Effat University on the Forefront of Change in Saudi Arabia – Coleman

Published: May 17, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

In December SUSRIS talked with distinguished Saudi businessman Engineer Khaled Al-Seif on the sidelines of the landmark US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum. We asked him about developments in the world of trade, finance and US-Saudi business relations but he first wanted to talk about the advancement of reforms in the Kingdom especially in the area of women’s empowerment. Al-Seif noted the unveiling of Princess Nora University, a world class women’s institution that will accommodate up to 70,000 students, but he also talked about the benefits to Saudi society from the availability of higher education for Saudi women throughout the country.

“All of these advancements are major steps in Saudi society because they also affect the prosperity of the country. Business people are very aware of these changes, have been tracking them. It is encouraging that Saudi women are studying very advanced sciences and very advanced technical subjects in addition to a host of other specialties that will be extremely helpful to boost the economy. More opportunities open for women translates into more purchasing power for the household and more effect on the economy as a whole. The economic circle is widened as a result of women’s empowerment.”

According to the Ministry of Higher Education “more than 300 higher education colleges exist for women in the country alongside universities, and women represent more than 56.6% of the total number of Saudi university students and more than 20% of those benefit from the overseas scholarship program. The percentage is expected to increase in the coming years with the establishment of a number of new universities in major cities in the Kingdom.” The emphasis on opening opportunities for women in higher education comes from the top.  King Abdullah, shortly after ascending to the throne, answered a television interview question about women’s issues, “I believe strongly in the rights of women. My mother is a woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a woman.” He added that, “It will require a little bit of time,” and that people had to have some patience as a strongly traditional society evolved in accepting reforms. Addressing education of women King Abdullah has said:

“When we talk about the comprehensive development that“ our country is witnessing, we cannot ignore the role of Saudi women and their participation in this development. The productive role of women…has been a definite result of the great investment that the country has dedicated to the field of education for all of its citizens, men and women. As a result, Saudi women have been able to earn the highest educational credentials, which has enabled them to work diligently in different fields. Saudi women have proven their ability to handle responsibilities with great success, whether through their principal duty as mothers, or as professionals. We look forward to women acquiring a major role in a way that will promote the interests of this nation on the basis of Shari’ah.”

The foundations of education in Saudi Arabia were set within the last half-century with much credit going to Queen Effat, namesake of a women’s university in Jeddah. Last year at commencement U.S. Ambassador James Smith noted, “As of 1965 only five-percent of Saudi women were literate. It is the shadow of great visionaries like the late King Faisal and Queen Effat who started the first girls school in 1955 and it is under their patronage that girls today are a part of a magical transformation for the Kingdom.”

This year Dr. Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative, The Council on Foreign Relations, was at the Effat University commencement and shared her observations in the CFR blog “Democracy in Development.”  We are pleased to share that report with you today and also commend to your attention an op-ed from DallasNews.com in 2005 titled, “Saudi System is the Problem,” co-written by Coleman and Rachel Bronson, author of “Thicker Than Oil: The United States and Saudi Arabia, a History.”  [link below] They wrote that there were few issues more important to American national security than educational reform in Saudi Arabia.  We also look forward to presenting our exclusive conversation with Dr. Coleman about her recent visit to Saudi Arabia and assessment of these important issues.


Effat University on the Forefront of Change in Saudi Arabia
Isobel Coleman

At Effat University
Dr. Haifa Jamal al-Lail, the president of Effat, introduced a delegation from World Affairs Councils of America to a group of students. (File Photo: SUSRIS)

This past weekend, I had the honor of being the commencement speaker at Effat University, a private university for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was hardly the staid affair I expected. Colorful klieg lights lit the way of arriving parents and dignitaries; forget “Pomp and Circumstance”—the more than two hundred graduates and faculty paraded in to a pulsating techno beat, while stage fog swirled to dramatic effect. The array of high-heeled shoes under the graduates’ sky-blue abayas was breathtaking—everything from six inch high, hot-pink platform wedges, to cowboy boots, to the latest snakeskin and metallic Manolo Blahniks.

What really impressed me was the energy and passion of the graduates. The president of the student government in her speech exhorted her fellow graduates—in a chant of “yes, we can”—to change the world around them. Married at the age of twenty, she also thanked her husband for not “putting her in a cage” and allowing her to pursue her dreams. (She exuded such determination that I can guess he didn’t have much of an alternative.) The alumni speaker, who had been the valedictorian of the class of 2006, spoke of her sense of accomplishment in getting her master’s degree in England and building her career, but noted that she was most proud of passing her driver’s test in the U.K. That elicited particular cheers from the crowd. (Despite last year’s renewed effort to eliminate the driving ban, Saudi women are still not allowed to drive.)

Students involved in lab work at Effat University. (File Photo: SUSRIS)

I was also impressed to see Effat graduating a quarter of its students from its College of Engineering, which it established in partnership with Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering. When I first visited Effat seven years ago, it was still in the early stages of establishing engineering as a degree, a first for women in Saudi Arabia. In my book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, I describe the challenges that Effat faced in introducing engineering for women. As Dr. Haifa Jamal al-Lail, the president of Effat explained then, “Those in the business community said to us, ‘Why teach the girls engineering? We won’t hire them.’ Others who were more sympathetic to our goal said, ‘Why don’t you call it something else, so people aren’t so against it?’ But I like the word engineering – I’m not hiding anything!” Her gamble paid off, and today Effat’s engineering graduates are enrolled in top post-graduate programs around the world and are sought-after employees in the Kingdom.

Dr. Haifa Jamal al-Lail providing a tour of Effat to a visiting American delegation. (File Photo: SUSRIS)

Effat was founded in the late 1990s by Queen Effat, wife of King Faisal, who ruled Saudi Arabia from 1964 to 1975 and set the country on a path of modernization. One of King Faisal’s most important reforms was to initiate public schooling for girls, a move that religious conservatives vehemently opposed. They argued that it would start the country down a slippery slope from which there was no return. They were right. Today, Saudi female literacy is over 80 percent and close to 100 percent among younger generations. When this year’s graduates were born in the early 1990s, only 10 percent of Saudi women attended college. Women now make up the majority of college students in the Kingdom, and like the young women I met graduating from Effat, many of them are determined to play a significant role in pushing their country forward. As these young women take their roles in society, the Saudi government will have an increasingly difficult time denying them their rights.

Source: CFR.org (“Democracy in Development Blog”)

Photos by SUSRIS


Isobel Coleman

Dr. Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York, where she directs CFR’s civil society, markets, and democracy initiative and the women and foreign policy program. Her areas of expertise include democratization, civil society, economic development, regional gender issues, educational reform, and microfinance.

She is the author and coauthor of numerous publications, including Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East (Random House, 2010), Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President (Brookings Institution Press, 2008), and Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (Hoover Institution Press, 2006).

Dr. Coleman’s writings have also appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, USA Today, the Christian Science Monitor, and Forbes, and online venues such as TheAtlantic.com and CNN.com. She is a frequent speaker at academic, business, and policy conferences. In 2010, she served as the track leader for the Girls and Women Action Area at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Prior to joining the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Coleman was CEO of a healthcare services company and a partner with McKinsey & Co. in New York. A Marshall scholar, she holds a BA in public policy and East Asian studies from Princeton University and MPhil and DPhil degrees in international relations from Oxford University. She serves on several non-profit boards, including Plan USA and Student Sponsor Partners.


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