• Saudi Arabian students in Groningen

    A world of difference

    The RUG has had a partnership with the Saudi Arabian King Faisal University since 2010. In December, the first two Saudi Arabian students received their degree from the RUG. How do the Arabic students manage to find their place in Groningen?
    in short

    In 2010, the RUG entered into a partnership with the Saudi Arabian King Faisal University. Since then, Saudi Arabian students have been able to study medicine in Groningen.

    The Groningen medicine programme is also taught at the Saudi Arabian university. This deal has yielded the RUG 3.2 million euros.

    Six years on, Groningen has 151 full time Saudi Arabian medical students. In December, the first Saudi Arabians graduated from the RUG.

    A special Saudi Arabian government programme is meant to offer students the opportunity to see life outside the walls of the kingdom.

    It struck the Saudi Arabian students that they have more freedom to be who they are in the Netherlands.

    But it took most of them some time to get used to the individualistic Dutch people, since Saudi Arabians are not used to being alone. The direct manner of the Dutch also took some getting used to.

    The Saudi Arabians have four hours of Dutch languages classes every week, but some of them struggle to learn to speak the language fluently because of their course load.

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    In 2010, the RUG entered into an intensive partnership with the King Faisal University (KFU) in Al-Ahsa. The RUG is making 3.2 million off the partnership, and its goal is to offer the Groningen medical curriculum in Al-Ahsa and give Saudi Arabian students the opportunity to follow the same programme at the RUG.

    It has now been six years, and the partnership is bearing fruit. Groningen has 151 full-time students from Saudi Arabia and in December, the first two of them received their degrees.

    Life changes

    The King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP) has been encouraging international partnerships since 2005. With this, Saudi Arabia wants to give students the opportunity to see life outside the walls of the kingdom. ‘It’s an initiative that has completely changed my life and that of 200,000 other Saudi Arabians’, says third year medical student Futun Khayat. ‘It’s teaching us to be more open to other cultures.’

    Dutch medical student Tom Kuipers thinks the programme is a good initiative. ‘I understand the strong political action against the Saudi Arabian policies, but a programme such as this is about students and education. The students do not represent the regime. We should give not just them, but also ourselves, a chance to create that distinction.’

    In 2015, Kuipers, together with three other medical students, was given the opportunity to study in Saudi Arabia for a few months. In spite of the negative reactions of those around him, he seized the opportunity with both hands, fuelled by curiosity. ‘I can’t say I didn’t have some prejudices of my own’, he admits. ‘But once you get there and start talking to Saudi Arabians your own age, the country begins to come more alive. Sure, they have other rules, but you do learn that these are not necessarily wrong.’

    Superficial contact

    Anas Madani, president of the Saudi Arabian Student Club in Groningen, also noticed the different rules. ‘In the Netherlands, there is more freedom to be yourself. In Saudi Arabia, everyone has to conform to the same idea. Any and all deviations are unacceptable.’

    In spite of this tolerance in the Netherlands, Madani found it difficult to integrate into Dutch society. ‘The Dutch are very individualistic, while Saudi Arabians are not used to being alone. We need a group.’ This often leads to the contact with the Dutch remaining superficial, according to Madani.

    Khayat disagrees. She has Dutch friends from her volleyball club and feels right at home with them. ‘You can be yourself completely; they accept you for who you are. I love that.’

    One of the Saudi Arabian students skates hand in hand with a member of the Navigators fraternity at the Kardinge sports centre.  

    Her stay in the Netherlands has also taught Khayat to be more direct. ‘In Saudi Arabia, we tend to be more circumspect. The Dutch are very direct. It took some getting used to, but now I like this attitude.’

    Jehan Alhelali, another medical student at the RUG, has not quite settled in yet. ‘The Dutch are quite aloof in comparison with the Saudi Arabians. I have to say I do sometimes miss the Saudi Arabian warmth.’

    Learning Dutch

    Madani feels that he is getting a lot out of studying in the Netherlands. ‘You learn to think outside of the box. Medical students in Saudi Arabia often suffer from tunnel vision when they have to solve a medical problem. In Groningen, that tunnel vision is considered a big no-no.’ Khayat agrees: ‘They teach you to not just learn the material, but also to make connections.’

    And yet, Madani is also critical about studying at the RUG. ‘We’re expected to speak Dutch fluently before we start our master in medicine. Learning Dutch isn’t hard in and of itself, but it does take time, which is time that, because of our heavy course load, we don’t have.’

    The Saudi Arabian students are expected to speak the language on a B1 level their first year in the Netherlands. To help them with that, they get four hours of classes each week. Khayat feels this is not quite enough: ‘I’ve often asked for extra Dutch classes, but this was sadly not possible. So now I’m practising my Dutch at Humanitas, and with my Dutch friends.’

    With both hands

    Khayat loves Groningen. ‘Many of my fellow students would like a larger city better, but I like the student atmosphere in the city. I’m also going to miss the independence I have here, once I get back to Saudi Arabia.’

    Alhelali is also happy to have the opportunity to study at the RUG. ‘The independence afforded within the programme is really great too. Nobody is forcing me to attend classes.’

    When asked whether it is hard for her to not be in Saudi Arabia, the medical student says: ‘Not at all. If I had the opportunity to do it all again, I would seize it with both hands.’

    After an hour of skating, the Saudi Arabian students enjoy a traditional cup of chocolate milk with whipped cream. 

    Partnership between the RUG and KFU

    The RUG enjoys several partnerships with countries that are viewed with quite a bit of scepticism by the western world. for instance the plans for a branch campus in Yantai in China, several projects in Russia, and the partnership with the Saudi Arabian King Faisal University.

    There are many who wonder why the RUG enters into these partnerships. Senior lecturer at the university Wim Jongman is one of those people. ‘We have to be wary about these kinds of partnerships, because I don’t we’re gaining anything scientifically. That means we have to weigh the advantages of these partnerships against the disadvantages.’

    Paul Aarts, expert on the Middle East and former lecturer on international relations at the University of Amsterdam, can think of a few advantages: ‘It’s clear that money plays a big role.’ The contract between the RUG and KFU is worth 3.2 million euros. But money is not the only reason for the partnership, according to Aarts. ‘It’s very important to create a dialogue. It will allow us to learn from each other.’

    Want to know more about Saudi Arabia? On Wednesday, 20 January, Paul Aarts will deliver a lecture in the Academy building, called ‘Saudi Arabia in the international spotlights’. Admission is free.