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Friday, December 28, 2012

Day 1: Introductions and Travel


 As I sit with swollen feat in seat 32H on my way to Doha, I’m still having a hard time grasping my good luck in being selected for this trip.  Although restrictions are in some ways loosening, it is incredibly difficult to obtain a visa to Saudi Arabia.  In addition to being able to enter the country, the group of students on this visit, 10 in all, receive free airfare, private hotel accommodations, food, visits with some important and diverse people within the kingdom, as I’m increasingly experiencing, tons of free swag.  I’m incredibly grateful for my professor’s recommendation into the program and my acceptance by NCUSAR.

The group travelling with me is diverse and well-informed.  To qualify for this visit, one must have been in some way active with the Model Arab League and be a US citizen.  Model Arab League is organized by NCUSAR and is really similar to Model UN in form and organization; you can look it up at ncusar.org/modelarableague/.  We are all studying some variety of social science, but the trip is dominated by Political Science/International Relations majors.  Often, at Model UN and Model Arab League conferences, I feel disadvantaged by not attending a school with more advanced classes like international law or specialized regional or international organization-focused courses, but on this trip, we are all very diverse and I think that our unique situations have made us each the most knowledgeable in one area or another.  We’re each an expert on something.  I have also done my research on Saudi Arabia to prepare for the discussions we’ll be having.  I've focused my studies on the Middle East since high school and, at least, harbor few of the characteristically American stereotypes about the region and people.  Still, I know our trip is going to be an eye-opening experience for each of us. 

I earlier watched a beautiful sunset over what I think was Turkey—a green land of snaking, skinny rivers.  I’m sad to report that I missed seeing the Tigris River, as I had to take a rare opportunity of the passenger to my left waking up so I could leave and stretch my legs.
Yesterday, my parents dropped me off in DC to avoid my paying a hefty parking rate and to say goodbye.  My mom walked up with me with the outward motivation of helping me with my bags, but really she just thought she was going to make a 30-second assessment of the people that would be providing for me for the next 10 days.  Later, I was informed of how cute it was that my mom escorted me to the council office.

We had some brief introductions, but there was a Facebook group for the trip I didn't know about, and everyone was already acquainted but me.  We met with the NCUSAR employees that would be leading the trip and it was time for our first meeting.  We got to hear from Mr. Joshua Yaphe, who works within the State Department in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) as the Arabian Peninsula analyst, making him particularly knowledgeable on Saudi Arabia.  He spoke extensively on SA with no notes.  He referenced rulers, agreements, and terrorist attacks that I’d never heard of without hesitation.  Although the discussion wasn't completely over my head, some students were more aware of those things and therefor more involved in the discussion.  I would like to do some research and write up brief reports on the discussions with speakers like Mr. Yaphe.  I take extensive notes during speakers and may be able to write something worthwhile. 

Our next presenter was a DC ARAMCO employee, Abdulaziz Al-Shalfan.  ARAMCO is the Saudi national oil and natural gas company, with the largest oil reserves and production capacities in the world.  ARAMCO stands for Arabian American Oil Company as it initially was formed by a concession for the American oil companies Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) and Texas Oil Company (now Texaco) to drill on Saudi soil.  Mr. Al- Shalfan placed much emphasis on ARAMCO’s dedication to research and charitable giving, highlighting 3 structures entirely funded by the company in the kingdom: a university, a cultural center, and a research center.  During our visit in SA, we will most likely visit ARAMCO in the kingdom, after which I will write a more extensive report on this oil giant.  In addition to his presentation about his company, the young Saudi man discussed his homeland, showing pictures of various cities and explaining characteristics of each region of Saudi Arabia.  The oil fields are in Saudi Arabia’s biggest region, The Eastern Province, but the monies made by oil in the Eastern Province are spread throughout the kingdom, making it filled with beautiful architecture, well-kept gardens, and pristine beaches.  He told us that the thing he missed most about home was his family.

Next, we traveled to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in the US where we watched a really cool video meant to acquaint us with some of the things we’ll be experiencing and culture shock we might feel while in the Kingdom.  The video gave me some good questions I can ask to the people we meet with, and the employees were extremely inviting to questions. 
Once we arrive in Riyadh, we will be greeted by an official from the embassy and shuffled through customs.  Then, we will be taken to our hotel to prepare for our first meetings to start at around noon tomorrow.  I’ll use this time to build up some gumption about practicing my Arabic.  

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Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.