HBS, Saudi Arabia, and the Trip of a Lifetime

What do you get when you take 33 diverse HBS students from 13 countries, add a few professors with expertise spanning Middle East politics, economics, communications and energy, and give them an opportunity to visit, learn, and engage directly with a country shrouded by ambiguity and mystique? Unquestionably, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We struggled on what to include in this article. While some of us feel passionately about certain issues that we discussed in the Kingdom, we didn’t feel it was appropriate to give our opinions here since we are only a few of the participants and each of us has our own thoughts and interpretations. Instead, we’ve included a brief description of the amazing things we saw and did, and encourage you to find any of us if you’d like to have a more in-depth discussion. You’ll probably find more positive opinions than you expected and that we’re an opinionated bunch!

The trek started in Dhahran in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. We stayed at the Sunset Beach Resort as guests of His Highness (HH) Prince Faisal bin Fahad, who stayed with us as our host for much of the trip. Our first evening function was at the fabulous beach house of Dr. Sally Al Turki, an American woman who married a Saudi and settled in the country about 35 years ago. We were treated to a buffet of traditional Saudi food (the first of many buffets of this kind, and the beginning of the 10 pounds we would each gain over the trip) and were invited to mix and mingle with some of the students and alumni from the Dhahran Alhliyya School, which Dr. Al Turki had founded upon her arrival in the Kingdom and which she still heads today.

Over the following two days, we spent time visiting the national energy giant Saudi Aramco and trying to get a handle on the sheer magnitude and complexity of its operations. Saudi Aramco manages about 25% of the world’s proven oil reserves and pumps about 10% of its daily production. With over 50,000 employees, diverse upstream and global downstream operations, and various other investments, it is by far the world’s largest and most profitable energy firm. We had the opportunity to tour much of Saudi Aramco, the state of the art “Expec” facility and R&D center (energy buffs will know of this) and to have lunch with the company’s executives. Following this, we learned from Yasser Mufti, advisor to the Minister of Oil, that Aramco’s oil reserves are expected to last for many generations, and that the Kingdom plans to retain a 15-20% spare capacity buffer to help keep world oil prices stable in times of unexpected shortages caused by political turmoil elsewhere in the world.

After touring Aramco’s headquarters, we were hosted for dinner by the Saudi-American Exchange, an organization founded by Prince Faisal and Professor Gregory Payne of Emerson College in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, to promote understanding of the two cultures through communication. We then continued the night smoking triple-power shisha and traditional dancing. It took a bit of time to get used to dancing with swords and daggers-it’s a good thing this was a dry (non-alcoholic) trek!

Perhaps the most memorable experience in the Eastern Province was our day trip to its remote southern outpost, Shaybah. Flying there by corporate jet, we landed on an airstrip adjacent to state-of-the-art oil production facilities surrounded by 5-story high sand dunes. We watched the sunset over the stunning red dunes and had our first truly Arabian-style meal (“Arabian-style” = sitting on the floor eating whole lamb, head and all, and rice with your hands from a communal platter). We got used to the lamb, but the camel milk was a different story.

The following day we flew to Riyadh to be hosted by His Royal Highness (HRH) Prince Abdul-Aziz bin Fahd, grandson of a former King, at his beautiful desert resort outside of the city. This was a sprawling tented space carpeted with Persian rugs in the middle of a lush part of the desert. We watched hundreds of camel race around us in a surreal display (many of which we rode later, along with several dune-buggies), watched a falcon hunting demonstration, and another traditional Saudi dance (which we were getting pretty good at by now) breitling superocean replica. As the evening fell, we sat on the carpets, feasted on another lamb and camel dinner, and accepted embroidered robes with camel hair lining as gifts from Prince Abdul-Aziz. This was the first of many open and candid discussions on Saudi Arabian life and culture.

Next we headed on private jets to Riyadh, the distinctly conservative political capital of about 5 million residents, wide U.S.-style streets, shopping malls (with a giant Saks!), and the striking Kingdom and Al-Faisaliah Towers. With respect for local culture, the females in our group wore abayas and shelas, traditional fabric which covers the body and hair. On our first day, we met with HRH Prince Salman, the Governor of Riyadh, who emphasized that Saudi Arabia and its people are friends of the United States, and that many of the leaders, including himself, have fond memories of their education in the U.S. We then had a seminar-type discussion with HRH Prince Saud Al Faisal, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in which he candidly discussed U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Iran, the threat of global terrorism, the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories, and the war in Lebanon, among other subjects of interest. He noted that Saudi Arabia is battling the same terrorists as the U.S., citing various bombings that have occurred on Saudi soil. We followed this with an engaging discussion with leaders of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), who are planning and creating several “Economic Cities” around the country, which aim to leverage Saudi Arabia’s access to water to develop transportation, shipping, manufacturing and other high-value non-energy industries. This will require significant expat talent, so if you’ve been considering a move to the Middle East but Dubai’s too expensive for you-this could be your chance!

That night we engaged in an interesting and passionate debate with a group of 60 or so self-identified “conservative” thought leaders, including academics, businessmen tag heuer replica for sale , parliament (Shoura) members, religious authorities and royalty, at a dinner hosted by the Obeikan family. Here the men and women separated as our hosts preferred to meet us in a more conventional segregated setting. We exchanged views in an animated debate in which each side pushed forth strongly-held views on all subjects from women’s rights to religious education to the definition of “progress.” It was interesting to learn how different perspectives can exist on seemingly static ideas, such as the idea of “rights.”

With rights on our minds, we spent the next day at the Prince Sultan Humanitarian City and the Disabled Children’s Association, learning about the fight for rights for the disabled in the Kingdom. Because of Chevron’s gracious sponsorship of our trip, we were able to donate to the Disabled Children’s Association the money we would have spent on the cost of the trip, an in-kind gift in the form of specialized computer equipment for education of the disabled. We later unwound via a trip to the local souks (open-air markets) and another wonderful reception and dinner at a fabulous estate overlooking Riyadh hosted by HRH Prince Mohammed bin Khaled Al Faisal (HBS ’96) with many of the technocrats and business leaders in Riyadh. It was interesting to feel the difference between this relatively liberal group and the conservatives from the night before. It showed us that Saudi, like the U.S., has many faces and wide diversity, even at the highest levels of society.

The next and final day in Riyadh may have been the most fantastic part of the trip. Prince Abdul-Aziz wanted us to experience how Saudi Arabia felt before the oil-boom, and so he invited us to Al-‘Athriyya, a faithful recreation of old Riyadh as it was a century ago, complete with make-believe markets and
hundreds of actors playing hagglers, residents, teachers and school kids. Kind of like a royal-pioneer-village-meets-Disneyland, except that it’s in a country that has few tourists aside from the several million religious pilgrims arriving in the country annually for Hajj and Omra.

From Riyadh we flew to Jeddah, the port on the Red Sea and the Kingdom’s second largest city with a distinctly more liberal atmosphere. We experienced the beaches, went snorkeling in the Red Sea, and even danced the night away to a Saudi rap DJ. We also saw some incredible homes, from the gorgeous Bali-esque beach house of Abdul-Latif Jameel, the Toyota Dealer in Saudi Arabia, to HH Prince Faisal’s own eclectic lavender/fur/metal penthouse apartment. We were hosted and had discussions with a variety of institutions: ZFP-a trend setting architectural firm, Dar Al-Hekma College, a progressive women’s college in the region, and the Jeddah Chapter of the Young President’s Organization.

Our last day was back in Dhahran www.replicabestsale.co.uk, where the Al Dabbagh family hosted us to lunch in their home with Hashim’s friends and neighbors, many of whom are also MBA graduates working just like we will be before we know it. We were overwhelmed by the hospitality, generosity and genuine warmth with which we were received by everyone throughout the trip: liberals and conservatives, men and women, old and young from all parts of the country. We may come from very different places, and may have some different opinions, but we all came to realize that the people of Saudi Arabia, as diverse as they are, have more in common with us than we may have imagined. We are truly thankful for this incredible experience.