The University Record, June 7 , 1999

Saudi Arabian educators sign 'Memorandum of Cooperation’

By Jane R. Elgass

His Excellency the Minister of Higher Education Dr. Khalid Al-Ankary of Saudi Arabia (left) co-signed a 'Memorandum of Cooperation’ with President Lee C. Bollinger last week. The minister headed a 28-member delegation visiting the University and talking with U-M faculty and administers about common areas of interest. U-M’s ties with higher education in Saudi Arabia date to the 1980s, when a similar memorandum was signed by then-President Harold T. Shapiro with Imam Muhammad bin Saud University. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
A 28-member delegation of higher education officials from Saudi Arabia visited campus May 26 and signed a “Memorandum of Coorperation” that will serve as a framework for expanded cooperation between several Saudi universities and the U-M.

Members of the delegation included the minister of higher education; the deputy minister of higher education for educational affairs; presidents of three Saudi universities and the vice president of one; and deans, directors and members of academic staffs.

In welcoming the group, headed by His Excellency the Minister of Higher Education Dr. Khalid Al-Ankary, President Lee C. Bollinger noted that the U-M has a long tradition of international cooperation. The U-M, he said, “has had extensive links with educational institutions abroad for over a century. We are proud of that openness and are committed to the principle of diversity. Within that context, international connections are very important. Faculty and students benefit from exposure to other cultures.”

Al-Ankary echoed Bollinger’s comments and said that the delegation was visiting several “distinguished universities in the United States to expand strong ties of Saudi Arabia with the United States,” and noted that two members of the delegation were U-M alumni.

“The University’s formal ties with Saudi Arabia go back to the 1980s, when the U-M and the Imam Muhammad bin Saud University of Saudi Arabia exchanged high-ranking delegations. Later on, in 1986, an agreement was signed between then-President Harold T. Shapiro and the president of bin Saud University,” explains Alexander Knysh, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Raji Rammuny, professor of Arabic, and Gernot Windfuhr, professor of Iranian studies, spearheaded the effort to develop ties between the universities.

An interest by Knysh in establishing a program focused on the study of the Arabian peninsula resulted in the May 26 visit and signing of agreements. He was assisted in the project by Michael Bonner, director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies (CMENAS), and Rammuny.

Knysh spent last year in the United Kingdom working at the Center for Gulf Studies, which is funded by the governments of some Arab states in the Gulf region.

“Establishing a similar academic and research program in the United States is the logical thing to do,” Knysh explains. “The approach to this area in the U.S. media and political commentaries is very lopsided in that it concentrates almost exclusively on political and military conflict, and on oil, while paying little attention to the history, culture and social institutions of the peoples who inhabit that part of the Arab world. The creation of a program or center specializing in that region would go a long way in rectifying this one-sided approach.”

Such a program, Knysh notes, would provide training for American students planning to work in that area of the world, and would “raise the profile of the area in the consciousness of the American public.” It also would help the academic institutions of Saudi Arabia establish closer ties with U.S. academic programs.

The U-M has a number of students from the region enrolled in programs in the Medical School, School of Dentistry, College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Knysh’s department, as well as eight graduate students in the School of Public Health.

In all, five memoranda were signed at the ceremony: one between the Ministry of Higher Education of Saudi Arabia and the U-M, signed by Al-Ankary and Bollinger, and one each between the U-M and the King Saud, King Fahd, King Abdulaziz and King Faisal universities, signed by Bollinger and representatives of those universities.

The memoranda call for strengthening relations and expanding cooperation in higher education in ways that will benefit the U-M and the Saudi institutions. They encourage the institutions to support and facilitate communication as well as the exchange of documents, curriculum materials, expertise in technical and technological education, and students and faculty. They also encourage the formation of joint research teams and the organization of cultural programs.

Following the formal signing ceremony, members of the Saudi delegation met with U-M administrators and faculty for roundtable discussions in the areas of health sciences, engineering-science, humanities-social science and university administration.

Knysh says those discussions “will provide a starting point for the establishment of ties between individual academic and research units on the U-M campus and their counterparts in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

The meeting was organized by the Development Office and CMENAS staff.