What with the popularization of books on the oppressive life of women in Saudi Arabia over the past few years, the existence of a parallel and antagonistic world within it has been shadowed and has escaped the notice of commoners like us. As few know, Aramco, a world in itself, is a far cry from the restrictive environs plaguing the rest of the state.
Aramco, with a net worth of $781 billion, as estimated by the new study by McKinsey and the Financial Times, is the richest company in the world and contributes to three fourths of the government finances (the largest in the world by a single company). Aramco also employs a large number of women without any social prejudice, in stark contrast to the gender bias prevalent in the conventional Saudi society.
Signs of reform after King Abdullah came to power are visible, though the slow pace is drawing the criticism of western human right activists. However, no one is complaining. Women now have a presence in boardrooms (albeit a minority) and work with (and in the presence of) men. Previously, only video conferencing was permitted.
Besides, the political power asserted by the clergy is now being wrested away from them and their influence on censoring the press is mitigating. It seems that the king is slowly working towards purging the Saudi legal and judicial system from religious fanatics. Further, securing a WTO membership for Saudi Arabia has triggered a new wave of changes opposed by the regressive clergy. The progressive leg of the Saudi society (Aramco) is now being employed by King Abdullah to further his efforts to reform the otherwise radical society dominated by fundamentalist Wahabbi clergy, replete with corruption, nepotism, red tape and unemployment.
The company, on the eastern shore, has a history of keeping a low profile and limiting its interaction beyond the boundaries. Besides, it maintains its own media centres and intelligence services. However, this privacy is now under threat. Being entrusted with the job of building a $10 billion western style university( making it the sixth richest in the world), where men and women will study together, this new institution, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), will be breaking convention furthering the King’s effort of reform. Besides tripling the educational budget, the King is subtly excluding the clergy from important meets and discussions. The university’s budget will be controlled by an independent international board of trustees and the school will be advised by administrators from Cornell, the Imperial College of London and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. KAUST has already awarded fellowships to visiting professors from MIT, Oxford and Caltech and signed student-exchange deals with Stanford and Texas A&M.
This oasis of higher education, and an hour’s drive from Mecca, will be an important milestone in the Saudi reform efforts. The King has understood well to push for better education for the country youth, and segregate it from religion, thus, providing a partial solution for the growing dissident within the country. More results of the thoughtful, calculating reforms will only bear fruit in the future and augur well for Saudi Arabia.
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