Katie Grandelli ’20, an international studies major and history and economics double-minor, recently spent a week immersed in the history, culture, academics, and politics of Saudi Arabia.
This past April, I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia for a week. This trip came as a result of my involvement in the National Council on US-Arab Relations’ (NCUSAR) Model Arab League program, which I have been a part of since my first semester here at Hollins.
One of the goals of NCUSAR and Model Arab League is to help students develop a better understanding of the region while also gaining leadership and diplomatic skills. The organization that led my trip, Gateway KSA, shares a similar focus: Its mission is to “invite the world’s best and brightest international students to experience the real Saudi Arabia.”
Professor of Political Science Edward Lynch, advisor to the Model UN/Model Arab League Club, said that my opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia was the result of the rapid growth of interest and participation in Model Arab League at Hollins. “NCUSAR can only ask a few faculty advisors to recommend students for trips like this, and they naturally tend to ask universities with the most active Model Arab League programs,” Lynch said. He added, “Katie’s leadership and dedication is a large part of the reason for that rapid growth, so her name instantly came to my mind when I was to recommend someone for the trip to Saudi Arabia.”
Our trip was split into three locations: Riyadh, Al Ula, and Jeddah. All three of these cities had many different opportunities to offer. Al Ula was a chance to learn more about ancient Saudi history, and Jeddah showed us the technological and cultural advancements that have been happening in Saudi Arabia (organically and due to Saudi Vision 2030).
The time we spent in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, was both academically and politically driven. These days were my favorite out of the entire trip. We had two enlightening panel discussions with women who represented the best success in both Saudi foreign policy and economic development. We were also fortunate to have dinner on our very first day in the country with HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, one of the major sponsors of our trip. The conversations we had with him revealed his skill as a diplomat (he had previously been the Saudi Ambassador to both the United States and the United Kingdom). All of us on the trip were grateful for the fact that Saudi culture does not beat around the bush when responding to tough queries, and we were all prepared to ask questions about the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s complex relationship with Iran. Prince Turki made it clear that there is a distinction between truth and media hype, as in the case of Khashoggi, and, while speaking about relations with Iran, the fact that a government is very different than the people of the country.
The people I met on this trip were even more incredible than the locations we visited. There were ten other students on the trip with me representing other American universities as well as Oxford University and even universities in Germany. Getting the chance to spend a week with these other ten brilliant and inspiring students is something for which I am incredibly grateful, and I know that we all will still be friends for many years.
The many Saudi locals that we met throughout our week in the Kingdom were so hospitable, welcoming, and open to us. They were ready to answer the many questions we had and then ask us questions in return. We had three main trip leaders throughout our week, and all three of these women were so inspiring. They fearlessly led us through our itinerary of the week and dealt with any hurdles with great care and grace. Our main trip leader told us so much about her experience as a modern Saudi woman, and there was also a time when she drove us around the sand dunes in the middle of the desert in Al Ula. All of the people we had the chance to meet were so open to sharing their stories and experiences with us.
As a student of the greater international community, I have always appreciated the entirety of the Middle East for its cultural diversity and the people who take such pride in their culture. While meeting and chatting with students at Effat University in Jeddah, I realized even more so the importance of being able to appreciate and understand the person sitting next to you. To me, that ability is increasingly important today and every day.