119 EC students traveled to the Middle East this winter break to learn about the changing economy of Saudi Arabia.
The date was January 4, 2020 and the air outside King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was dry and crisp. In just a few minutes, the first of 119 EC students from Harvard Business School (HBS) would step out of the arrivals area and into a week of adventure and discovery in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This trek had been a long time in the making. Ever since Khalid Alghimlas (MBA ’20) set foot on the HBS campus during ASW in 2018, he had envisioned being able to show his classmates around his home country. He set out to plan a ‘trip of a lifetime’ that blossomed into the seven-day journey that would take HBS trekkers from the colossal sand dunes of the Empty Quarter to the crystal blue waters of the Red Sea.
After an initial day of arrivals, the trek officially kicked off the following day with a business conference hosted by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia. The event was anchored by the Governor of PIF, His Excellency Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who is an alumnus of the General Management Program at HBS. He presented a thorough overview of the fund, its goals, and its vision for developing the kingdom. HBS students then met with investment professionals at the fund to discuss the opportunities and challenges of investments in the kingdom as well as the 2030 vision for the fund. After the conference, the group departed for the ancestral home of co-organizer Salman Bin Sultan (MBA ’20) to enjoy a traditional lunch, complete with camel rides, arabic coffee, and local music. The day ended with a tour through the ruins of Ad Diriyah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which served as the original capital of the first Saudi state. While there, students were transported back in time to learn about the formation of the Saudi state and how its people created a thriving metropolis in the midst of harsh desert conditions.
The following day commenced with a 6:15am charter flight from Riyadh to the Saudi Aramco headquarters in Dhahran. The visit to Saudi Aramco kicked off with tours of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture and the Exploration & Petroleum Engineering Center where the group got an inside look at how the company runs its vast operations across the world. The visit concluded with a company presentation by the President and CEO of Saudi Aramco, Mr. Amin H. Nasser, where he discussed the recent IPO, the challenges facing the energy sector, and the company’s transition to sustainable energy sources to power the world. The group then departed for the Al Shaybah Oil Field—one of the largest and most remote oil fields in the world. Its location in the middle of the Empty Quarter desert allowed the group to experience walking on giant sand dunes—after which many new social media profile pictures were acquired. The day ended with a final flight to the city of Jeddah and a transfer to the newly developed King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC).
The stay in KAEC allowed time for students to relax on the beach, enjoy golfing, and experience scuba diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea. During this time, the group also visited the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to learn about the state of higher education and advanced research in the kingdom. The final day in Jeddah saw the group explore the old city area of Al Balad and experience a grand reception at the historic Al Nassef House where the trekkers listened to prayer calls on the rooftop while watching the sun set over Jeddah. Post dinner, trekkers revelled in world class football action at the King Abdullah Sports City stadium as Real Madrid played and won against Valencia in the semifinals of the Spanish Super Cup.
The final destination for the trek took the group to Al Ula, which served as the southern capital of the Nabataeans civilization more than 2,000 years ago. Trekkers experienced a range of activities, including riding in 4×4’s across desert valleys, horseback riding on purebred Arabian Horses, and hiking the many canyons that make up the region. These events were hosted as part of the Winter at Tantora festival, an annual celebration of the historical and cultural roots of the region. For the final evening, trekkers were treated to a performance by the world-renowned Spanish tenor, José Carreras, in a specially-built desert concert hall designed to showcase the spectacular landscape outside.
This trek showed us that Saudi Arabia is in the midst of massive economic transformations as it bravely strides towards a future fueled by economic and cultural reforms. As a leader in the region, the kingdom is showing that it has the will to continuously improve and be an example for the rest of the world. The hospitality that we experienced was second to none, signaling to the world that the Saudi people are ready to welcome visitors to their kingdom. The economic potential for the tourism industry is massive. Home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia already sees millions of visitors each year. With improved infrastructure and services, the country hopes to attract visitors from across the world to experience and enjoy all of the cultural, historical, and recreational wealth that the kingdom has to offer. As visitors, we were able to experience a land full of hope, aspirations, and a vision for a bright future.
To close, I leave you with the closing remarks made by Salman bin Sultan over the inflight intercom system, as we descended back into Riyadh on our final day in the country.
“This trek has been a joy and pleasure every step of the way, and it has been one of the honors of my life welcoming you all to my home and country. I’m absolutely ecstatic to have shown you this country at the cusp of doing amazing things and earning its rightful place in the world. Every time you come back, you will see that change of pace realized and I hope that with every change, the great things we do drown out the negative things that happen once in a while. That task is on my generation to see through.
“I want to thank the people that I didn’t know for coming on this trek. Thank you for trusting us. I thoroughly cherished the time spent getting to know you and look forward to keeping the conversation going during our remaining time at HBS. I want to thank Abdullah [Alrabeh] and Khalid—I couldn’t have wished for better partners in organizing this trip. We have a saying in Arabic: ‘you might find a brother that your mother hasn’t given birth to,’ and I think that I have found two of them at HBS. This trek experience has brought us all closer together.
“This trek isn’t the end. This trek is a door and it’s wide open. We’ve all welcomed you through it. I would consider this trek a success if each of you made Saudi a regular destination in your lives and when you have families in the future. Our doors are always open, are hearts are always open. You have a second home now and I want to thank each and every one of you for being incredible travelers and making this a trip of a lifetime.”
Stan Chang (MS/MBA ’20) is from Seattle, WA. He serves as the Photo Editor for the Harbus and is a proud member of Section C.