Cultural Change in the Arab Gulf;
Progression or Imperialist Plot?
by Neil McBeath
There are two points here. Firstly, Asadi appears to be unaware that the current educational policies are actually a triumph for Saudi Arabian parent power. In March 2002, there was a fire at a girls’ school in Mecca. Fifteen girls died and more than fifty were injured because the school was housed in a building that had never been designed to accommodate classrooms, and the fire doors were locked. To compound the problem, members of the Society for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue actively hampered the relief efforts, because they feared that some of the girls might have been unveiled (Lacey 2009).
Following the fire, the Chairman of the Presidency for Female Education gave a press conference, at which he made the extraordinarily complacent statement that he was only answerable to the King, and that his job was safe. Within a week he had been dismissed, and responsibility for girls’ education had been handed over to the Ministry of Education. At the same time, the Ministry was ordered to revise the entire education syllabus, reducing the number of hours spent on Islamic Studies and introducing English at Primary School level.
It must be stressed that these initiatives came from the governor of Mecca, Prince Abdul Majeed, from the then Crown Prince Abdullah and King Fahad himself. They have nothing to do with Biava’s arguments about Christian proselytizers; missionary activity remains illegal in the Kingdom. The royal initiatives are, however, indicative of an on-going struggle between the Saudi royal family and the religious authorities. The latter have opposed, at various times, telephones, radio, television, any form of female education, mobile phones with camera attachments, female athletes participating in the Olympics and women working in shops – any shops – including shops selling female lingerie in shopping malls that men are forbidden to enter (Zoepf 2013). On every occasion, they have urged that these things are haram (forbidden by Islam – see Hudson 2013) but they have lost the battle on every point.
They have also lost the battle so far as English teaching is concerned. Asadi (2013; 84) cites Kamzi (1997) and Karmadi (2005) “who believe that more English means less Islam.” At the same time, she ignores research by Al Haq and Smadi (1996; 313) which concluded that in Saudi Arabia “learning English is neither an indication of westernization nor entails an imitation or admiration of Western cultural values.”
Their research has since been endorsed by Congreve (2006) who concludes that while some Saudi students have “a very positive attitude towards the utility of English” (P. 353), that attitude reflects a goal orientated, instrumental motivation, and as Gardner (2000; 10) points out “doesn’t seem to involve any identification or feeling of closeness with the other language group.” The reliability of those findings, of course, is proved by the fact that the Saudi elite (including senior religious figures) have themselves always used private schools where their children are taught English.
More to the point, Saudis now travel. As early as the mid-1970s, Raban referred to Saudi tourists in Amman in the most respectful terms:- “this modest, studious family with their passion for archeological sightseeing” (Raban 1979; 313) and intra-Gulf tourism now flourishes. The King Fahad Causeway linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is only 24 kilometres long. Special flights leave Riyadh every August so that Saudi families can enjoy the pleasures of Dhofar’s monsoon season. Dubai attracts shoppers and tourists in their hundreds of thousands. Saudis have seen for themselves that other Gulf countries, where English has been introduced from Grade One of Primary School, have not collapsed into moral chaos.
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