Foreign Policy Blogs

education in Saudi

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a piece (or had – last week) on Saudi Arabia's massive recent investment in the education sector.  Other Gulf states are also cultivating investment in education, albeit more importing it than manufacturing it locally – my former workplace, NYU, just opened a campus in Abu Dhabi and my alma mater Northwestern has one in Qatar. So, of the three institutes of higher ed where I have been in the past 5 years, two have Gulf campuses. Hardly a random sample, but certainly indicative of a trend.

The article is subscription access only so I will generously excerpt it here:

Four years ago, the kingdom embarked on a fantastically ambitious effort to expand and reform higher education. The higher-education ministry's budget has nearly tripled since 2004, to $15-billion, much of which has been spent on opening more than 100 new colleges and universities. King Abdullah has provided $10-billion of his own money to establish a graduate-level science-and-technology university, instantly making it the sixth wealthiest university in the world. And the government has lifted a decades-old ban on private institutions, offering free land and more than $10-million toward scholarships and building costs for what they hope will become the Harvards and Yales of the Middle East.

But a seemingly bottomless bank account is not the only ingredient needed for a top-notch education system. The notoriously insular country is still governed by an authoritarian ruler exerting harsh social and religious restrictions ‚ a far cry from the intellectual breeding ground that is New England. The conservative culture will very likely prove a serious roadblock to recruiting top professors and make it difficult to persuade ambitious Saudis to earn their degrees at home rather than abroad, as thousands now do. Saudi Arabia's universities also suffer from outdated teaching methods and a stifling bureaucracy bent on centralized control.

[snip/Insert comment: It is worth noting that Harvard was founded in 1636 and the Salem Witch Trials were held in 1692. I take the point about New England, but let's not pretend the Puritans weren't terrifying too].

The country's oil wealth has led to a sweeping rise in living standards and subsequent population surge. The kingdom's relatively small higher-education system has not been able to handle the growing demand, leaving large numbers of young people without college degrees and thus unemployable.That has been a huge hindrance to the government's efforts at “Saudification,” or the shifting of jobs away from foreign workers.

Adding more classroom seats is only part of the solution. The country's rulers realize that the economy cannot run forever on oil alone and are planning to diversify into such fields as petrochemicals and nanotechnology.

“We’ve been importing technology for too long,” says Prince Bandar bin Saud bin Khalid Al-Saud, deputy managing director of the King Faisal Foundation and chairman of the executive committee of the Board of Trustees at Alfaisal University, a new private science and technology university that is also modeling itself on Western institutions. “It is time to export.”

The academic programs needed to train future scientists and entrepreneurs are in short supply. Saudi universities focus overwhelmingly on the social sciences, and the higher-education ministry has historically been controlled by the conservative Wahhabi elite, which is more interested in churning out imams than businessmen or scientists.


Another weakness in the system is its lack of emphasis on research. Less than 0.25 percent of the country's gross domestic product is spent on research, and universities do not have strong links with the private sector. The Saudi government has tried setting up an agency similar to the National Science Foundation, called the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, to finance and coordinate science research, but like the country's universities, it has been hobbled by bureaucracy and financial restrictions.

And critics say faculty promotion usually has more to do with seniority and political connections than with the quality of a professor's teaching or research.

“Why, if many from our staff graduated from Yale, Harvard, and Stanford, don't they make any real breakthroughs?” asks Mohammad I. Al-Hassan, vice president for educational and academic affairs at King Saud University. “There is no tenure system here, and we don't spend money on research, so it is just not the right environment to promote originality.”


The king has given $10-billion to endow the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and has put the project under the direction of Ali Al-Naimi, minister for petroleum and mineral resources, one of the most powerful government officials in the kingdom. With the king as patron, a large endowment, and an independent board of trustees, the university will have an unprecedented level of independence.

“Life on campus will be free,” says Mr. Al-Naimi. “Scholars can dream, think, and innovate with a lot of freedom.”

The university, set to open in 2009, will organize its research around interdisciplinary centers rather than the single-discipline departments that make up most universities, a luxury enabled by the absence of undergraduates. The first centers will focus on subjects like biosciences and engineering, materials science and engineering, energy and the environment, and applied mathematics and computational science.


Alfaisal University, [another new university] which is being developed by the King Faisal Foundation, an organization endowed by the sons of the former Saudi king to promote education in the kingdom, is one of the first private universities to receive permission to open and one of the few nonprofit private institutions in the country. Like King Abdullah University, it is modeling itself on Western universities, with help from Western scholars.


Alfaisal is getting most of its start-up money from private companies like Boeing, British Aerospace, United Technologies, and Thales, as part of a law that requires foreign companies with headquarters in Saudi Arabia to invest a portion of their earnings in the country. The companies, which must also comply with increasingly stringent Saudification quotas, are hoping Alfaisal will train their future employees.

“We anticipate that these companies and others will be lined up at our door,” says Alan Goodridge, Alfaisal's provost and acting president, who was formerly provost of the University of Toledo.


“It's not just about transferring the curriculum,” Mr. Al-Kattan said. “It's about transferring the Western culture of learning, the commitment to lifelong education. To ensure that, we need to get people from that environment.”


“This environment [that is, Saudi Arabia] will not suit everybody,” says Mr. Al-Kattan, in something of an understatement.

To make such restrictions more palatable, universities plan to offer “above market” salaries, says Mr. Goodridge. But even that might not be enough.

“We have had to raise our salaries by 10 percent three years in a row just to attract English-speaking professors,” says Khaled S. Al-Sultan, rector of King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, the kingdom's top university.


Supporters and skeptics are at odds over whether Saudi Arabia can successfully import Western-style education into a decidedly non-Western culture.

Mr. Goodridge, for one, says he will advise his faculty members not to broach culturally sensitive topics in public or in the classroom, but does not feel that this will inhibit the development of a strong university, particularly one focused on the sciences.

Similarly, Saudi reformers argue that they will be able to “pick and choose,” as Mr. Al-Kattan puts it, the elements of Western-style education that best fit into their social and cultural standards.

He and others are disparaging of attempts by Arab countries to wholly import foreign universities, such as Qatar did with Weill Medical College of Cornell University. “Cornell's campus in Qatar has nothing to do with Qatar,” Mr. Al-Kattan says. “You can hardly find a Qatari student in the university. Yes, they get Cornell's reputation in Qatar, but wouldn't they rather have their own people be at the level of Cornell students?”

Skeptics counter that no university can succeed, at least on an internationally competitive level, in such a restricted society. They note that professors can still be fired for expressing opinions counter to Wahhabi beliefs.


One point all observers seem to agree on: If these new universities can effectively train a new generation of Saudis to think critically, their effects will be far reaching.

“They won't be able to limit this new state of mind to the classroom,” Mr. Gharba says. “Saudi Arabia is one of the places where people are starting to question more, particularly under a reform-oriented king, so reforming their education system will be like opening a Pandora's box.”

It's an interesting study to look at, especially given the tensions between the government and academia in America at present in the recent past, at least in the field of Middle Eastern Studies. (For an account of this relationship over the past half-century or so, check out Zachary Lockman's book Contending Visions of the Middle East).  Of course the American government has a slightly different, namely less contentious and much more supportive, relationship with the science community, but nonetheless the line between government support and government meddling is a fine one. Given the Saudi government's reputation for tyranny and, um, not being terribly knowledge-oriented, it's worth considering whether their scholars’ efforts to establish credibility will be uphill regardless of the quality of their work. Academics aren't immune to misconceptions and snap judgements.

But, of course, money talks. And academics, who generally produce very little of market value, have to go to where it is being handed out. I am inclined to think that, after a possibly rocky few years, the Saudi universities will see rewards from their investment. This could be exacerbated (or enhanced, depending on how you look at it) by any kind of drying up of funds in other areas of the world. Let's face it, in America, we are not headed into a moment of excessive philanthropic generosity or government largesse. This is going to affect the amount of money that will go into research. Hopefully not a lot, but it will. If Saudi Arabia is intent on attracting American researchers, professors, and students, the immediate aftermath of an economic crash is a good time to do it.