out of the way.

By the time feasting begins, Saudi teens and young men from places like Abbotsford and West Van have packed the student centre. They sit cross-legged on the floor, in front of a long plastic sheet adorned with season’s greetings in Arabic.

“This is what I miss most about home,” Bahabri says, stuffing a pita with shakshouka. After a while, the room becomes quiet except for the sound of eating. When the pita supply runs out, someone brings out hot dog buns from the Real Canadian Superstore. VM