Reflections On the Saudi Arabia Trek

By First Year MBA Student Blake Larson

Before going to Saudi Arabia, I mostly associated the country with desert, oil, and Muslims. So when the opportunity arose to join my fellow students and Professor Javier Solana on a business tour of this relatively closed country, I was eager to see it with my own eyes and live the culture in person.

On paper, our agenda was overwhelming. We traveled constantly, seeing 3 cities in 7 days. Visits to some of the country’s largest companies (Saudi Aramco, Subic, and The Bin Laden Group) and universities (Princess Nora, KAUST) as well as several cultural events allowed us to sleep only 4-5 hours per night. But every minute of every day was unforgettable. The companies and universities that we visited had incredible facilities and their leaders showed vision for the future along with an acute awareness of the present. This was true as much of the boardroom at Princess Nora University as of the Aramco drilling room where we watched technicians hunt for oil.

We also saw the incredible beauty of the desert during a day of camping, Bedouin-style. It is hard to fathom the desolate desert, with camels roaming in the distance, while we raced 4×4 vehicles in the sand. Saudis head to the desert to spend meaningful time with friends and family away from the demands of everyday life. Our experience was similar, though we took some creature comforts with us in the form of satellite TV, table tennis, and shisha!

Seeing Saudi Arabia was at times eye-opening, especially in terms of how society truly revolves around Islam. Outside of their homes, women wear abayas. The shops close during prayer times. It would be difficult for me to assimilate in this society but I grew to have an incredible appreciation and respect for how rooted in faith the Saudis are.

I want to highlight the role of the Saudi people in making the tour so incredible. Regardless of whether we were touring the Ras Tanura refinery, discussing urban planning for Riyadh at the Al Faisaliah Center, or visiting the family home of our Saudi MBA colleagues, we were welcomed as old friends. Everyone went out of their way to make sure we had an enjoyable and productive trip (and to ensure we were extraordinarily well fed!). People truly opened their hearts to us. For this, I can never be thankful enough and could only hope to repay the same kindness if given the opportunity.

I acknowledge, of course, that Saudi Arabia is not perfect. Despite tremendous growth in infrastructure (The King Abdullah Financial Center), and huge investment in education (Princess Nora University, KAUST, King Saud University), the economy is still driven by the oil industry. Based on traffic in Riyadh, growing inequality and high young adult unemployment, perhaps the development has not been perfectly sustainable. But Saudi is still a young country and hopefully it can learn through its mistakes to emerge as the face of the Middle East.

In concluding I want to reiterate that seeing Saudi Arabia with my MBA colleagues was the experience of a lifetime. Most importantly, the trip served as a reminder that the world continues to shrink and that we all share more in common than we have different. To my Saudi friends, thank you with all my heart and Yalla Saudi!

Click to see photos from the MBA Saudi Trek
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