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The Hoosier Kingdom

Most people would not likely describe desert-dominated Saudi Arabia as fertile—unless, that is, he or she is a proud Hoosier discussing how the Kingdom is awash in successful and highly driven Indiana University alumni living, working and making major contributions to the growth and development of this dynamic and strategically important country.

A view of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from King Saud University.

A view of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from King Saud University.

A few fast facts:

  • There are also more than 600 IU alumni affiliated with Saudi Arabia, and given the growing numbers of Saudi students at IU, the number of alumni will soon increase.
  • There are more than 8,500 international students at IU this fall. Nearly 600 of those students are from Saudi Arabia, and the number of Saudi students at IU is growing rapidly. Saudi Arabia has rapidly become one of the leading countries of origin for international students at IU; Saudi students are currently the 4th largest international student body at IU.

Hoosier Nation, Meet the Hoosier Kingdom.

This might be a slight exaggeration, but surprisingly not by much—at least not when you consider just how much IU graduates are impacting many of the leading Saudi businesses, governmental agencies and higher education institutions here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where, just today, IU signed a new partnership agreement with the premier university in the entire Arab world, King Saud University, and also strengthened ties with a number of its most prominent Middle Eastern alumni at a special gathering in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

‘The air of the Hoosiers’

IU President Michael A. McRobbie is the first IU president to visit Saudi Arabia in more than 30 years; the last was John Ryan in 1983. In the lead-up to today’s agreement-signing and alumni event, President McRobbie met with a number of graduates whose remarkable successes in their respective areas might only be matched by the enthusiasm they exude as proud members of the Hoosier family.

Many of IU’s Saudi alumni are also supporters of and catalysts for change, and they include a number of female graduates. IU First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie, who had a separate itinerary from President McRobbie, met with several of those alumnae in Riyadh. They included Lubna Olayan, who received her master’s degree from the IU Kelley School of Business in 1979 and now serves as CEO of the Olayan Financing Group, one of the Middle East’s leading commercial and investment operations. Additionally, the First Lady and former IU presidential intern Rahaf Safi also paid an official visit to Princess Nora University, a public women’s university located in the Saudi capital and the largest university for women in the world. (More about the First Lady’s visit and perspective on Saudi Arabia will be featured in an upcoming blog post.)

IU President Michael A. McRobbie with alumnus Bandar Al-Hajjar, the Minister of Hajj.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie with alumnus Bandar Al-Hajjar, the Minister of Hajj.

Among those with whom President McRobbie met were Bandar Al-Hajjar, the Minister of Hajj, responsible for the provision of facilities for the annual visit of 2.5 million pilgrims to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, the largest mass gathering in the world. Al-Hajjar, who earned a master’s degree from IU in economics in 1981, was appointed Minister of Hajj in 2011, becoming the first IU graduate to hold such a high position in the king of Saudi Arabia’s cabinet.

He is currently championing ideas that would better enable Saudi Arabia’s system of higher education to meet the most pressing challenges facing the nation, including, among others, its heavy dependence on oil (nearly 95 percent of the Saudi economy is financed by oil); dearth of renewable energy sources; high unemployment (around 13 percent, with female unemployment hovering around 30 percent); and rapidly growing demand for nurses and quality health care.

McRobbie also met two IU alums, Mohammed H. Alsaigh and Saeed Al Ghilani, who are now consultants for the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education, which oversees the nation’s 28 public universities (a few years ago there were only seven) and dealing with issues of affordability, accessibility and quality concerning the country’s higher education system.

Abdulaziz Aldukheil received both his master’s and doctoral degree in economics from IU Bloomington in 1968 and 1974, respectively. Today, the outspoken alumnus is the head of Aldukheil Financial Group, one of Saudi Arabia’s oldest and most prestigious financial management and consulting firms, which he founded 35 years ago. In his position, Aldukheil offers knowledge, research and advice to numerous ministries and government agencies in the kingdom, and he has also served as a visiting professor at Oxford and Georgetown universities.

“It is my pleasure to have the air of the Hoosiers here,” Aldukheil said, before delivering an impassioned talk about his strong belief in governmental transparency and the need for more highly trained human capital in his country to drive major political, economic and cultural change.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie presents the Thomas Hart Benton Medallion to alumnus Sami Baroum.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie presents the Thomas Hart Benton Medallion to alumnus Sami Baroum.

Then there was Sami Baroum, a 1992 Ph.D. graduate of the Kelley School of Business and chairman of the Madinah Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship (MILE), a group firmly positioned at the forefront of executive education in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Formerly a top executive with the Savola Group, one of the largest business conglomerates in the region with operations in 11 countries, he is considered one of the leading entrepreneurs in the Middle East and a forceful advocate for education, economic development and the establishment of a world-class IT infrastructure.

In Riyadh, Baroum brought his two daughters, one of whom lived in Bloomington and went to elementary school there, to meet President McRobbie, who, in turn, presented the hugely successful, but extremely humble, Hoosier graduate with the Thomas Hart Benton Medallion, given to individuals who have achieved a level of distinction in public office or service and have exemplified the values of IU.

Echoing those values, Baroum said, “My vision for my daughters is how to effect change through education. It was the impetus behind my starting the MILE institute. I have seen how education can shape our lives and help bring about real change.”

IU: Fit for a King

Of course, one has to look no further than King Saud University and, more specifically, its College of Dentistry, to see just how influential IU has been—and continues to be—in supporting the educational foundation in Saudi Arabia.

Today at KSU, several dozen top administrators and faculty welcomed President McRobbie to their campus, about half of whom received some form of educational training at IU. Of the Hoosier alumni contingent at KSU, many are graduates of the IU School of Dentistry, which, over many years, has built an impressive and productive partnership with its KSU counterpart.

Indeed, the IU School of Dentistry boasts a fairly astounding record of success in terms of the number and quality of its Saudi graduates. The school now boasts almost 40 Saudi master’s graduates, and more than half of those graduates come from KSU. Currently, 13 of its 90 master’s track students are from Saudi Arabia and nine are from KSU.

IU President McRobbie and King Saud University President Badran Al Omar sign a partnership agreement between their respective universities.

IU President McRobbie and King Saud University President Badran Al Omar sign a partnership agreement between their respective universities.

Just over a year ago, IU Vice President for International Affairs David Zaret signed a formalized agreement between the dental schools that called for building upon the two schools’ longstanding collaboration in producing Saudi master’s and Ph.D. students toward opening IU’s doors to additional students attending programs and visiting scholars.

The partnership in dentistry between IU and KSU has also paved the way for an even deeper relationship between the two institutions, a goal reflected in the university-wide partnership agreement signed today by President McRobbie and KSU President Badran Al Omar. More specifically, the agreement signaled a sizeable first step toward new joint activities in areas in which the two schools have major common strengths, such as language instruction and education.

‘The four corners of Bloomington’

About 70 IU alums from KSU and other universities in the region, as well as from business, government and other areas, all came together this evening in downtown Riyadh in an exciting and impressive show of Hoosier pride and support for their alma mater.

Among the attendees at the IU Saudi alumni reception was Ahmad Turkestani, a professor at Imam University in Riyadh and TV personality, who gave an emotional, heartfelt and inspiring speech recounting his time in the 1980s as a student and parent of young children in Bloomington.

As Turkestani fondly reminisced about IU people and places that had captivated him and many of his fellow Saudi alums while they were here as students (Tulip Tree Apartments, Eigenmann Hall, Bob Knight, the Wells Library, Assembly Hall, Fourth Street, College Mall), rattling them off as if he had just graduated last spring, there was simply no denying the deep meaning, power and impact of the IU-Saudi connection.

“Please give my best to the four corners of Bloomington,” Turkestani said, concluding his remarks and offering proof, on a day when there was lots of it, that Hoosier spirit would continue to rule this kingdom in the months and years to come.

IU Saudi alumni pose for a group picture with President McRobbie in Riyadh.

IU Saudi alumni pose for a group picture with President McRobbie in Riyadh.

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