The newly minted graduates, beaming and garbed in black robes, gazed up at the stands. Members of the various faculties looked on with weathered solemnity. Families cheered and took the obligatory pictures. Onlookers gawped and jostled for prime position in the cloying night-time heat. Some had brought balloons, others flowers; but all present were joining in a celebration of achievement, purpose and potential realised. It was the scene of a generic graduation in almost any country.
Yet, this familiar scene took place in a milieu that for many would be most unfamiliar, at Saudi Arabia’s leading university: King Fahad University for Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM).
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seems an almost alien place. Straddling the Arab peninsula and encompassing vast swathes of desert within its confines, the country has earned its moniker: “The Hermit Kingdom”. For decades it was a sealed country; accessible only to intrepid travellers or long-term foreign residents. This was a land of mystique and a living enigma. However, with the advent of Internet, mass communication and satellite TV, this country for so long isolated, is now more connected than ever before to the global community.
It should is no surprise that graduation time in Saudi Arabia shares all the trappings of a contemporary ceremony in the rest of the world. There are the robes, the logos, speeches and music playing central roles. It is at time remarkable to think that barely eighty years ago the land upon which the University lies was untouched desert scrubland. Much has changed.
The University in question - situated in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia - is partly owned and operated by the oil giant Saudi ARAMCO, in conjunction with the Saudi government. Founded in 1963, the University initially sought to produce Saudi petroleum engineers to aid in the management and extraction of the country’s vast oil reserves. Since that time, it has expanded its horizons beyond oil and now offers courses in Sciences, Industrial Management, Finance and Environmental Design. With an annual intake of 1000 students and a 15% acceptance rate, KFUPM provides the most selective and rigorous post-secondary education in the Kingdom.
At the ceremony – held in a full size stadium on campus – the graduates circled the pitch in a lap of honour. Resplendent in specially tailored black Bishts (a traditional cloak) and the University seal embroidered in gold thread upon it, they filled the centre of the arena with aplomb and sat patiently. Then began the speeches; first the welcome from the University President, then a student gave the valedictory remark, and finally came a concluding speech from the deputy-Prince of the Eastern province.
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In the world today, graduation from university is a time of both joy and reflection. Indeed, reflection was called for in view of Saudi Arabia’s high youth unemployment rate of 23.6%. Often, Saudi students will graduate into a tough employment market. Government jobs are hopelessly over-employed and the private sector is also unable to cope with demand. Some graduates from other universities spend a year or two looking for the right job to be able to start an independent life. This situation may also be due – in part – to the inability of some Saudi graduates to speak English to a high level of fluency, which is critical for large Saudi companies.
However, the KFUPM graduates are lucky. Most will have been offered positions before they had completed their studies and will go on to work for large firms both nationally and internationally. They are well educated, confident, fluent in English and as such, highly employable within the context of the Saudi job market.
Furthermore, such graduates are well placed to succeed as the University has instilled in them a hard work ethic and capacity for multilingual communication. During their courses, the graduates were almost exclusively taught in English. They had to learn core terms to survive their courses. It was no easy ride.
As balloons brought by families were let go into the air, male family members and friends rushed into the arena to join their loved ones. They used placards, phones and great posturing to attract one another. Then – when found - they embraced the graduate, took photos and joined in the celebration that was going on all around.
Saudi Arabia is often perplexing. For in a land where there are few public gatherings, such an explosion of joy and unbridled merriment was surprising. It is in such moments that we are reminded of the common emotions we all share. Many graduates were beaming smiles with misty eyes, relishing the feeling of their accomplishment.
Some families had travelled thousands of miles from the West of the Kingdom, to witness the graduation of their relative. Often, these men would be the first from their family to graduate from a University in this still young country. It was an achievement worth celebrating, and as the lights dimmed, the carpets started being rolled away and workers arrived to take away the chairs; many graduates and their families remained.
Turning to leave the stadium, I glimpsed a figure sitting alone on a row of chairs in the fading glow of the floodlights, wrapped tight in his graduation cloak. Around us figures hurried, shouting into the night and heading out to further celebrate. Yet, this man had chosen to quietly reflect in the heat of the moment, on the path he had taken to come here and the one that now lay ahead.