Education and change in Saudi Arabia

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 10.58.56 AMOn Tuesday, Atlantic Council hosted a panel discussion entitled Saudi Arabia’s Scholarship Program: Generating a “Tipping Point”?.  Panelists included Stefanie Hausheer Ali, Associate Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council, Dr. Rajika Bhandari, Deputy Vice President and Director of the Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact, Institute of International Education, Samar Alawami, American University graduate of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program and researcher at the King Salman Center for Innovative Government Anne Habiby, Director, King Salman Center for Innovative Government, and Ambassador James Smith former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.  Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Vice President, Atlantic Council, moderated. The panelists discussed the transformative impact of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program on Saudi society and put this program in the context of foreign exchange programs worldwide.

Ambassador Ricciardone opened the discussion by recounting his visit to Saudi Arabia in May.  People think of Saudi Arabia as backward and conservative.  He found young people with international exposure who wanted to effect change.  Ambassador Ricciardone attributed this to the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which has made it state policy to send Saudis abroad to study.  It is similar to the Fulbright Program, which promotes American interests by sending Americans abroad to see how others think.  He asked the question of whether, à la Malcolm Gladwell, Saudi Arabia is reaching a tipping point where returnees from the program will transform the country.

Ali explained that she started studying the King Abdullah Scholarship Program because she met a number of Saudis from the program while studying at GW.  King Abdullah met with George W. Bush in 2005 and made the case that more Saudis should study in the US.  Bush agreed, and the number of Saudis studying abroad has skyrocketed from 5,000 in 2005 to over 200,000 today.  In 2014, only China, India and South Korea sent more students to the US than Saudi Arabia.  Approximately 30% of participants in the King Abdullah Scholarship program are women.  The program is merit-based and doesn’t just include wealthy Saudis.  Approximately 11% of Saudi higher education students are educated abroad; the average time abroad is 5 years.  In the US, they do ESL for a year or two, then a degree program.  Over half come to the US, but Saudi students are studying in 23 countries.  The program costs $6 billion/year or 3% of Saudi Arabia’s budget.  Saudi students contributed $3 billion to the US economy in 2014 and help break down Americans’ stereotypes about Saudis. Such stereotypes may include:

Dr. Bhandari spoke about the rapidly expanding number of globally mobile students.  Most study abroad programs focus on graduate students, because they provide a greater multiplier effect for their host countries, but the Saudi program involves many undergrads too.  These programs often promote vertical mobility.  Governments launch such programs for several reasons:

1. Promoting national development.

2. Increasing human capacity in key areas.

3. Reforming organizations or entire sectors.

4. Improving linkages with other countries.

5. Creating opportunities for disadvantaged societal groups.

More needs to be done in these programs to:

1. Engage alumni.

2. Provide students with re-entry support.

3. Study the impact of these programs.

Habiby spoke about the King Salman Center for Innovative Government.  It is the first private, nonprofit, Saudi think tank focused on improving government performance.  It tries to connect national government, local government and economics.  There is a lot of research in Saudi Arabia, but the Center makes this research more accessible.  Habiby stated that Alawami’s first project was to map the Saudi government from the 1920s to the present.  They look at case studies of which Saudi institutions are working. The King Abdullah Scholarship Program is one of them.  

Alawami explained that she is a product of the King Abdullah Scholarship program and obtained a bachelor’s in International Studies from American University.  The program is transforming Saudi Arabia into a knowledge society and giving Saudis the opportunity to meet those from other backgrounds, increasing tolerance in a traditionally tribal society.  Saudi Arabia starts teaching English in 6th grade, so the program improves participants’ English skills.  Saudis also learn better problem-solving skills.  They come back with best-practice advice for the Saudi education system.  The program opens up areas of study unavailable in Saudi Arabia, such as International Studies, and women in the program can study Petroleum Engineering, which they can’t do at home.  Saudis do internships abroad, which are uncommon domestically and provide essential practice.  When the students return to Saudi Arabia, they transform existing organizations or create new ones.

Friedheim Quad and the School of International Service at American University, where Samar Alawami studied through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. PC: Eddie Grove
Friedheim Quad and the School of International Service at American University, where Samar Alawami studied through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. PC: Eddie Grove

Ambassador Smith explained that the exponential growth in Saudi students in the US wasn’t planned or foreseen.  When he began his term in 2009, he figured that the King Abdullah Scholarship Program had plateaued and envisioned a focus on business, healthcare, and domestic education. However, early in his term he realized that visa wait times were a major issue.  King Abdullah asked him to do what he could to make sure Saudi students succeeded.  Ambassador Smith ensured that students would be first in line for visas, and streamlined the system to reduce wait times for visa appointments from 6 months to under a month.  When the State Department switched to an online system, he streamlined the system further and the wait time was reduced to only a few days.  This sent a message that the US cared about Saudis.  Then in 2010, the US increased the number of Saudi students allowed in.  In the past 15 years, Saudi went from 8 universities to 32.  Many returnees from the King Abdullah Scholarship program become professors.

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