The first in a series of articles on Saudi Arabia and it’s position in the Middle East


It was the late summer of 1978, and, after six weeks of traveling through Turkey and Iran, I had just returned to the university town in the South where I taught as a tenured associate professor of history. I had almost forgotten that I had passed through New York on the way home and had glanced at the higher education employment section in the New York Times and had, purely on a lark, forwarded my resume to an address in Houston that was soliciting faculty and administrative staff for King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.

Approximately three and one- half weeks before the beginning of the fall semester, I received a telephone call from the educational attaché at the Saudi Consulate in Houston, who inquired if I would be interested in flying to Texas for an interview.  I admitted that I was curious about Saudi higher education, and within five days I found myself flying from Birmingham to Houston.

I was met in Houston by a staff member of the Saudi Consulate and, after a restful night at a five-star hotel in the River Oaks district, I was interviewed the following morning at the consulate and offered my equivalent faculty rank as well as administrative responsibilities in the area of institutional research, where my first project would be to convert the university, with its 20,000 students and 12 schools and colleges, from the European-annual system of academic administration to the American credit-hour system.

Later, when it came time to talk about compensation, I was offered a very attractive financial package and alluring fringe benefits such as housing, utilities, medical coverage, the use of an automobile and annual transportation to and from the US.  What was particularly attractive was that I would have a yearly vacation of 80 days, during which I could indulge my addiction for travel by making stops while going to and from the US by way of Europe or Asia. 

After viewing some promotional tapes on King Saud University, I was dropped off at the airport late in the afternoon and encouraged to inform the Consulate of my decision on their offer of a position within a week’s time.   In the end, avarice and my desire for travel and adventure won out, and by early October I found myself flying by way of London to Riyadh.

Arriving late in the night at Riyadh, I found the airport second-rate but the customs inspection the most thorough and meticulous of any that I had encountered at any international destination.  After clearing customs and having my Bible confiscated, I was ushered to a nearby hotel and informed by my escort that I would need to hail a taxi in the morning and make my way to the university administration building to complete personnel requirements and officially join the university.

When I woke up the following morning and peered out the window of my hotel room, my initial impression was of an atmosphere of a prevailing russet color.  It was, of course, owing to Riyadh’s location in the arid, semi-barren region of the Arabian Peninsula called the Nadj that most everything seemed to be covered with a brownish cast.

After a taxi ride of 20 minutes, I found myself at the gates of the university administration building in the middle of Riyadh, a city which at that time counted a population of somewhat over a million people.  Despite having all of my possessions in five fair-sized suitcases, I was assured by my driver that my belongings would be perfectly safe left in front of the administration building.  Despite my misgivings about the security of my luggage, I did as the driver suggested and, leaving my bags on the street, entered the administration building to transact my business.

Three hours later, I returned to find all my personal effects intact. Later, while being driven to my new home in faculty housing, I noticed that it was not uncommon to see pedestrians, obviously on their way to banks, carrying good-sized bails of money drawn up in twine.  Although I had a theoretical background in Shari’a or Koranic law from courses in graduate school, street scenes in Riyadh gave me my first look at the practical effects of Islamic law.

Islam hypothetically embraces all areas of life, including its public, private, social and personal components.  Some of its stipulations, particularly those relating to marriage, divorce, property, legacies and other matters of personal significance have the character of behavior which the faithful are expected to emulate and which the authorities, backed up by the religious establishment, palpably take extreme measures to enforce. In effect, Shari’a establishes dictates toward which society should strive.  Its all encompassing and authoritarian precepts would eventually make clear to me that Islam was definitely not a “religion,” at least not in the commonly held meaning of the word in the Western world.

Despite Western disparagement of the harsher aspects of Muslim jurisprudence, such as the chopping of hands for theft, decapitation for murder, and stoning for adultery, Riyadh, during my first full day as a resident, did appear to be a secure place in which to move about. Women, although thoroughly veiled and covered in black abayas, freely walked the streets and market places of the city, although by custom and law, were not allowed to drive.  Families were to be seen strolling in the city’s parks, and the atmosphere did not - at least initially - seem oppressive.

Dropped off at my new home in faculty housing near the site chosen for the construction of a new 3- billion- dollar campus for King Saud University, I hardly had time to inspect my new quarters before my thoroughly jet-lagged system threw me into shutdown mode, and I was fast asleep.

Thus ended my first day in the Middle East, as I began the six years of my career in higher education in which I would experience my greatest challenges; but it would also be a time during which I would grow immeasurably by learning to live in and adapt to a culture far different than any I had previously encountered