After 19 hours of flying and a fair share of airplane naps, I have arrived in Saudi Arabia for my next big adventure: diving and doing science in the Red Sea. This week, I arrived on the west coast of Saudi Arabia for a short marines science research workshop at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), where I will be spending 3 weeks learning about all of the marine science research that the university is doing.
This year, the university is offering a short course/workshop to foreign students who are interested in learning about the marine research going on at KAUST and in the Red Sea. It’s the first time that this program has been offered (the university is only 6 years old), and they have a pretty interesting itinerary lined up for us. During our stay, we will be hearing from and working with professors doing research in everything from coral reef genetics to water desalination to fish ecology. It’s a really cool experience that I have been looking forward to for a few months now, and after one day of “class” (aka, hanging out in a room with 15 other students from around the world hearing about the Red Sea in the context of the history of marine science, as well as a smattering of research topics being pursued at KAUST) I can’t wait to get into the rest of the workshop.
Before I came to Saudi Arabia, I realized how ignorant I was not only about KAUST, but about the region as a whole. I got a lot of questions and concerns as I was preparing to leave for the Kingdom: Is it safe there? What is the university like? How will you be treated as a woman? Does Saudi Arabia even have an ocean? (No folks, it’s not all desert). And above all: How will you survive 3 weeks with no bacon or beer?
Here are my quick answers to these questions:
1) Yes, it is incredibly safe. The whole campus is walled off and you need to have a pass to get in. Nothing like back home, where I would waltz onto UCSB’s campus to hang out on their beach, eat at their student center, and generally pretend I was a Gaucho.
2) The university is awesome. KAUST is a research university near the town of Thuwal on the Red Sea, and is more of a small cosmopolitan city than a university campus. With state of the art research facilities and brilliant students, scientists, and staff from every part of the world, it’s a really fantastic base from which to be exposed to all of the scientific work that’s going on in this part of the world.
3) There are certain things that I have to do as a woman in this country, but on KAUST’s campus, there are very few restrictions placed on me. When I got off the plane in Jeddah and walked through the airport, I needed to wear an abaya, which is the body-covering gown that woman are expected to wear in public. Because the campus is so international, I don’t need to wear my abaya, although many women choose to do so. Both men and women are expected to dress modestly (no short pants/skirts, no strapless tops). There are some weird rules like if you want to go out on a boat with any women (which we will for snorkeling trips), there need to be at least 3 women on that boat, along with the compulsory man. All-men boats are fine. So a few random restrictions, but nothing I can’t handle.
4) Yes. Saudi Arabia has an ocean. It is surrounded by 2 seas. It is on a peninsula. This was a question I got. More then once.
5) Sharia law says no pork or alcohol, but nowhere is it written that stuffing your face with killer hummus and lamb is forbidden. So that’s what I’ll be doing. See you in 3 weeks when I have diabetes!
I haven’t had time to take many pictures, but now that we are settling into our lives here, I will have more time to be a tourist on campus. Stay tuned for the campus tour and the diving pics!