The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, officially recognized as a country as of 1932, is a Middle Eastern nation accounting for the majority of the Arabian Peninsula’s landmass. It is the only country to be bordered by both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf; its neighboring countries are Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Yemen, Oman, and the UAE. Some of the KSA’s major cities include its capital, Riyadh; Jeddah, Al-Dammam, Yanbu, and Mecca, the birthplace of Islam. Its governmental system is a hereditary absolute monarchy under Islamic holy law. As it does not allow tourists within its borders, the only visitors to the nation are there on matters of business, and only as of 2016 has the king extended the option of permanent residency to a select group of outsiders.
Saudi school systems
Because of its strict regulations regarding foreign residents, only a handful of international schools exist in the KSA. Those that do are run according to the educational system of their country of origin, or in collaboration between nations, such as the USA and the United Kingdom. Of these small number of schools, almost none admit native Saudi students due to the vast differences in culture. Saudi Arabian law, for example, does not permit women over the age of twelve to appear in public with skin exposed below the neck or above the wrists and ankles, and Saudi Arabian schools adhere to this as well as being gender-segregated. These regulations do not apply in international schools, which deters Saudi citizens from attending. In fact, up until around the 1990s, international students of expatriate workers were not permitted to remain in the country after the 9th grade, and thus often attended boarding schools in nearby countries such as Turkey, Jordan, or Cyprus.
Saudi Arabian primary education is divided into three categories: male education, female education, and Islamic education for males. Education for boys and girls falls under different organizations (the Ministry of Education and the General Presidency for Girls’ Education, respectively). Both systems encompass general education and include typical examinations as well as stressing Islamic and Arabic studies. Secondary education is also split into three possible school systems, including general education, religious education, and technical schools.
The modern higher education system in Saudi Arabia is quite young, about 63 percent of public universities were created in the last 20 years. Since higher education in Saudi Arabia is fairly new and developing, Saudi’s Universities implement westernized curriculum content and institutional structure. Higher education in Saudi Arabia is categorized as university and non-university higher education or teacher training. Most universities remain gender-segregated, though several co-ed institutions have been recently introduced (and Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh is the largest women’s university in the world). All offer a traditional Bachelor’s degree with the option of further study to obtain a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. These universities follow the general global university program of study. Non-university education is offered in a variety of technical institutes, which most often grant certificates or licenses for specified careers. Teacher training, while completed separately from regular university education, requires only a traditional Bachelor’s degree. The ministry of Higher Education wants to shift focus from social sciences and humanities to increasing the quality and quantity of job training fields such as engineering, hard sciences and vocational training. The aim of this change is to address the lack of diversity in the economy which is dominated by oil, as well hire more natives in public sectors instead of private sectors which are controlled by foreigners.
3 - 5 years old (optional)
6 - 12 years old
12 - 15 years old
General secondary school
15 - 18 years old
Religious secondary school
15 - 18 years old
Technical secondary school
15 - 18 years old
University Higher Education
Baccalaureus (Bachelor’s degree)
4 - 5 years
Darajat al Majisteer (Master’s degree)
B.A. + 1- 3 years (mostly 2)
M.A. + 3 years
B.A. + occasional M.A. or Ph.D.
Non-University Higher Education
Higher technical institutes
Higher technical institutes for financial and commercial services
Primary, secondary, and higher education
B.A. (4 years)
Saudi students studying abroad
Until the establishment of the KSA’s first university in 1957, students wishing to receive a degree in higher education had no choice but to complete their studies abroad. Now, however, with the rapidly increasing quantity and quality of local universities, the majority of students choose to remain in their home country. Saudi Arabian students studying abroad are almost exclusively university students, as anyone under the age of 18 is not permitted to leave the country unaccompanied. The male-to-female ratio of students studying abroad is roughly 3:1 since women (even those over the age of 18) are not permitted to leave the country unless accompanied by a male relative.
Popular destinations for international study include English-speaking countries (USA, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia), continental Europe, Asia, and some (but fewer) Arab countries. Of those, the top four choices are China, India, South Korea, and the USA. Students typically study at the B.A. level (60%), with 24% receiving their M.A. and only 5% going abroad to receive a Ph.D. The most common degree at the B.A. level is Business Studies, with Engineering as a close second. Health-related sciences and Informatics are also popular fields.
* Growing up as a third-culture kid in Saudi Arabia (autobiographical article on international student/expatriate life from the 1960s onward) http://www.theplaidzebra.com/third-culture-kids-explain-life-land-sand/
Impact on the home country/westernization
There is a wide debate in the KSA regarding the benefits and detriments of seeking higher education abroad. The preferred degrees gained in reputable international institutions result in Saudi citizens returning home with a much broader range of capabilities and qualifications. After 9/11, there was a significant decrease in the number of Saudi students studying in other countries, but the numbers have been gradually climbing and in recent years have seen a significant increase. With this growing number of internationally-educated citizens, the KSA has seen a boom in entrepreneurship.
Currently, the KSA’s economy is almost solely reliant on the expatriate workforce. Nearly all major industries are managed by foreign firms, and almost no physical labor in large companies such as construction, oil drilling, and petrochemical industries is carried out by Saudi workers. In fact, such firms often have laws restricting the employment opportunities of Saudi Arabians. Before the discovery of oil in the 1930s, the KSA mainly consisted of nomadic Bedouin tribes. At the moment, Saudi wealth and industry lacks the local infrastructure to exist without the presence of Western management.
However, with the rising percentage of internationally trained Saudi businessmen and engineers, native Saudi citizens are beginning to obtain the qualifications and experience necessary to take over jobs held by Western workers. As a result, the country is seeing Saudi start to gradually replace the expatriate labor force. This will promote Saudi to begin severing ties with Western companies, perhaps eventually allowing them to break away and establish themselves as an independent world economy.
A potential downside to students venturing abroad (from the Saudi perspective) is that the newest generation of workers is being exposed to Western lifestyles. Students who study abroad experience freedoms that the KSA lacks and come to question the beliefs with which they were raised. Older generations see this is as a serious issue and a potential threat to Islam when students venture to other countries where they are permitted to drink alcohol and engage in activities prohibited by Islamic law. The younger generation, as a result of this exposure, is leaving Saudi in greater numbers than ever before, preventing local development. There are also concerns regarding the harsh treatment and prejudices Saudis often face in the Western world, especially with currently increasing global tensions. However, this is generally seen as a less significant issue since many Saudis generally believe that exposure to other cultures will benefit both Saudis and the international community.