A University of Colorado Denver delegation’s trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to strengthen bonds and open doors to new opportunities proved very successful. It left university leaders, including CU President Bruce D. Benson and First Lady Marcy Benson, with a strong feeling that the best of the relationships are yet to come.
The CU delegation met with leaders of Saudi Arabia, some of whom were educated at CU Denver, over a week in late March.
“They were honored to have us, and the fact that President Benson and Marcy came along was a real sign of friendship and commitment from this university,” said CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell. “My goal for the trip was to deepen our relationships and explore new opportunities, and I came away feeling we were enormously successful.”
The delegation was deeply honored to have an audience with His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman, President and Chairman of the Board of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH). President Benson and HRH discussed the value of education and partnership between our organizations.
Abundance of hospitality
For Chancellor Horrell, the word that best encapsulated the visit was “abundance.” “We experienced an abundance of hospitality and an abundance of regard for our relationship – that in so many ways we are much more alike than we are different,” she said.
In Saudi Arabia, the CU delegation enjoyed a visit to the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, led by Arch. Mohammad Yosof Alaidaroos, a consultant at Built Heritage Center. The team also took a tour through the historic district of Al-Balad in Jeddah, led by Eng. Sami Nawar, Director of the Naseef House in Jeddah.
The CU team was likewise very grateful to be hosted by alumnus Zuhair Fayez, co-founder of Dar Al-Hekma University, a private institution of higher education for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Dr. Fayez, who is chairman of the largest architectural/engineering/management firm in Saudi Arabia, invited the team to his home for a second time; a CU Denver delegation also visited Fayez a year ago.
Also joining the CU delegation were Andrea Wagner, Vice Chancellor of Advancement; Noelle DeLage, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Advancement; and Kat Vlahos, Professor and Chair of the Department of Architecture and Director of the Center of Preservation Research, College of Architecture and Planning (CAP).
Officials with the SCTH, including Dr. Mashary Al-Naim, Director General of the National Built Heritage Center and Built Heritage Center Advisor Dr. Hani Al Huneidi, facilitated meetings for Vlahos and DeLage with King Saud University and the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). Visits by Vlahos and DeLage to multiple historic and cultural sites outside the capital city of Riyadh were also arranged to familiarize them with the historic built heritage of the region.
Around the 1970s, Saudi Arabia experienced an influx of population to its cities, leaving smaller communities and villages – even pockets within cities, such as Al-Balad – somewhat abandoned and lacking modern amenities. “Officials in the SCTH and people like Prince Sultan are saying, ‘There’s a lot of value there. We don’t want to lose our history,’” Sunnygard said. “So they’d like the Center for Preservation Research and others to document these places and then they’d like to rebuild these areas to preserve them.”
In Riyadh, Vlahos delivered a presentation at the Prince Sultan University, describing her role as chair of the Department of Architecture in CAP, as well as her work as director of the Center of Preservation Research (CoPR). CoPR partners with federal, state, and local agencies to study, document and potentially restore sites of historic and cultural significance.
Learn together and collaborate
Vlahos noted that the Saudis are exploring ways for their fast-evolving built environment – structures built within the last 50 years – to stand alongside buildings dating back centuries. They want the structures to coexist and be preserved while also be used as a way to embrace heritage. “We want to learn together and collaborate on cultivating stewards of their country’s heritage,” she said.
CU Denver alumni in Saudi Arabia number well into the hundreds, and 256 of our current students hail from the nation.
Horrell said she’d like to increase opportunities for CU Denver students to study abroad in the Middle East and elsewhere as well as strengthen an exchange which has been piloted with Dar Al-Hekma University. She said the new scholarship campaign being developed at CU Denver offers an opportunity to open that door. “The opportunity to learn in another place is one of the greatest gifts we can give our students.”
‘We were pleased to have the opportunity to strengthen ties between CU and our many alumni and friends in the region.’ – CU President Bruce D. Benson
Chancellor Horrell was struck by the driven nature of the students at Dar Al-Hekma University. “They are so empowered,” she said. “It was wonderful to listen to those women and learn about their hopes as well as the impacts they expect to make.”
Last spring, eight students and two faculty members from DAH Department of Architecture visited CU Denver’s CAP as part of the innovative Fayez International Exchange program, created by the generous support of Dr. Fayez.
Meanwhile, the profound impact of students from the Middle East coming to universities such as CU Denver has emerged over the decades. Promising young students such as Dr. Fayez, a CU alumnus and honorary doctorate recipient, were among waves of international youths arriving at U.S. universities in the hope they would receive a world-class education “and then they’d come back and, God willing, go on to do great things for their country,” Sunnygard said. “And they did.”
It’s clear that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia values human capital, and that its future is tied to knowledge and further progress. CU hopes to continue be a key education partner and dynamic collaborator as Saudi Arabia grows toward its ambitious vision.
“The incredible reception and hospitality we received in Saudi Arabia demonstrated the high regard in which the University of Colorado is held,” President Benson said. “We were pleased to have the opportunity to strengthen ties between CU and our many alumni and friends in the region. International students add to the richness of the experience for all our students, and as we learned on the trip our alumni in different countries are wonderful ambassadors for the university.”