When Talal Al-Dehaim's friends learned last summer that he was leaving Saudi Arabia to go to college in the U.S., they told him it might not be a good idea. Attending an American school had been almost a rite of passage for ambitious Saudis, but after the 9/11 attacks and the discovery that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from the desert kingdom, many Saudi students, as well as those from other Arab and Muslim countries, rushed home fearful of repercussions. Few filled their places. As he made the long journey from Riyadh to Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., al-Dehaim, 18, admitted he was still "nervous that American people would get nervous about Saudi people."
The U.S. and Saudi governments worried about that too, and last year they agreed that one of the best ways to dispel the apprehensions on both sides would be to foster more person-to-person contact. So over the next four years, Saudi Arabia will pay for al-Dehaim and as many as 20,000 other young Saudis to come to the U.S. to study. The U.S. has pledged to speed visa processing for the students--while still running full background checks and in-person interviews at the consulate in Jidda.
For the Saudi rulers, the scholarships are a way to revive the tradition of educating their brightest in the U.S., where more than three-quarters of current Cabinet ministers studied. For the Bush Administration, they are a way to fight for Muslim hearts and minds on home soil. "The single most successful thing we can do is bring people here and let them see America for themselves," says Karen Hughes, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. "That helps them understand us in a way that they didn't before."
The program has already brought more than 6,600 Saudis to campuses in nearly every state--including one in Nevada, previously off limits to scholarship recipients because, says a Saudi embassy spokesman, "the chances of focusing on studying there seemed small"--boosting the number of Saudi students in the U.S. above pre-9/11 levels. Marshall, West Virginia's second largest university, now has more than 30 Saudis--nearly four times as many as last year--making them the fourth largest foreign contingent in a student body of 16,000.
The welcome has been warm--"Everyone is so friendly," al-Dehaim says--but Marshall's Saudis marvel at their American schoolmates' near total lack of knowledge about their country. "My neighbor, he asked, 'Are you riding camels at home?' Someone said, 'Did you bring your own oil with you?'" says Ahoud Alqahtani, 20, one of the few Saudi women at Marshall. "We don't know a lot about their country," admits Justin Carpenter, 21, a student senator. "But I bet we're not as different as we thought we were."
The Saudi students acknowledge some lingering wariness. They worry when news like the debate over the Dubai Ports deal or the attack earlier this month by a Muslim student from Iran who, claiming it was "the will of Allah," drove into a crowd at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill could turn campus opinion against them. "When they see the TV news, maybe they won't like Muslims, Saudis," says Hamad Almusai, 22. "But they don't know us." Still, any discomfort seems to dissipate as the students engage in that quintessential college activity: just hanging out.