Rethinking women’s role in Saudi diplomacy with UK
By 2015, Saudi Arabia had become the seventh-largest sponsor of international students to the UK
The current discourse on the role of soft power in international relations draws attention to the crucial role relationships play between education exchanges, and how they influence foreign populations’ perceptions.
Over the last decade, the number of Saudi students coming to study in the UK has reached 100,000, as bilateral relations continue to be spurred by significant military and trade partnerships.
By 2015, Saudi Arabia had become the seventh-largest sponsor of international students to the UK. While these numbers are small compared to the number of Saudi students in the United States, they are well established as a reliable source of public engagement.
According to the Ministry of Higher Education, the Saudi external scholarship program is designed to “increase mutual understanding between the people of Saudi Arabia and the people of the rest of the world.” This fits neatly into the role of public diplomacy, yet it does not appear to include a clear mechanism for how the program can achieve this objective.
Women are a crucial factor in shaping the popular image of Saudi Arabia among the British. This issue is constantly raised during most academic and policy discussions, and undermines progressive efforts at Saudi development. This should not come as a surprise, as Saudi Arabia can be perceived as socially closed, and it is easy for stereotypes to become pervasive when it comes to preconceptions of Saudi women.
This raises the question: Why has Saudi Arabia not considered the role of thousands of state-scholarship female students as essential to furthering the understanding of the role Saudi women play?
Around a third of Saudi scholarship students in the UK are female, many of them outstanding scholars, creative artists and filmmakers. They are a massive soft-power assetNajah al-Osaimi
Around a third of Saudi scholarship students in the UK are female, many of them outstanding scholars, creative artists and filmmakers. They are a massive soft-power asset that could aid Saudi Arabia address foreign public opinion about how Saudi women are benefiting from greater political, social and economic roles.
Saudi diplomacy with the UK is mostly mediated by elites. This has proven insufficient in stimulating significant forms of intercultural and mutual understanding between the two peoples. Thus Saudi diplomacy needs to be furthered by increasing public engagement, such as the inclusion of female scholarship students who bring large diplomatic benefits.
There are more than 36 registered Saudi clubs in UK universities. They are responsible for arranging regular events that appeal to Saudi students. To that end, women with state scholarships should be encouraged to support the embassy and foreign missions in promoting public and cultural outreach.
They should be supported more to involve themselves on campus and policy institutions, and within the communities in which they live, in the hope that they will share information about Saudi Arabia to British students, educators and policy-makers. This could add value to the British understanding of Saudi Arabia, potentially removing a number of myths about the country and its people.
One way of doing this is to initiate activities that put more Saudi women in direct contact with British intellectuals, policy-shapers and the public. Forming close personal relationships will offer the opportunity for these women to reveal unknown information about Saudi Arabia, or that which is inconsistent with domestic opinion among various pockets of UK society.
The Saudi embassy could utilize the large number of female students by increasing their representation during diplomatic functions, and inviting these talented girls to showcase their art, film and music. After all, women are excellent mediators, great networkers, creative and intelligent. They would place value on building relationships between any and all counties.
Najah al-Osaimi is a researcher and journalist specializing in international relations and diplomacy, as well as ongoing sociopolitical affairs in the Middle East. She was among the winners of the “Every Human Has Rights” media awards, which marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Osaimi’s articles and columns have appeared in The World Today magazine (produced by Chatham House); the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics (an initiative of the Tony Blair Foundation), the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, and the Saudi Gazette, among others. Osaimi is working on a doctoral thesis at the University of East Anglia on the role of soft power in Saudi foreign policy. She holds a Master’s degree in international journalism from London’s City University. You can follow her on Twitter @najahalosaimi