Master of Advanced Studies in

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Difficult Collaboration or Difficult Communication - CS EN


The author points out the different assumption and practices that can damage professional collaboration between Dutch and Saudi Arabian.

1.  Introduction

The AI2C outline (Analysis of Improving Intercultural Communication) is a model which aims to provide a set of comprehensive analytical tools in order to analyse multicultural situations through an interdisciplinary approach. The AI2Cmodel takes 4 main perspectives into account: communication, culture, individual and social framework. Across these four fundamental perspectives, the dimension of time and history needs to be considered as well.

In this paper, the AI2C model is used to analyse a (problematic) situation in which culture played an important role. This situation concerns the negotiations between the Ministry of Higher Education of Saudi Arabia and two Dutch universities (Maastricht University and the University of Groningen) on the preparation of a visit of a Dutch delegation to Saudi Arabia. The aim of this visit was to discuss with the Saudi Ministry the optimisation of the cooperation between the Ministry and the two universities, especially as regards the attendance of a group of Saudi students at the medical faculties of both universities.

Firstly, a description is given of this situation. Then this situation is analysed on the basis of the AI2C model, followed by a conclusion. The analysis is made on the basis of relevant emails and other reports, which I read as part of my function as a policy advisor and coordinator of the project „Dealing with cultural diversity‟ at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML) of Maastricht University. One of the subprojects within this project is to advise the board of the Faculty on cultural issues concerning the presence of the Saudi students. Extra information for this paper was obtained through interviews with the coordinator Internationalisation at FHML and the Director of the Strategic Planning & Support Office (both were members of the delegation of the planned visit to Saudi Arabia).


2.  Description: Preparation of a visit to Saudi Arabia


Maastricht University is a state funded Dutch university with 11.500 students and 3000 staff members, and its main characteristics are its innovative education system and international orientation. Situated in the south of The Netherlands near Belgium and Germany, most of the bachelor and masters programmes are taught in English, and one out of three students and 16 percent of UM employees come from abroad. Together they represent about 70 different countries.

In line with its internationalization ambitions, the university agreed with the Ministry of Higher Education of Saudi Arabia to receive a group of Saudi students who will join the 6 year medical curriculum at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML) of Maastricht University (the agreement also involves the Dutch University of Groningen, which will receive a similar group of Saudi students). It was agreed that for a period of 7 years, 40 Saudi students will enter the medical faculty, preceded by a preparatory year to learn Dutch language and culture (so 280 students in total). A good command of Dutch is necessary because of the contacts with patients. The agreement was settled in letters between the President of Maastricht University (also on behalf of Groningen) and the Deputy Minister for Cultural Affairs of the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) of Saudi Arabia, with the intention to formalise this cooperation in a real contract as soon as possible. For MOHE it is important that this contract will be part of an „umbrella agreement‟, a „government-to-government‟ Memorandum of Understanding between the Dutch and Saudi Ministries of Education, which still has to be signed.

The initiative for the agreement was taken by the Ministry of Higher Education of the Kingdom of Saudi- Arabia (MOHE). Since the possibilities to enter medical school in Saudi Arabia are limited, the Saudi government looks for opportunities abroad. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia wants to engage in the globalisation process and to get the students acquainted with Western culture. Apart from the Netherlands, students are sent to America, Germany, Ireland, Australia and Canada. The Saudi government finances the study and residency of the students.



The implementation of the agreement was challenging. The original programme was developed on the assumption that the students would arrive in September 2006 and that their knowledge of English and the biomedical sciences would be enough to enrol in the medical curriculum in September 2007 (a good command of English is necessary to read the relevant literature). However, in February 2007 only, a group of 40 students (12 female and 28 male) arrived in Maastricht, and upon arrival, the English proficiency of the students turned out to be less than expected. Furthermore, the students were under the impression that the entire curriculum would be taught in English, and only upon arrival, they discovered the necessity to learn Dutch. Also, the students were faced with unknown Dutch living circumstances, different learning styles and teaching methods, and visa problems for the accompanying persons of the female students. Maastricht University tried hard to find flexible solutions to these challenges. Despite these solutions, it turns out that only a part of the Saudi students will be able to enter medical school as from September 2007. In order to discuss these problems and the preparation of future cohorts, a delegation of both Maastricht and Groningen universities‟ representatives planned to visit Saudi Arabia.

The „spokesperson‟ towards the Saudis on behalf of the Dutch delegation (which consisted of 13 persons: 2 females and 11 males), was the Director of the Strategic Planning & Support Office (assisted by legal advisors) of Maastricht University. He had extensive consultations on the practicalities and the programme of the visit, mainly by email and telephone, with his colleagues of Groningen University and with the deans of the two departments which are involved at Maastricht University (University College Maastricht - where the students follow their preparatory year - and the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences). It was very difficult for the Director, however, to have direct contact with the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia; answers to his emails or faxes did not arrive or only very late. Therefore, it was decided to ask a Dutch businessman, who had established a useful network after many years of working experience in Saudi Arabia and who had played an important and useful role in the arrival of the Saudi students, to assist in the organisation of the visit. This businessman acted as the intermediate between the Dutch universities, the Saudi Ministry and the Dutch and Saudi Embassies. The Maastricht Director had sporadic direct contacts with representatives from the Dutch Embassy in Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Cultural Attaché in Berlin, but mainly all communication ran through the Dutch businessman. Until the very last moment, this businessman assured that all formalities (visa, official programme, etc.) would be ready in time.

However, at the day before the planned departure (a Thursday) the situation was as follows:

- the delegation had not received an official confirmation that they would be welcome at the Ministry and/or the Dutch Embassy

- the women in the delegation had not received a visa, and the Saudi Embassy refused to issue it    the Saudi Embassy advised not to go by lack of an official confirmation

- the Dutch Embassy could not be contacted directly because of the Saudi weekend (Thursday and Friday)

Considering these circumstances and also because of the size of the delegation (the risk would be too big to have 10 persons go to Saudi Arabia for nothing), the Director decided (in consultation with his Dutch colleagues) to cancel the visit.

Afterwards, it turned out that the Dutch Embassy in Riyadh and the Saudi Ministry had actually been expecting the Dutch delegation (grocery shopping for the official dinner had already been done). After the Saudi weekend (on Saturday) the Dutch Ambassador informed the Maastricht Director in an extensive email that he and the Saudi Ministry regretted that the delegation had not come. The official confirmation was delayed because in Saudi Arabia communication cannot go directly to the Ministry of Education, but needs to go through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In his email the Dutch Ambassador also pointed out how things run differently in Saudi Arabia compared to The Netherlands:

“if it is important, things can be done immediately when someone arrives at your doorstep you are important, a guest can not be kept waiting for personal contact is much much more important than written contact ally arrive (too) late almost everything happens in an improvised way programmes arrive  if any – only at the very last moment, and if there is a programme it will never be executed as on paper the Saudi government only operates well in direct contact with the Dutch government, in this case, the Embassy”

As regards the difficulties regarding the issue of Saudi visa to females, it turned out that one delegation member had had similar experiences in the past, but this information was probably not available to the organising delegation members. Also, although the Dutch businessman had pointed out in one of his memos‟s that „Saudi Arabia is a man‟s world where women are not welcome at the moment‟, this was not directly linked to the visa formalities. Therefore, it apparently had not occurred to the delegation that the visa application procedure for the women might have been different than that for the men. Moreover, the Dutch businessman assured until the last moment that the Saudi Embassy would be willing to cooperate and issue the visa.

This has been an interesting learning experience for the Dutch delegation. In the meantime (after this first attempt) a successful visit to Saudi Arabia including all (male and female) representatives from Groningen and Maastricht has taken place. The analysis will focus on the first, cancelled, visit.


3.  Analysis


The communication process in this situation took place between the Dutch delegation and the Saudi authorities, who were trying to make arrangements for a visit of the Dutch university representatives to Saudi Arabia. It was a complex communication process, which did not concern one single communication event, but a series of communication interactions during a period of several weeks. The three most directly involved senders and receivers (interlocutors) were the Director, the Dutch businessman, and (at a further distance from my point of view) a representative from the Saudi Ministry of Education. The Director acted in this process as an individual, and also as representative of Maastricht University and the Dutch delegation (social player). The Dutch businessman was a sender and receiver as an individual, and also had an intermediate role being a Dutchman with relevant personal and professional links in Saudi Arabia (social player). The representative of the Ministry has individual characteristics and also acted on behalf of his Ministry (social player). In addition to these three individuals, more persons played an important role in the background, all representing different organisations and having their own interests and strategies:

- the other delegation members of Maastricht University, of whom the 2 deans are responsible for the contents of the academic programme of the Saudi students

- the delegation members of the University of Groningen, with responsibilities towards their university and (pre-)medical programme

- representatives of the Dutch and Saudi Ministries of Education and Ministries of Foreign Affairs, paying attention to the mutual relations between the Ministries within The Netherlands and Saudi Arabia, and also between the same Ministries of the respective countries

- representatives of the Dutch and Saudi Embassies and the Cultural Attaché, aiming at maintaining good relations between the Dutch and Saudi Arabian governments.

An indication of the predisposition and perception of the three main receivers and senders will be provided under „individual‟ and „social framework‟ (see below).

The contents of the messages of the 3 main parties are (in short and from my point of view):

- of the Dutch delegation: „we like to cooperate with you and we want to visit Saudi Arabia (SA) with this delegation and discuss these topics, please let us know whether you are willing to receive us‟

- of the SA representative: „(through the Dutch businessman) you are welcome, please follow our visa application rules‟

- of the Dutch businessman:

         - to the Dutch: „you are welcome, things are different in SA but I do my best‟
         - to the SA:  I have no information

As far as I am in a position to say anything about the intentions of the three main persons involved, I believe the strategy of the Director was to get the whole delegation on a plane to SA, with the certainty to be received by the SA Ministry, and/or the Dutch Embassy. For the other two, it is more difficult to say, but it seems their intentions were also focused on establishing a successful cooperation. The Saudi Ministry has an important interest in sending Saudi students abroad, in order to meet the targets set by the Saudi government (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia).

The used codes were a rather formal language since the persons involved had a formal relationship and did not know each other very well. The codes were partly based on the legal procedures for getting a visa, and influenced by a difference in opinion about the application of these procedures to either men or women.

Also, differences in the importance adhered to receiving a written confirmation played a role (see „Culture‟ below).

The channels/instruments of communication were the use of fax, email and telephone, and a couple of personal meetings between the Director and the Dutch businessman. Also, few personal meetings between the Saudi representative and the Dutch delegation took place, when the Saudi‟s visited The Netherlands.

The medium was written and oral communication in mainly English and Dutch, but also in Arabic.

The setting was rather formal, a work situation involving people with many responsibilities, not knowing each other very well. Physically, the long distance between Saudi Arabia and The Netherlands played a role, leading to a small difference in timetables (2 hours of difference), and establishing a barrier to enter into personal contact. The technical equipment (fax, computer, telephone etc.) did not seem to constitute an obstacle. Mentally, the large number of persons and organizations involved, creating a mix of different interests at stake, complicated the communication process. These physical and mental circumstances were one of the filters in this communication process. Another important filter was the use of an intermediate (the Dutch businessman), which constituted an extra communication link between the Dutch and Saudi‟s, and which (although helpful to some extent) also caused obstacles.

The influence of time, of what has happened in previous years and months (difficulties in communicating with the Saudi Ministry, difficulties regarding finding agreement on the contract, and on the date of arrival of students, etc.) is important. These events coloured the mindset of persons involved.



The (individual and social) interlocutors in this communication process can be categorized (among others) in the following cultural configurations:


Political sphere:                   Saudi and Dutch countries/governments
Professional sphere:             Ministry and university culture
Religious sphere:                  Muslim and Christian
Gender:                               Direct interlocutors were all male persons
Economic/social sphere:       All interlocutors belong to well-established groups and relatively high social classes (professionally and socially)
Age:                                    All main interlocutors are over 40 years old


The last three configurations show that there is to some extent great similarity among the interlocutors. However, cultural differences can be found in the professional, national and religious sphere. As regards the professional sphere, it would be interested to investigate to what extent the norms, ways of behaviour, knowledge, importance of status and reputation, legal framework, influence of politics etc. at a ministry differ from those at a university.

Literature shows that the differences in national/religious aspects between Western countries/The Netherlands/Christians and Arabian countries/Saudi Arabia/Muslims are many (Nydell, 2001; Warman, 2006, Warman, year ?). On the basis of these documents, I selected those elements which to my opinion played a role in the communication process described in this paper:

- the contact between men and women is different in Western and in Arabian society. According to Dutch norms it is respectable behaviour for young women to go to public places alone or in groups (Warman, 2006: 89). In Saudi Arabia interactions between men and women at work are officially laid down and limited in formal rules (Nydell, 65). The Saudi authorities limited the behaviour of their own citizens and foreigners. “A married western woman is allowed to greet and visit Arabian men under the condition that she is accompanied by her husband” (Nydell, 2001: 66). For the Saudi authorities it was therefore not obvious to issue visa for women who were traveling without being accompanied by a relative, whereas for the Dutch is was.

- the importance of personal contact (in Arabian society) versus the importance of rules and procedures (in Western world): About Arabian cultures Nydell (2001) says: “eventually personal contacts will lead to a more efficient way of doing business than obeying rules and regulations” (Nydell, 2001: 41), and “in the Arabian world people are more important than rules”(Nydell, 2001: 51). The Netherlands, however, is known as a country where rules, criteria and procedures are important: “they make sure that everything runs smoothly; they are in everybody‟s interest”, (Warman, ?: 49).

- differences in dealing with time and making appointments: to people in western societies “„time‟ is a sensible reality which can be measured and divided into smaller elements; it can be saved and wasted”(Warman, ?: 41). People who are used to this „monochromic‟ approach think that time schedules, deadlines and agreements are very important. The Dutch are extreme in this behaviour and are well known for their „management of agenda‟s‟ (Warman,?: 42). To people from a „polychromic‟ culture, like the Arabian, time is not such a straitjacket. “Time flows from the past, through the present to the future, and Arabs float along on the stream” (Nydell, 2001: 74). Both the previous and this cultural element may have played a role in the misunderstanding regarding the expectation (or: failure) to receive (or: send) a confirmation about the planned visit (in time).

- the role of status and hierarchy: In Arabian society someone‟s dignity, honour and reputation are of utmost importance and they are mainly determined by the group or family (class). Arabian society consists of several social classes and generally someone inherits the social class of one‟s family. Social class determines someone‟s status (Nydell, 2001: 31). The Netherlands, on the contrary, belongs to the group of countries where social status is not very important: “more than any population we (= the Dutch) keep differences in status as invisible as possible” (Warman, ?: 56). The fact that the Saudi government seemed hesitative in cooperating directly with „private‟ (=„lower‟) universities, but only works well in direct contact with the Dutch government (in casu, the Embassy = „equal‟), may be seen in this light. Also, the frustration felt at the Dutch side about the „arrogant‟ manners of the Saudi Ministry („it is not one-way traffic, they should adapt as well‟) might be a sign that the Dutch wish to negotiate as equal business partners, whereas the Ministry wants to hold on to its status.

- role and importance of intermediate: in the Arabian world it is very common to make use of an intermediate, “but his/her success depends on the character and personal relation he/she managed to build up with the parties involved” (Nydell, 2001: 45). The Saudi ministry informed with the Dutch Embassy about the status (see also previous point) of the Dutch businessman. The Embassy replied that the Dutch businessman was not an official representative of the Dutch Embassy. This reply (fact) and also other characteristics of the Dutch businessman may have caused that perhaps the Dutch businessman was not the suitable intermediate for this situation. (Experiences with the second successful visit have shown that the Dutch Embassy seems to be a better intermediate)

- difference in religion also let to a difference in working week: the Christian and Muslim working week overlap only three days: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. This difference caused difficulties in being able to contact the necessary persons at the right moment.



Although important, cultural configurations are generalizations which are not applicable to every individual person. Personality and individual characteristics of interlocutors play a role in any communication, so also in intercultural communication. Since I don‟t know all interlocutors involved personally, I can only give a superficial description of their personalities.

The Director is a white male with a responsible senior position near the central management of the university, and with little to no experience in dealing with Saudi Arabia. He is an intelligent (has a doctoral degree) person (cognitive aspects) and is dedicated to his work, loyal to the university (affective aspects). To him accuracy, speed and professionalism are important aspects to build trust in a person and to establish a good work relation, and not necessarily personal contact. The Dutch businessman is a male, and he has build up an important position in the Saudi Arabian business world, with many contacts with the SA authorities, but with little knowledge of the higher education world. The representative of MOHE is a male with a high position within the Ministry.

Since the persons involved do not know each other very well, they were in a process of exploring each others intentions, trying to build trust, and looking for ways to receive and show respect.


Social framework

In addition to individual characteristics, social circumstances are an important factor in intercultural communication as well. The relevant social framework of the Director is established by his work at the university (professional aire), in The Netherlands (a democratic country), and he has a good social position (social and economic class). The social framework of the Dutch businessman is his own business (professional aire), he is Dutch (has still professional links with The Netherlands), and he has an important professional Saudi network. The MOHE representative is socially adhered to the Ministry (professional aire), which has close ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, he is Saudi Arabian (country), and has a high social position (social class). Since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia “is the most dictatorially governed society in the Arabian world” (Nydell, 2001: 160), this may have determined the representative‟s room to move in the negotiations. No doubt he has other relevant networks in and outside Saudi Arabia, since networks are an important characteristic of Saudi culture and, “social class and family background are the most important denominators for someone‟s status, after personal character and achievements” (Nydell, 2001: 31).


Time and history

The influence of what has happened in previous years and months (difficulties in communicating with Ministry, difficulties regarding finding agreement on contract, on the date of arrival of students, etc.) is important. Furthermore, current ongoing international debates on East-West relations, Muslim fundamentalism, anti-Western sentiments and its representations in the media may have led to stereotypes on both sides. These events coloured the mindset of persons involved.

Furthermore, according to Nydell not only Arabic countries in general are changing (Nydell, 2001: 13), but especially “the Saudi society is in a process of development” (Nydell, 2001: 160). These circumstances may have influenced the position of the Saudi representatives in the negotiations.


4.  Conclusion

Comparing AI2C and the communication situation shows how complex this event actually was and also that many aspects played a part. The scope of this paper is too limited to analyse all aspects in great detail. Especially the individual characteristics and the social framework would need further investigation.

However, a quick examination shows that the following main factors played a role in this situation:

-   the role of the Dutch businessman as intermediate

-  the positive intentions of all locators involved

-   the physical distance between The Netherlands and Saudi Arabia, the related difference in time schedule and lack of personal contact

-   the many persons/organisations with different interests who played a role in the background  the similarity in gender, age and social class of the three interlocutors

-   the different ideas at Dutch/Saudi Arabian side about the social role of men and women

-   the different ideas at Dutch/Saudi Arabian side about the importance of personal contact, written documents, rules and procedures

-   the different ideas at Dutch/Saudi Arabian side about dealing with time and making appointments    the different ideas at Dutch/Saudi Arabian side about hierarchy and status

-   the difference in the workweek

-   the limited experience of the Dutch in cooperating with Saudi Arabia


Intercultural Communication Middle East