Kent helps Saudi prepare for post-oil economy

Colin Morris

Entrepreneurship program teaches high school grads

Seven professors from Kent State are helping Saudi Arabia answer an ominous question. As Senior Associate Provost Timothy Chandler puts it:

“What do you do when the oil runs out?”

Late last year, King Saud University chose Kent State over competitors from around the world to create a $3.4 million program that teaches entrepreneurship to Saudi students in a preparatory year between high school and college.

Mary Ann Saunders, executive director of International Affairs, recently visited King Saud in the capital, Riyadh, for the country’s first conference on entrepreneurship Oct. 26 and 27.

“When your entire economic system relies on one government-controlled natural resource,” she said, “it’s very forward-thinking for the government to indirectly sponsor (through the state-sponsored university) a conference on the development of small and midsize businesses by individuals.”

Seven Kent State faculty members were selected and trained in Fall 2008 to begin teaching in Spring 2009. In addition to teaching 1,200 Saudi students this year, Kent State will also publish a textbook, video and instructor’s manual for the program, which will be taught entirely in English.

But Saunders says there have been complications.

“The video is being produced here,” she said, “but it has to be culturally sensitive. We had to find actors that look and dress like Saudis. And even though they’re speaking English, what accents should they have?

“The actors have been cast, the sets have been built. It’s still awaiting approval.”

Awaiting approval has been a big part of creating the program, which is the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudis have a different concept of time than we do,” Saunders said. “The professors spent their first semester there getting ready to teach instead of actually teaching. That was frustrating for them, but things are much smoother now.”

Still, the cultural differences are not insignificant, even for a veteran international liaison like Saunders who attended the entrepreneurship conference with Chandler.

Because of the strict separation of men and women in public in Saudi Arabia, Saunders and Chandler were not allowed to attend the same events.

“It was very frustrating,” Chandler said. “There were parts of the women’s conference I wanted to see and questions I wanted to ask but couldn’t. We were trading questions for each other to ask of the speakers.”

Men and women actually attended the conference in separate buildings, but Saunders said the women’s conference didn’t seem to be any less valuable than the men’s.

“I sat next to princesses of the royal family,” she said. “The women’s segment was fascinating.

There are women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia. I assumed – maybe stupidly – that women were excluded.”

Saunders said her cultural experiences were varied – she was advised by hotel staff not to walk to a nearby ATM, even though wearing the women’s traditional “abaya” robe because she was alone.

“The treatment was never abusive,” she said.

She said she did her best to adapt. That’s a big part of being director of International Affairs, a job that has sent her to South Korea and Turkey since her late-October trip to Riyadh.

“(In Saudi Arabia,) women are just invisible. . When I’m in China, it’s the opposite. You stick out. That’s embarrassing, too. But there’s a comfort to invisibility,” Saunders said.

Chandler said he was there essentially because Saunders would be better received in many situations if accompanied by a male and that the partnership with King Saud is an opportunity to teach the Saudis more than just entrepreneurship.

“You have to ask yourself if it’s better to maintain diplomatic relations in order to influence people, or do you cut them off, isolating them and yourself?” Chandler said.

“I see it as an opportunity to show them new ways of thinking, not to undermine them, but to broaden their view.”

Saunders and Chandler said other departments at King Saud approached them during their visit about expanding the current program, including a possible partnership with Kent State’s College of Nursing.

Contact faculty affairs reporter Colin Morris at [email protected].