In the Saudi Kingdom

June 1, 2012
We are educators affiliated with The Implant Consortium (TIC), a group of dental professionals dedicated to a patient-centered focus ...
Gibson, left, and Meeuwenberg pose outside King Saud University in their abayas and hajibs
Well-traveled educators share an uncommon experience

By Edie Shuman Gibson, RDH, BSDH, FADIA,
and Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA, FADIA

We are educators affiliated with The Implant Consortium (TIC), a group of dental professionals dedicated to a patient-centered focus in implant team training. We are Fellows and certified educators with the Association of Dental Implant Auxiliaries (ADIA), an affiliate of the International Congress of Oral Implantologists (ICOI).

At a recent ICOI meeting, our colleague Kathi Carlson (founder of TIC) was introduced to Dr. Khalil Aleisa — a diplomate of the ICOI. He invited Kathi to present her courses for the Saudi Dental Society. It was the first time the Saudis invited an auxiliary to speak at their annual session. Kathi was unable to attend and called Edie to speak in her place. Edie then called Linda and the adventure began!

Meeuwenberg: Edie made the arrangements to have me included on the program. We agreed to offer two days of continuing education at the 14th King Saud University College of Dentistry and the 23rd Saudi Dental Society International Dental Conference. We met to discuss our topics and plan for travel to Saudi Arabia.

We proposed a one-day course on “Demystifying Dental Implants: Past, Present, & Future” and a second-day course on “Ergonomics: Prevention of Occupational Pain.” The Saudi Dental Society began the process of getting our visas and making travel arrangements.

Gibson: Our first realization that we were dealing with another part of the world was the expectation that we would go to a Saudi embassy in Washington D.C. or Houston to pick up our visas. I explained that those cities were a long way from our homes and that they would require a flight to get there. It was determined that they could email us the forms needed to complete our visa applications and mail them to the embassy. This was the easy part!

I next tackled the coordination of our travel arrangements. Multiple emails were exchanged with our hosts. Negotiating airfares, departure dates, and hotel bookings took nearly three months — a rather long time frame for two women used to handling their own travel.

Meeuwenberg poses outside female entrance to convention hall.

The day finally arrived for our departure. I left from Colorado and Linda departed from Florida. We arrived in Saudi Arabia at different times and were both met by a driver and presented with a beautiful abaya — the traditional black cloak worn by Muslim women.

First day in the Kingdom

Gibson: After 24 hours of travel, I arrived in Riyadh only to find my luggage was sitting in London! My driver did not speak English and off I went to our hotel in hopes that Linda would soon arrive!

Meeuwenberg: I arrived at the airport with visa and passport in hand to clear security. The agent spoke little English and seemed distressed that I was not married and was traveling alone. Being the only woman arriving without an abaya, fair-skinned and blond, the stares received were a bit frightening. All went well with my host and driver, and we were finally together in the hotel. Cell phones were delivered so we could communicate with the committee. We jumped with glee and were in awe that we were in this incredible place. We embraced and pinched ourselves that this was real!

Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi so we had a full-time driver assigned to us. We both grinned at the thought of having this luxury in the States. Women were not allowed in the spa, gym, or pool area of the luxury hotel! We dined in our room on the first night with huge smiles and tucked in the luxury bedding for a good night’s sleep.

Second day in the Kingdom

Meeuwenberg: After a night’s rest and anticipating a calm day, we received a call from our host. To our surprise, he told us we were scheduled to present the next morning at 8 a.m. — a day earlier than expected and still no luggage for Edie. We were told to wear our abayas and cover our heads. We went to YouTube and watched a demonstration on how to wear the hijab (head scarf), which was no easy task. We laughed hysterically as we watched each other struggle with this new addition to our wardrobes, while Linda posted pictures on Facebook.

Edie’s luggage arrived after midnight, and after four hours of sleep, we scurried to meet our driver. We arrived at King Saud University ready for action. There were no signs indicating where the symposium was being held and no one to meet us. We approached several women emerging from the “women’s only” reception area at the dental clinic.

As in America, they checked their iPhones and found the symposium was being held at another venue across town and invited us to join them for a ride. Panicked, we continued to look for help. Eventually, we found our session host who led us to the registration area and where we saw a life-size sign with our pictures and course titles. It was 8:30 a.m., and all was well in our world.

Gibson: Our first friend for life was Roque, the audiovisual technician. He helped set up my computer and calmed my nerves. As I prepared, Linda mingled with the registration team, ate pastries, and had her picture taken multiple times on registrants’ iPhones. We felt like royalty! It was now 9 a.m., and the program was about to start — or so we thought!

We waited and chatted, had more pictures taken, and still no participants. We looked at each other with that “we aren’t in the States anymore” look. We learned that starting on time meant something different in the Kingdom. It was now 10 a.m., and people finally started arriving. By 10:20, the room was packed and Edie took the podium.

Meeuwenberg: Edie began by asking the audience to move into the middle of the lecture hall together. They told her they could not, as the men must stay separate from the women. Another lesson in Saudi culture! I sat in the back of the room and observed the attentiveness of the audience. They loved Edie!

Gibson: Following a mandatory morning prayer break, we met Afaf Alanbar, our hostess and passionate president of the dental hygiene/assistant club — eight members strong! She escorted us to the ladies’ lounge where we ate lunch separate from the men behind closed doors. The women removed their veils and we began to connect on a more personal level, learning about one another’s lives. We learned that we were more alike than different and grew to love these women. It was an amazing experience, and we had to stop pinching ourselves (again) that we were so honored to be in their care.

At the end of the lecture, our host informed us that our driver would take us to the hotel and return at 8:30 p.m. for dinner. We learned that the Saudis are late diners (while we were ready for our pajamas and room service). We dined with the women dentists at the opulent Ritz Carlton Hotel, built by the King for his daughter’s wedding.

The Saudi “sisters” gather for some late evening dining.

Many pictures were taken. We felt immediately accepted by the traditional embrace and a kiss on each cheek by each of them. We were charmed by their hospitality, warmth, and camaraderie. They had great passion for their profession, families, and country. We discussed typical female topics, ranging from our profession to our families.

Third day in the Kingdom

Meeuwenberg: Day two went much smoother because of our newly created friendships and knowing where to go. After our arrival, kisses on each cheek, coffee, pastries, computer set-up with Roque, we were ready for another day. I began by showing pictures of a map of our country, then of Michigan where Edie and I had our roots, and then a picture of our current residences, Florida and Edie’s state of Colorado. From the snow-covered pines of Michigan, to the sunsets in Florida, to the majestic mountains of Colorado, they were in awe of the beauty of America.

Many in the audience were from the Philippines, including several dentists/specialists who were working in the dental school clinic as assistants. Several had questions about getting to the States for residency programs or CE courses. They expressed the difficulty they encountered with American security. After lunch, I involved them in stretches with their native attire and showed them how to practice these during the workday to prevent micro traumas. They laughed and we had fun!

That evening was the highlight of our trip as we were meeting the women dentists and students for an awards dinner. We were picked up at 8:30 p.m. and brought to a private room in a hotel where the women removed their abayas and veils.

Wow! All wore beautiful designer clothing, accessories, and shoes. We laughed and shared Arabic coffee, which was more like a weak tea flavored with cardamom. Beautiful ornate serving pots, lavish trays of exquisite chocolates, and ornate trays of figs, candied nuts, brittles, and confections were served while we visited with our Saudi “sisters.”

We enjoyed watching a fashion show of the elaborate costumes of the various regions in the Kingdom modeled by the female dental students. Following the show, we were given a selection of beautifully crafted perfume oils. The opulence was breathtaking! We were treated to a cappella singing and dancing, including the Saudi national anthem. Pride and joy filled the room, and we cried. I accepted the invitation to join a dental student in the traditional dance, and they applauded.

At the end of the festivities, we were tired and ready to leave; however, we were directed to another room where a lavish dinner was being served at 10:30 PM. It is common to dine as late as midnight. The next morning we slept in, ordered room service, and had our driver take us to the other venue of the meeting.

Fourth day in the Kingdom

Gibson: We arrived at the convention center anxious to see the exhibitions and meet our colleague and friend, Dr. Scott Ganz. We entered the “women’s only” area and were warmly greeted by Afaf. We embraced the women we met the night before and were escorted to the lecture hall to listen to Dr. Ganz.

The lecture hall was divided in half, separating the women from men. I have known Dr. Ganz for nearly 20 years and always greet him with a hug. We looked at each other and laughed, not knowing what to do for fear of the mutawa (religious police). We hugged anyway, took pictures, and posted to Facebook.

Dr. Aleisa greeted us and offered to have his driver take us to his dental practice. We gladly accepted. We were in awe of the state-of-the-art dental office with separate reception areas for men, women, and children — complete with a coffee bar and snacks. We returned to the hotel to prepare for our departure via a quick trip to Jeddah.

We were invited to speak in Jordan and Dubai, exchanged business cards, and left with the traditional kiss on each cheek. We met phenomenal women that embraced their culture, profession, and lives. They were eager for our assistance in advancing their profession with the lack of resources in the Kingdom. The hygienists expressed concerns that they could not become members of ADHA. Linda informed them of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists and promised to keep in touch via email and social media to assist them.

Meeuwenberg: As a former ambassador in the People to People program to South Africa as an ADHA delegate, I was once again afforded the opportunity to increase global understanding between countries and awed by the warmth of these beautiful people. I am so excited about the continued interchange and look forward to returning to the Middle East. RDH

Edie Shuman Gibson, RDH, BSDH, FADIA, is a clinical trainer/advisor for The Implant Consortium, and a founding Fellow and certified educator for the ADIA. Edie owned a private dental hygiene practice called About Face, served on the editorial review board for the Journal of Practical Hygiene, is a Thought Leader for Hu-Friedy, the Volunteer Coordinator for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), and, along with her husband Chris, runs a faith-based transitional living facility called The New Adams House for men recovering from addictions.

Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA., MA., FADIA, is the president of Professional Development Association, Inc. She is an award-winning speaker/author/educator and member of the International Speakers’ Network. Linda holds the rank of Professor Emeritus from Ferris State University where she earned a first place award from the American Association of Dental Schools and was inducted into Sigma Phi Alpha for her outstanding contribution to education. She is coauthor of “Stepping Stones to Success,” and is currently coauthoring an interactive iPad book, “3D Dentists - The Future is Now!” She is a 2009 Hygiene Hero recipient from the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. She is a frequent contributor to professional journals and public media. Linda has served on numerous boards as an opinion leader in dental hygiene.

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