The great return

A week ago, AlRiyadh newspaper interviewed the minister of higher education and he had some fascinating things to say. If you read Arabic it is really worth reading through the whole interview and if you don’t then you’ll just have to make do with my post about it.

Before getting to the interview, let me explain the context. Soon after King Abdullah came into power in 2005, he initiated the King Abdullah scholarship program wherein each year thousands of young Saudis are sent abroad for BAs, MAs and PhDs. This in itself is not a new concept in Saudi Arabia because in the seventies and early eighties, scholarships were given out freely. However since the mid-eighties they became a lot more restricted. The reason for this sudden pull back has never been openly explained or even acknowledged. And one of its consequences is that Saudi society became even more closed up within itself. So when King Abdullah came along and opened the door wide to all qualified Saudis, many took advantage of the opportunity. The importance of these scholarships to Saudi society is beyond just the educational. To have thousands of our own men and women experience life outside the muttawa ideology bubble will have a huge impact on our future as a people and a country. And it seems that the minister of higher education, Dr. Al Mousa, is of the same opinion. He views the scholarship program as a cultural, social, political and economical integration.

So far the program has wrapped up five phases, the last was this year in which they gave scholarships to 8223 postgraduate students. And that tallies up the number of students on scholarships since 2005 to about 80 thousand. And they are sent to many different countries such as China, France, Germany and Japan. The choice of countries and courses of study to include in the program is left to a committee of 30 professors and professionals. Recently they had considered the Ukraine, however after visiting the universities there, they decided against it. The best universities for medicine according to this ministry appointed committee are the University of London and the University of Maastricht in Holland in which they have reserved 80 places for Saudis. Also an unnamed Canadian university in which they have reserved 300 places. The countries with the highest number of Saudis in their universities are the UK and Australia, so much so that the ministry has decided to stop sending students there for the foreseeable future.

All students who are granted a scholarship must go through an intensive three month English language course and attend workshops and lectures on cultural differences and on how to conduct themselves abroad.

Out of the approximately 70 thousand sent in the past four years, 825 have graduated. 100 of them were given jobs at Al Qaseem University. This is just fantastic because Qaseem is a region notorious for its muttawa ideology and so to have 100 Saudi men and women who have seen and lived abroad work in one of the region’s most influential places can only be good. Others were employed by SABIC, the Saudi airlines and STC.

The minister was also asked about problematic students. According to the minister, 1573 scholarships, 3% of the total, in the past four years were revoked, out of which only 117 were due to moral or legal misconduct. The rest were mainly due to absenteeism and low grades. He comments that these statistics show that the program is a success.


Filed under Culture, Education, Informative

10 responses to “The great return

  1. Immaturely Mature

    Thanks for the briefing. The program is a success, Indeed. Through it Saudis are competing with highly qualified students in Universities from all over the world, not just within themselves.

  2. Thank you so much for bringing this interview. I have my own experience about the program. I came with the first scholarship program of late 2005. It was a mess. There were no rules, students who have a wasta, get their papers first. It took me around three month, going back and forth to Riyadh in order to finish my papers. My high school grade is 96% and yet they told me that I can’t be in the program. after much of complain and talking with the office, they let me in. Now, I have so many students whose high school grade around 70 and they got in the program quit easily.

    after two or three years, the high ministry began to realized that there are many unqualified students in the program so they put new rules. Despite the rules, there are always exception.
    I have encounter countless numbers of students who aren’t qualified by any chance and yet they got the scholarship.
    There are so many qualified saudi men and women who deserve to be in the program but just because they don’t have a connection or money, they couldn’t be in the program.

    anyway, I am happy with new administration for Saudi Cultural Mission in US. Al-Essa is very serious on following with students studies and grade. I have known many students who have been warned and eventually kicked out of the scholarship because of their laziness

  3. Chiara

    Thanks for a great post! I was aware of the more recent scholarships, and my first “real live Saudis” were specialist physicians training in Canada during that “lean” period. I think it is great that the people of other countries also benefit from meeting Saudis who are bright and motivated. No doubt with those kind of numbers, and advanced academic training the returning Saudis will help transform the country with new expertise and attitudes.

    I have been very impressed in other countries with what a single person can do with the training and connections they made overseas: eg. create a specialty in medicine where none existed, open the specialty to women, become a leader in social sciences and the evolution of their society, create an academic department, provide services to underserviced areas etc.

    Now I am curious about which one is the unnamed Canadian university. A preliminary search shows nothing, but I am on it! LOL 🙂

  4. Aliya

    Assalamu alaikum,

    While I think the programme is good for gaining an education, many of the Saudi students isolate themselves while here, do not get involved in the local Muslim community or the non-Muslim community, many seem to avoid any contact with non-Muslims and avoid the Dawaah opportunities that exist as well. It appears that the sole focus is taking and education, whereas there should be an obligation of all these students to contribute something to the communities they are living in while away from home. Muslims have lived in non-Muslim countries since the first migration to Abyssinnia and the Saudi students coming overseas to studied should follow the Sahabas examples by contributing to the community in a positive way and not just taking from it!

  5. Tiffany

    Nice post, I”m glad to see this is a successful program.

  6. Salamalaykum, I’m new to your blog but have enjoyed reading it so far! I was interested in the information presented in this article, but I really wonder exactly which students were lucky enough to receive the cultural training prior to leaving the country?! As a professional who works with international students, one thing I have seen a huge need for was cultural education for the Saudis, because many of the brand new ones have absolutely no idea how to understand the subtleties and the meaning and intention behind mixed gender interactions (an example: I once asked a classroom of mostly male Saudis what it meant if a female instructor saw them and said hi outside of the classroom, somewhere on campus. They were all in agreement that it meant that she ‘loved’ them – and had dubious intentions!).

    None of the Saudis I’ve spoken with have ever had any kind of cultural education prior to their arrival. Perhaps this is just what the officials ‘say’ in order to keep the English programs and university international offices somewhat pacified….!

    I hate that the opinions of some of my colleagues are negative regarding Saudis – when the issues really come down to not knowing how to understand the culture… on both sides.

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