Tiny Menlo College is like home for Saudi elite
May 12, 2015 Updated: May 12, 2015 5:34pm
More than half a century ago, a professor from Menlo College in Atherton took a vacation to Saudi Arabia, a struggling young country despite recent oil wealth, and spent many an evening telling Saudi dinner companions about the small, private men’s school specializing in business education.
“The next thing you know, we had the royal family there,” chuckled Dorothy Skala, who worked at Menlo for almost six decades, much of that time as an aide to the traveling professor, John “Judge” Russell, who was head of the business department.
Since the late 1950s, the little-known campus in the wealthy enclave west of Palo Alto has attracted more than 100 members of the Saudi royal family and that nation’s elite: princes, government ministers, bankers and gazillionaires like Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud (Class of ’79), the 34th person on Forbes’ latest list of the world’s richest people.
While Menlo College is no household name to most Americans, its attraction to Saudi nationals foreshadowed a boom in Saudi students studying at colleges across the United States. Since 2010, the number has more than doubled to 54,000, propelling Saudis to become the fourth-largest group of foreign college students in the United States today, according to the Institute of International Education, which tracks such statistics.
The boom is largely because the Saudi government began paying tuition, room and board a decade ago for students studying abroad. In 2014, the number of Saudi students soared 58 percent in a single year — more than any other country.
Six Saudi students are enrolled at Menlo College this year, more per capita than at the University of California, where there are 74 Saudi students — but 238,700 students overall.
“I knew all the Saudis. Mohammed Faisal — he was a huge, big guy,” Skala said of Prince Mohammed bin Faisal Al Saud (Class of ’63), who helped develop the Islamic banking system. “We welcomed them with open arms. They picked up the American ways very quickly.”
Menlo College opened in 1927 with two dozen students and by 2000 had grown to 500. Today, fewer than 800 students are enrolled. The college went coed in 1971, and administrators were able to identify just one female Saudi Arabian student, who graduated in 2011.
‘Big sign of respect’
Menlo charges about $50,000 (including room and board) per year for state residents and nonresidents alike, and Saudi families or future employers typically pay the bill.
The six Saudi students there this year include Abdulaziz Al-Saud, a Saudi prince who says he’s just a regular guy trying to figure out his future.
“I’m not going to enter politics, that’s for sure,” he said with a smile.
He and four other Saudi students — brothers Nawaf and Abdullah Alakeel, 21 and 23, Abdulaziz Al-Benyan, 21, and Faisal Al Kabbani, 19 — are majoring in international business management.
“The Bay Area is a great hookup for jobs,” said Al-Saud, 21, whose work experience includes managing an estate in Riyadh and looking after a special-needs child. His Menlo College friends wouldn’t dream of using his title, which is “His Highness, Prince,” and he looks aghast at the suggestion.
“I don’t like for them to say prince because they’re my friends,” he said. “When I talk to my dad, I might call him prince, depending on the situation. If I talk to one of my uncles, I’ll say it for sure. It’s a big sign of respect.”
The students said they like studying in Silicon Valley and prefer Menlo College to Stanford because it offers an undergraduate business major, unlike Stanford. All the Saudi students, including Manhal Elhein, 21, an accounting and entrepreneurship major born in San Francisco who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said they heard of Menlo from family or friends, a plus in the family-centered society.
“At Menlo, you’re able to walk into a class and the professor knows your name. I’m the type of guy who would rather have that student-teacher relationship,” said Al-Benyan, whose education is paid for by an oil company for which he’s agreed to work for four years after graduating.
Intersection of cultures
Seated around a table in the college’s administration building, the friends talked about the intersection of cultures, noting that Saudi Arabia is more Americanized than people know.
“People who grew up in Saudi Arabia are good with the mac-and-cheese thing,” said Abdullah Alakeel.
One graduate, Faysal Alaquil (Class of ’79), uncle of the Alakeel brothers, remembered arriving at Menlo with a letter of introduction from his brother, Youssef Alaquil (Class of ’67) and showing it to Skala.
“She had tears in her eyes when she found out that I am Youssef’s brother, of which she knew very well,” recalled Alaquil, who owns a trading company that bears his name. “She took the introduction letter and walked with me into Judge’s room and said … ‘Judge, look who is here! It is Youssef’s younger brother, Faysal, just come all the way from Saudi Arabia.’
“What school will treat their students like the way Menlo did? I felt at home,” Alaquil said. “I felt I am with my family.”
A more recent graduate, Suliman K. Olayan (Class of 2009), whose family owns the Olayan Group investment company, said he found a “friendly and, more importantly, close-knit environment” at the school. It was also, in a sense, exotic. “Menlo College was a far destination and would surely give me the chance to experience and immerse myself in new cultures and situations,” Olayan said.
College President Richard Moran, on the job since September, said he enjoys the diversity of Menlo — which includes students from Guam, Guatemala and elsewhere — and appreciates the legacy of Saudi students going back generations.
He said, “Who can argue with a stamp of approval from a member of the royal family?”
Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @NanetteAsimov
Atherton school’s prominent alumni
Menlo College claims more than 100 Saudi Arabians who attended or graduated. Here is a partial list:
Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, former governor of Riyadh and 30th son of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz Alsaud (attended ’62)
Prince Mohammed Bin Faisal Al-Saud, banker and shareholder of Saudi and Gulf Enterprise Ltd. (’63)
Sheikh Youssef Elakeel, chairman, Al Bayda Trading Co. (’67)
Khaled Suliman Olayan, chairman of Olayan Group (’70)
Waleed Zahid, chairman AJIL Financial Services Co. (’71)
Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah Bin Muhammad Al-Saud, former minister of education to the Saudi cabinet (’72)
Amr Khashoggi, vice president group affairs, Zahid Group (’77)
Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Alsaud, CEO, Kingdom Holding Co. and grandson of King Abdulaziz Alsaud (’79)
Mohammed-Ali Alireza, chairman of Modern Consortium for Refueling Aircraft Co. (’82)
Al-Sharif Jameel Adnan, first Saudi Arabian to sail around the world (attended ’85)
via [SF Chronicle]