Virginia Tech is highlighting internationally themed stories as it celebrates International Education Week from Nov. 7-14.

The benefits of getting international experiences before entering the workforce in today’s global economy are clear. Facilitating such experiences are a priority for many universities that want to equip their students to thrive, including Virginia Tech.

However, ambitious students from nations around the world have been traveling far to learn for many decades. Suhayl Abdul Mohsin Al Shoaibi did so more than half a century ago, when he came from the Middle East to the United States in the early 1950s to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering at the University of Southern California. A few years later, he returned to complete two degrees from Virginia Tech. Al Shoaibi earned a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering in 1961 and a master’s degree in architecture in 1964.

Over decades in business, Al Shoaibi has leveraged technical know-how and a keen eye for emerging opportunities to build a thriving business headquartered in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, where he now lives. In theory, he’s retired, but he’s still likely to be found several days a week in the offices of the Shoaibi Group. The private company Al Shoaibi established in the late 1960s is now managed by his three sons, Walid, Khalid, and Faisal. Over the years, the Shoaibi Group has partnered with multiple international firms doing business in Saudi Arabia. Al Shoaibi was honored in 2002 with the Commander Medal of Merit by the president of Italy for enhancing and developing economic relations between Italy and Saudi Arabia. Excerpts from a recent interview in which he shared his story are below.

Where did you grow up and how did you wind up studying in the United States and eventually at Virginia Tech?

I was born in Basra, Iraq, but left my hometown, at around 11 years old, to study at International College / American University of Beirut, Lebanon. My father was a businessman in Basra but my family used to spend their summer holidays in Beirut, and there was a better standard of education there than in my country at that time.

I went to the University of Southern California in 1952 and earned a bachelor’s in civil engineering. After that, I went back home worked as a junior civil engineer, building houses for the Basra Petroleum Company. After spending two years at the company, I realized I needed more architectural background for my career. I learned Virginia Tech’s program in architectural engineering could help me realize my goals. I didn’t want to study just architecture, but something to deal with housing.

What do you remember most about your time at our university?

I liked the limestone and all the buildings there and the Drillfield. It’s such a beautiful campus with all the native limestone. I remember Burruss Hall and Newman Library where I would go to study, especially since we had a baby at home. And the [football] stadium, of course, I used to go there to cheer our Hokies!

How did you launch your career after finishing your degrees in Blacksburg?

After getting my degrees, I went back to a neighboring country, Kuwait. It had been a dependent country of the British Empire, but recently became independent and was setting up its own government. They hired me as a consultant for the planning commission.

I stayed there 10 years, but then thought I needed to start my own business. Another neighboring country, Saudi Arabia, which was the birthplace of my grandfather, was in a big economic boom in the 1970s. I thought it would be the right place and the right time to move there and start my business.

I was drawn to manufacturing because there was not much of that there. I started a company to do chain link fencing since there was big demand from government and agencies that wanted to fence their properties. That was the first venture I started.

Over the decades since then, your company has diversified into a variety of areas, including energy and contracting, manufacturing, and property development. How did you decide when to expand, and how do you do that now?

The term “business” in Saudi Arabia is not really limited to just one certain thing. We tend to do several things at the same time, and one of the first ways we did that was with hardware. There were no hardware retail stores so we started one.

Another thing I recognized was that here in Saudi Arabia the hot season is seven- to eight-months long. So I thought air conditioning manufacturing was a good idea. But that idea was a bit too advanced at the time, so I first started manufacturing parts, like the grills and the diffusers and all kinds of devices needed in the air conditioning industry. Eventually, I went into manufacturing the air conditioning equipment itself, and we become one of the leaders in the in the country manufacturing that equipment.

Another activity in which we expanded our business was real estate. We recognized there were a lot of foreign people coming to Saudi Arabia working to help the Saudi economy, and they needed housing, so we went into housing and the building construction business.

If you can imagine the time, when I started my business in Saudi Arabia, the country needed so many things because it was just starting to take off. And with me spending a few years studying in the U.S., I got enlightened with so many ideas.

Virginia Tech Alumnus Suhayl Abdul Mohsin Al Shoaibi (third from left) alongside his sons Faisal, Khaled, and Walid.
Suhayl Abdul Mohsin Al Shoaibi (third from left) surrounded by his sons Faisal, Khaled, and Walid. Photo courtesy of the Al Shoaibi family.

What would you consider to be the best career decision you ever made?

I think being an employee is something people get used to and then they spend all their lives being employed by others. I think for me, the best decision would be two things: first to start my own business, and second to come to Saudi Arabia, which was a booming country.

What still excites you about coming into your office?

I am retired, but I come to the office two to three times a week, depending on how I feel. I have my grandsons now. They are in college, but they still come and join us here sometimes. I think seeing the example of their grandfather still vying to be active is a good example for them to follow and develop their abilities so that we can continue to keep the family business moving from one generation to another.

What advice would you give today’s Hokies who hope to equip themselves to have a fulfilling career?

I believe that being independent and traveling is the biggest education in life. I think that’s the biggest advice that I would give. Academics is something to train you for a certain activity, but things like traveling and managing yourself have to be learned through personal experience, being on your own and managing struggles or solving problems yourself.

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