Forum shows Saudi's focus on education
By Kim Se-jeong
We call it oil-money and countries in the Middle East own most of it.
Many wonder what governments of oil rich nations spend their money on. A percentage of it obviously flows into the pockets of the privileged individuals and their families who rule the region. Some is spent on tourism projects such as man-made islands, indoor ski resorts, and skyscrapers filled with luxury shops.
Saudi Arabia is putting oil profits into education. Initiated by the Saudi foreign ministry, 26 university students and young professionals arrived in Seoul, Sunday, for a 10-day “Saudi-Korea Youth Forum.”
The gathering is arranged “to promote Saudi youth relations with other nations around the world and provide them with significant opportunity to exchange and interact with the youths of other countries,” Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Korea Ahmad Younos Al-Barrak told The Korea Times in a recent letter.
While a group of South Korean university students spend time with them, hopes are high that real knowledge exchange opportunities will be created.
The forum will focus on telecommunications, information and technology.
The program includes visits to the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, The Korea Development Institute, Seoul National University of Science and Technology, Korea Institute of Science and Technology, Samsung Electronics in Suwon, Digital Media City, Korean Communication Commission, Ministry of Education and the SK Group.
“The theme of the forum, Knowledge-Based Economy, Smart Cities, Broadband and e-Education well reflects the Kingdom’s priority in development of fast changing high technology as a prerequisite for survival in the 21st century,” the ambassador said. “Indeed, the Republic of Korea is among the world’s leaders in these fields, and it’s important to benefit from Korea’s experiences in the field of ICT and the knowledge-based economy.”
Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest oil reserves, and is the largest exporter of oil and oil products. Revenues from oil sales account for nearly 80 percent of its annual national budget and 90 percent of total export earnings.
A diplomatic source who spent several years in Saudi Arabia said large-scale investment in education began about five years ago, spearheaded by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.
The King opened King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in 2009, the nation’s biggest university, with the aim of recruiting the best students and teachers from around the world.
“The school invited Nobel laureates to come to teach, offering an awful lot of money,” he said on condition of anonymity.
The King was also behind a new campus for the Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, the largest women-only university in the world with the capacity to take 50,000 students last year. It was formerly called the Riyadh Women’s University.
The source added that the number of universities more than doubled by the time he left the country.
A report filed by the South Korean Embassy in Saudi Arabia stated the focus on education has put the King at odds with conservatives in the country. The
King’s desire to replace a religious curriculum with practical training has caused a strong backlash from religious conservatives.
At the end of the forum, participants will write a letter to President Lee Myung-bak, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, reporting their experiences.
What will happen when they return home and how much of what they saw will find an opportunity to be used?
No one knows yet. But what seems to be important now is the experience itself.
“I have a great conviction that the forum will leave youths with unforgettable memories and further hopes to build bilateral cooperative youth relations,” the ambassador wrote.
The youth forum is a small window into the half-century old relations between South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Commerce provides the backbone of the bridge between the two nations, with Korea importing petroleum from Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi’s importing consumer goods from here.
The launch of the Korea-Arab Society has increasingly played an important role in diversifying oil-dominated bilateral relations.
The non-profit organization has invited artists, musicians and dance teams from Saudi Arabia and organized lectures and exhibitions. The first Arab Cultural Festival took place five years ago, and this year’s event took place earlier this month in connection with the World Tourism Fair in Seoul.