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Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

Saudi Arabia



Chemistry class, Al Mubarraz School, Eastern Province

Courtesy Aramco World


Recess at a girls's school

Courtesy Saudi Aramco

Education has been a primary goal of government in Najd since the late eighteenth century, when the Wahhabi movement encouraged the spread of Islamic education for all Muslim believers. Because the purpose of Islamic education was to ensure that the believer would understand God's laws and live his or her life in accordance with them, classes for reading and memorizing the Quran along with selections from the hadith were sponsored in towns and villages throughout the peninsula. At the most elementary level, education took place in the kuttab, a class of Quran recitation for children usually attached to a mosque, or as a private tutorial held in the home under the direction of a male or female professional Quran reader, which was usually the case for girls. In the late nineteenth century, nonreligious subjects were also taught under Ottoman rule in the Hijaz and Al Ahsa Province, where kuttab schools specializing in Quran memorization sometimes included arithmetic, foreign language, and Arabic reading in the curriculum. Because the purpose of basic religious learning was to know the contents of holy scripture, the ability to read Arabic text was not a priority, and illiteracy remained widespread in the peninsula. In 1970, in comparison to all countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the literacy rate of 15 percent for men and 2 percent for women in Saudi Arabia was lower only in Yemen and Afghanistan. For this reason, the steep rise in literacy rates--by 1990 the literacy rate for men had risen to 73 percent and that for women to 48 percent--must be seen as an achievement.

Students who wished to pursue their studies beyond the elementary level could attend an informal network of scholarly lectures (halaqat) offering instruction in Islamic jurisprudence, Arabic language, Quranic commentaries (tafsir), hadith, literature, rhetoric, and sometimes arithmetic and history. The most prestigious ulama in Arabia received specialized training at Al Azhar mosque in Cairo, or in Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, higher studies in religious scholarship were formalized in 1945 with the establishment of the At Taif School of Theology (Dar al Tawhid). In the early 1990s, there were two university-level institutions for religious studies, the Islamic University of Medina and the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.

Since the 1920s, a small number of private institutions has offered limited secular education for boys, but it was not until 1951 that an extensive program of publicly funded secondary schools was initiated. In 1957 the first university not dedicated to religious subjects, Riyadh University, subsequently renamed King Saud University, was established. The Ministry of Education, which administered public educational institutions for boys and men, was set up in 1954. Publicly funded education for girls began in 1960 under the inspiration of then Crown Prince Faisal and his wife Iffat.

Initially, opening schools for girls met with strong opposition in some parts of the kingdom, where nonreligious education was viewed as useless, if not actually dangerous, for girls. This attitude was reflected in the ratio of school-age boys to girls in primary school enrollments: in 1960, 22 percent of boys and 2 percent of girls were enrolled. Within a few years, however, public perceptions of the value of education for girls changed radically, and the general population became strongly supportive. In 1981 enrollments were 81 percent of boys and 43 percent of girls. In 1989 the number of girls enrolled in the public school system was close to the number of boys: almost 1.2 million girls out of a total of 2.6 million students, or 44 percent. School attendance was not compulsory for boys or girls (see table 2, Appendix.)

By 1989 Saudi Arabia had an education system with more than 14,000 education institutions, including seven universities and eleven teacher-training colleges, in addition to schools for vocational and technical training, special needs, and adult literacy. The system was expanding so rapidly that in 1988-89 alone, 950 new schools were opened to accommodate 400,000 new students. General education consisted of kindergarten, six years of primary school, and three years each of intermediate and secondary (high) school. All instruction, books, and health services to students were provided free by the government, which allocated nearly 20 percent of its expenditures, or US$36.3 billion, to human resources under the Fourth Development Plan, 1985-90. The Fifth Development Plan, 1990-95, proposed a total expenditure of about US$37.6 billion.

Administratively, two organizations oversaw most education institutions in the kingdom. The Ministry of Education supervised the education of boys, special education programs for the handicapped, adult education, and junior colleges for men. Girls' education was administered by the Directorate General of Girls' Education, an organization staffed by ulama, working in close cooperation with the Ministry of Education. The directorate general oversaw the general education of girls, kindergartens and nurseries for both boys and girls, and women's literacy programs, as well as colleges of education and junior colleges for girls. The Ministry of Higher Education was the authority overseeing the kingdom's colleges and universities.

Public education, at both the university and secondary-school level, has never been fully separated from its Islamic roots. The education policy of Saudi Arabia included among its objectives the promotion of the "belief in the One God, Islam as the way of life, and Muhammad as God's Messenger." At the elementary-school level, an average of nine periods a week was devoted to religious subjects and eight per week at the intermediate-school level. This concentration on religious subjects was substantial when compared with the time devoted to other subjects: nine periods for Arabic language and twelve for geography, history, mathematics, science, art, and physical education combined at the elementary level; six for Arabic language and nineteen for all other subjects at the intermediate level. At the secondary level, the required periods of religious study were reduced, although an option remained for a concentration in religious studies.

For women, the goal of education as stated in official policy was ideologically tied to religion: "the purpose of educating a girl is to bring her up in a proper Islamic way so as to perform her duty in life, be an ideal and successful housewife and a good mother, ready to do things which suit her nature such as teaching, nursing and medical treatment." The policy also recognized "women's right to obtain suitable education on equal footing with men in light of Islamic laws." In practice, educational options for girls at the precollege level were almost identical to those for boys. One exception was that, at all levels of precollege education, only boys took physical education, and only girls took home economics.

Inequalities of opportunity existed in higher education that stemmed from the religious and social imperative of gender segregation. Gender segregation was required at all levels of public education, but was also demanded in public areas and businesses by religiously conservative groups as well as by social convention. Because the social perception was that men would put the knowledge and skills acquired to productive use, fewer resources were dedicated to women's higher education than to men's. This constraint was a source of concern to economic planners and policy makers because training and hiring women would not only help solve the difficulties of indigenizing the work force, but would also help to satisfy the rising expectations of the thousands of women graduating from secondary schools, colleges, and universities.

The concern was compounded by the fact that women as a group have excelled academically over males in secondary schools, and the number of female graduates has outstripped the number of males, even though the number of girls entering school was considerably lower than the number of boys. The number of female secondary level graduates has increased more than tenfold, from 1,674 in 1975 to 18,211 in 1988. Calculated as a combination of the hours invested in those who drop out or repeat classes and those who graduate, it took an average of eighteen pupil years to produce a male graduate of general education, as opposed to fifteen pupil years to produce a female graduate. Under conditions existing in the early 1990s, the problem can only become more acute because the Fifth Development Plan projected 45,000 female secondary school graduates in 1995 and only 38,000 male graduates.

This increase in women graduates has not been met by a commensurate increase in higher education opportunities. Despite substantial expansion of college and university programs for women, they remained insufficient to serve the graduates who sought admission. The Fifth Development Plan cited higher education for women as a major issue to be addressed, and Saudi press reports in 1992 indicated that there was discussion of creating a women's university.

A major objective for education in the Fourth Development Plan and the Fifth Development Plan has been to develop general education to deal with technological changes and rapid developments in social and economic fields, with the ultimate goal of replacing a portion of Saudi Arabia's huge foreign labor force (79 percent of the total in 1989) with indigenous workers. In the late 1980s, a high rate of student dropouts and secondary school failures precluded the realization of these goals. (In 1990 the ratios of the number of students at the primary, intermediate, and secondary levels to the total number of students stood at 69.6, 20.5, and 9.9 percent, respectively.) The dropout problem was far more acute with boys than with girls. One means of addressing the dropout problem was a program initiated in 1985 called "developed secondary education," designed to prepare students for university study as well as for practical participation in the work force. In this program, the student was allowed to select two-thirds of his or her study plan from courses that had practical applications or genuine appeal to the student's own interests and abilities. After completing a required general program consisting of courses in religion, mathematics, science, social studies, English, Arabic, and computers, students elected a course of study in one of three concentrations: Islamic studies and literature, administrative science and humanities, or the natural sciences.

Another goal in both the Fourth Development Plan and the Fifth Development Plan has been to indigenize the secondary teacher corps. At the end of the 1980s, about 40 percent were foreigners, mostly from other Arabic-speaking countries, and almost half of that percentage were Egyptian. In the early 1980s, there had been steep gains in the number of Saudis teaching at all levels, especially at the elementary level. This gain resulted from the increase during the 1970s of institutes for training teachers and the greater material incentives for careers in education, stipulated in a royal decree of 1982. Nonetheless, training schools for teachers had trouble attracting candidates, especially males; male enrollment declined slightly, whereas female enrollment nearly tripled. In 1984 there were about 12,000 women enrolled in the seven female colleges of education located in Riyadh, Jiddah, Mecca, Medina, Buraydah, Abha, and Tabuk. The challenge of attracting Saudis to the teaching profession was being met in the early 1990s by a plan to abolish the training institutes for secondary teachers and shift the enrollment to junior colleges. This move would allow graduates the opportunity to complete a university education for a bachelor's degree and thus draw more potential candidates to the teaching profession.

Government funding for higher education has been particularly munificent. Between 1983 and 1989, the number of university students increased from approximately 58,000 to about 113,000, a 95 percent increase. Equally dramatic was the increase in the number of women students at the university level: from 20,300 to 47,000 during the same period, or a 132 percent increase. In 1989 the number of graduates from all of the kingdom's colleges and universities was almost the same for men and women: about 7,000 each.

The new campus of King Saud University in Riyadh, built in the early 1980s, was designed to accommodate 25,000 male students; the original university buildings in central Riyadh were converted into a campus for the women's branch of the university. King Saud University included colleges of administrative sciences, agriculture, arts, dentistry, education, engineering, medical sciences, medicine, pharmacy, and science. Of these, the only course of study that excluded women was engineering, on the premise that a profession in engineering would be impossible to pursue in the context of sex-segregation practices. In the early 1990s, the university offered postgraduate studies in sixty-one specializations, and doctorates in Arabic, geography, and history. In 1984 there were 479 graduate students, including 151 women.

The University of Petroleum and Minerals (King Fahd University) in Dhahran, founded in 1963, offered undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering and science, with most programs of study offered in English. Also in Dhahran was King Faisal University, founded in 1976, with colleges of agricultural sciences and foods, architecture, education, medicine, and veterinary medicine. In 1984 some 40 percent of its 2,600 students were women.

In progress in 1992 was the expansion of King Abd al Aziz University in Jiddah. Founded in 1968, the university in 1990 had about 15,000 undergraduate students, of whom about one-third were women. It consisted of nine colleges, including arts and sciences, environmental studies, marine sciences, medicine, and meteorology. The university's expansion plans, funded by an investment of US$2 billion, called for the addition of colleges of education, environmental design, pharmacy, and planning and technology. The completed expansion should accommodate 25,500 students, with a medical complex to include a hospital, a health services center, and a medical research facility.

The establishment and growth of faculties of arts and sciences, medicine, and technology have been accompanied by the growth in religious institutes of higher learning. The Islamic University of Medina, founded in 1961, had an international student body and faculty that specialized in Islamic sciences. In 1985 the university had 2,798 students including several hundred graduate students. The Islamic University also had a college preparatory program that specialized in teaching the Arabic language and religion; in 1985 there were 1,835 students, all but 279 of them foreign.

At least two of the universities founded for religious instruction have integrated secular subjects and practical training into their curriculum. The Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University, established in 1974, produced qualified Muslim scholars, teachers, judges, and preachers. The university specialized in such classical studies as Arabic language and Islamic jurisprudence. It also offered newer approaches to the study of Islam, with courses in state policy in Islam, Islamic sects, and Islamic culture and economics. In addition, practical subjects such as administration, information and mass media, library sciences, psychology, and social service were offered. In 1986 enrollment numbered 12,000 students with an additional 1,000 in graduate programs. More than 1,500 of these students were women. Umm al Qura University, originally a college of sharia with an institute to teach Arabic to non-Arabs, had grown to include colleges of agricultural sciences, applied sciences, engineering, and social sciences. Of its 7,500 undergraduate students in 1984, 51 percent, or 3,800, were women.

The expansion of the university system in Saudi Arabia has enabled the kingdom to limit financial support for study abroad. Such restrictions had long been the desire of some conservatives, who feared the negative influences on Saudi youth from studying abroad. Since the mid- to late 1980s, the number of Saudi students going abroad to study has dropped sharply. In the 1991-92 school year, only 5,000 students were reported studying abroad; there were slightly more than 4,000 the previous year, with half of those studying in the United States. These figures contrasted with the approximately 10,000 students studying abroad in 1984. As in the past, students going abroad to study received substantial financial assistance. Students selected to receive government funding to study abroad in 1992 received allowances for tuition, lodging, board, and transportation; those intending to study science or technology received an additional stipend. A male student also was encouraged through financial incentives to marry before leaving Saudi Arabia and to take his wife and children with him. The incentives, including an offer of tuition payment that allowed the wife to pursue a course of study as well, addressed concerns about moral temptations and cultural confusions that might arise from living alone abroad. As an additional buffer against such potential problems, an orientation program in Islamic and foreign cultures was offered at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University for students about to go abroad.

Women going abroad to study were a particular concern for the ulama in the Department of Religious Research, Missionary Activities, and Guidance. In 1982 government scholarships for women to study abroad were sharply curtailed. Enforcement of the mahram rule, whereby women were not allowed to travel without their closest male relative as a chaperon, discouraged prospective students from studying abroad. In 1990 there were almost three times as many men studying abroad on government scholarships as there were women, whereas in 1984 more than half were women.


Royal Technical Institute, Riyadh

Courtesy Aramco and Its World

The expansion of formal religious education programs in a technologically modernizing society has created some economic dislocations and some degree of social polarization between those equipped primarily with a religious education and those prepared to work in the modern economic sector. Opportunities for government employment in religious affairs agencies and the judiciary have been shrinking as traditional areas of religious authority have given way to new demands of the modernizing and developing state. At the same time, unemployment was becoming a problem in the society at large. In the private sector, for example, where most of the employment growth was expected from 1990 to 1995, employment was projected to increase by 213,500, but at the same time the Saudi indigenous labor force was expected to increase by 433,900. Consequently, the growing number of graduates in religious studies--in 1985, 2,733 students in the Islamic University of Medina and more than 8,000 in Muhammad ibn Saud University in Riyadh--was a potential source of disaffection from the state and its modernizing agenda.

Data as of December 1992

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Saudi Arabia Table of Contents