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Fellowship takes political scientist to Saudia Arabia (Released: 2/13/96)

by Luis Mocete, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- The director of the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Connecticut participated in a two-week Arab and Islamic Studies program, giving him a chance to delve into the political, economic and social issues of Saudi Arabia.

Jeffrey Lefebvre was awarded a Joseph J. Malone Fellowship, which gave him a chance to explore the issues that are important in understanding Saudi Arabia and the U.S. relationship with Arab Gulf countries. These visits provide insights into Arab life, culture, history and society available only through direct, first-hand encounters, said John Duke Anthony, president and chief executive officer of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, which sponsors the Malone Fellowship. They are the single most effective means of promoting understanding of the Arab world.

Lefebvre attended briefings and lectures by government officials, private sector leaders and academic specialists.

One of the issues that continues to echo loudly in Lefebvre s memory is the lack of natives in the Saudi work force.

Most companies operating in Saudi Arabia prefer to hire cheap foreign labor than provide jobs for young Saudis. Sixty percent of the population is under 18 years of age and the critical question government officials face is whether enough jobs will be generated. Economically, if you are not satisfying the younger generation you increase the potential for a future political explosion in the country, Lefebvre said.

Saudi officials are trying to address this situation with their new five-year economic plan called Saudiization. The plan calls for adding another 50,000 Saudis into the national economy by the year 2001. Training programs will be established for Saudis so they can develop computer and language skills that are necessary to replace foreign workers in private industry.

Education will play a major role in giving the Saudis an opportunity to build their own country. According to academic specialists in Saudi Arabia, the only way this can happen is if the educational links between Saudi Arabia and the United States are increased.

If Saudiization is not successful, a large number of the younger generation may align themselves with the growing political opposition to the royal regime, Lefebvre said.

Some of the political opposition would like to see Saudi Arabia distance itself from the United States. There is a growing frustration among liberal opponents who believe Washington is not putting enough pressure on the Saudi government to liberalize the political system. The Islamic opposition, on the other hand, would like to see an end to the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia.

Since the end of the Gulf War, the United States continues to maintain an air force in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia to watch over Iraq. The United States would like to have an army presence in the Kingdom but the Saudi government has thus far resisted, Lefebvre said.

For many years the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has been important in protecting Western interest in the Gulf region. If the Middle East peace process succeeds, it will help improve relations between the two countries, he said.

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