Education, Women’s Empowerment and the Hard and Soft Aspects of Change: A Conversation with Isobel Coleman

Published: June 21, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

We often look to the very successful US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum that was held in Atlanta late last year for evidence to assess a variety of elements of the bilateral relationship and for measurements of change and reform in the Kingdom. The forum presentations and sideline discussions obviously reflect on the health of business ties and economic progress in Saudi Arabia. However, both the Atlanta forum and the one held a year earlier in Chicago also served as barometers for non-business developments in the Kingdom. For example the large representation of business women in the Saudi delegation was emblematic of their expanding role in the business community in the Kingdom, a development which tends to run against most American stereotypes. The progress women are making may have best been summed up by Ms. Samra Al-Kuwaiz, a distinguished business woman who as Partner and Member of the Board of Directors of Osool Capital, is regarded as among the most influential women in the world of finance in the Middle East:

“The women of today – we’re seeing a different kind of woman – the Saudi women of today are armed with proper education. They’re taking their financial destinies in their own hands.. ..We see the future in a very optimistic way. We have a new breed of Saudi women.. ..the number of educated women in Saudi Arabia surpasses the number of educated men. Let’s not forget that this new breed has been brought up in a less restricted society than their mothers. They will ask for further reform in the system.. ..There is change coming, but this change has to be balanced with these traditions and cultures. We cannot change that, and we should not change that. We should not disturb the balance that is there. But change will come.”

How can we better understand the pace of these changes?  You may recall the very insightful blog posting by Dr. Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative, The Council on Foreign Relations, that was shared by SUSRIS last month. She reported on her recent trip to Saudi Arabia, specifically her experience at the commencement ceremony of Effat University in Jeddah. [“Effat University on the Forefront of Change in Saudi Arabia“] We asked Dr. Coleman, a regular visitor to the Kingdom, to expand on her experiences in Saudi Arabia on this visit and compare the developments in education and empowerment of women over course of her first hand experiences in the Kingdom. In addition to this SUSRIS exclusive interview we are pleased to share, in a separate item, the remarks she prepared as commencement speaker, for delivery to the class of 2012 at Effat University.


Education, Women’s Empowerment and the Hard and Soft Aspects of Change: A Conversation with Isobel Coleman

[SUSRIS] Thank you for taking time to talk with us about your recent visit to Saudi Arabia. I enjoyed reading about your experience at Effat University in Jeddah on your blog, and we’ll certainly talk about that. But first, can we start with an overview of the trip? What was the purpose of your visit?

[Dr. Isobel Coleman] This was my first trip to Saudi Arabia in about two years. I have been seven or eight times. The timing of this trip was around the Effat University graduation ceremony, at which I was very honored to be the commencement speaker. But I also used it as an opportunity to reconnect with friends and to spend time both in Jeddah and Riyadh. I am working on a new book about educational reform in the Middle East and so I was talking with people on that subject.

[SUSRIS] Two years is not a long gap to notice changes, but things in Saudi Arabia seem to be moving quickly. Did you notice anything different on this trip compared to 2010?

[Coleman] The most striking thing is the amount of construction that’s going on. In Jeddah there are many new hotels going up along the Corniche. In Riyadh there’s the financial center being built.

When I was driving in from the airport two years ago the landscape around the site of the new women’s university, Princess Nora, in the distance, was the largest field of cranes I have ever seen in my life. It looked like every crane from the Middle East had been brought to Riyadh to build that university. Now, of course, a lot of the construction there has been completed. But just the amount of building going on around Saudi Arabia has really been remarkable.

Other than the construction everywhere, I can’t say I noticed profound changes in just two years. However, over the years since my first visit in 2004 I have seen a lot of change. The most obvious being the changing role of women in the country.

When I first went to Effat — it was Effat College then, now it’s Effat University — the girls had some male professors but they were seen in the classroom through a videoconference system. They could not be in the same classroom with the girls. When I returned to Effat a few years later about half the female students were in the classroom with the male teacher and the other half participated by videoconference. The Effat administrators explained to me that this is what the girls wanted and their families agreed. It reflected the evolution of how things were changing. Then I visited a few years after that and all the girls were in the classroom with the teacher. I commented on the earlier use of videoconferences in the classroom and the girls said, “Really? How long ago was that?” It made me feel like I was somehow ancient. This change was in a matter of a couple of years. They really were surprised to know that even just a few years earlier it had been the norm to videoconference and not be in the same classroom with male teachers — about a third of the faculty is men.

It was exciting to be at Effat this year for the graduation and to see all of the girls I have gotten to know up on stage. I wrote in my blog about the number of young women graduating with engineering degrees, which is heartening from my perspective and so important for the future economy of the country. They also graduated their first two master’s degree students – two young men who earned degrees in Islamic finance in conjunction with Erasmus University. So you really see a lot of innovation in terms of curriculum and the partnerships at Effat. That is some of the evidence of change. It is striking and for me I find it very rewarding.

There have always been some very accomplished Saudi women in all fields, but now that’s less the exception. It is a terrific development because, as I said in my commencement speech to the young girls, that is the new normal. These young women will have jobs and careers and be in the workplace. They have so many role models now. And I think that’s a wonderfully important and normal development.

[SUSRIS] In an earlier assessment of education in Saudi Arabia you co-wrote in an op-ed with Rachel Bronson, author of “Thicker Than Oil,” a book about US-Saudi relations, that the “Saudi system was the problem.” You added that there was “widespread acknowledgement that the system is failing to produce productive members of society.” That was 2005. What’s your assessment now?

[Coleman] There has been a significant investment in education, which is great. In the last eight or nine years the number of Saudi Universities has more than quadrupled from about seven to over 30. Some of that increase has been through splitting up existing, very large universities, like King Abdul Aziz University, into more manageable sizes. Now they are able to provide their own focus and their own faculty and everything else. I believe it is a drive toward higher quality, which is of upmost importance.

Of course there are others that are brand new universities. KAUST, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, opened in 2009. And there is Princess Nora University, which opened last year. It pulls together different campuses that were women’s junior colleges, and I believe there were even some technical schools, into this phenomenal new campus and all of the resources that go along with it.

Of course the other huge investment has been in scholarships for young Saudis to study overseas. We’ve only seen a couple of years of that now but the numbers are quite impressive. Saudi Arabia has one of the largest groups of students from any country studying in the United States, one third of them are women. China is number one but given the population differences it is quite astounding from a percentage basis how many Saudis are studying overseas.

What will the impact of that be? Most of the overseas scholarship students will return to Saudi Arabia and participate in the modernizing of the economy. Some will be professors and teachers themselves and will help raise the quality level of education in the country.

[SUSRIS] That sounds very positive in the case of higher education. What about education overall?

[Coleman] It’s obvious that there have been a lot of resources poured into education and as I mentioned there are new universities that have been created, along with expanded opportunities for women students. But while there is a lot of money going into higher education, a positive step, I would argue that there has been a little bit of “putting the cart before the horse.” The most pressing needs are at the primary and secondary education levels and making sure the quality of education kids get at those levels is internationally competitive.

Saudi students score very poorly on international tests, and that is an indicator, not the only indicator, but it does point to the need for improvement in analytic skills. These include math, in particular, as well as reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.

There are efforts being made. There’s the whole set of “Tatweer” programs [King Abdullah Public Education Development Project] that identified educational reform as an important issue but it’s hard to accomplish, not only in Saudi Arabia, but in many countries. We’re struggling with those same challenges of how to improve education in the United States. You come up against barriers to change. For example, in the case of the United States you have to deal with the way things have been done including the role of teachers’ unions and a host of other interests. Similarly, you also have barriers to change in Saudi Arabia. They include some very deep-seated issues that are hard to address. When you’ve got a lot of money building a beautiful, architecturally stunning university is the easy part. Getting the right curriculum and pedagogy and the right human capital — the right teachers in place – that’s the hard part. I don’t know how much progress Saudi Arabia has made in that respect. I know there’s been a lot of talk about it but I don’t know how much progress they’ve made.

[SUSRIS] The economic benefits of reform are obvious. However, in 2010 the number of women in the Saudi workforce was less than 15 percent and the latest statistics show 78 percent of female degree holders are unemployed. The trend in education for women may be changing, but unemployment is still a problem area. What are your observations regarding the potential for employment of the newly educated female workforce in Saudi Arabia?

[Coleman] This is the crux of the issue. You can have a situation where some more conservative sections of society would say, “Okay, we give in. We’re going to allow women to go to school.” And that means all the way through university, or graduate and postgraduate work. That’s going to be allowed. But then to make it very difficult for women to work defeats the purpose.

Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country. It is blessed with enormous oil resources. The price of oil has been very high, and there’s not the economic urgency today in 2012 that there might be under different economic circumstances. But Saudi Arabia also has a rapidly growing population. It has one of the highest fertility rates of any country in the world. Its population has doubled in the last 20-25 years, and it’s on track to double again in the next 25 years. The resources that a state has are diluted for each citizen when you double the population. At some point economics is going to enter the picture. Here’s the math. Take a quarter of your GDP and invest it in education as Saudi Arabia has done, to its credit. Put half of that toward female education — in fact even more than half of the graduates today are women. Then if you’re not going to open up economic opportunities to women it’s going to be a double economic “whammy.”

There are people who are aware of the consequences. There are also some structural issues such as high unemployment among both men and women, although it is higher for women. Sometimes there is the sense that when a woman gets a job it takes a job away from a man. Actually we know from a lot of available economic data that it’s not really true. In fact men and women work in different professions. And women who start businesses create new jobs not only for themselves but also for new employees who often are men. So they’re also creating jobs for men.

There is a new focus on inculcating a spirit of entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia. I write about this in my book. The Saudi women I have met have a very strong entrepreneurial drive. That may come from the fact that the structural obstacles to their participation in the formal economy are really quite large so they recognize, that in many ways, they’re better off starting their own businesses. The entrepreneurship shown by women is something that should be nurtured and encouraged because at some point the country is going to have to take its female unemployment issues much more seriously.

[SUSRIS] The unemployment issue brings us to the subject of workforce composition – nationals and expats. Let’s talk about the effort to shift more reliance in the work force on Saudis, to nationalize the work force – the Nitaqat program. How does the workforce composition question fit in here for women?

[Coleman] There has been a similar effort for nationalization of workers in the UAE, the Emiratization of the workforce as is the case in Saudi Arabia. I know from time spent there this spring that the process of Emiratization could not have been as successful as it has been without relying on women. They have taken a lot of the jobs that the government wanted to be filled by Emirati citizens. You’ve seen women as part of work place nationalization occurring in the retail sector in Saudi Arabia. There have been efforts recently to introduce women workers in particular shops, notably lingerie stores earlier this year. There was also an attempt to have women working as supermarkets cashiers in 2010 but that effort was rolled back through a fatwa, a religious edict, prohibiting it for now.

If you looked at cashiers in the United States and most countries, you would probably find a lot of women do most of those jobs. I imagine that the efforts to keep doors closed, the tactics some in Saudi society have tried, have not worked completely and we know that. If reformers continue to push, which I think is being done in a sensible way, it has potential to succeed. At the end of the day, however, opening up more professions to women with the hope of actually working has to be taken into account.

We’re also talking about structural issues. There are other impediments. Not surprisingly it’s hard for women to get to work. In lower paying jobs, when there is the added burden of needing someone to drive them to work, it gets expensive. It’s hard to make the numbers work.

[SUSRIS] Lastly, how would you summarize your observations from traveling around Saudi Arabia?

[Coleman] Saudi Arabia is, on some levels, moving forward and quite rapidly in terms of infrastructure development, and a lot of the “hard” aspects of change. But it’s on the “soft” aspects, on the cultural-social issues, where things will be contested for a very long time.

[SUSRIS] Thank you, Doctor Coleman, for sharing your perspectives on these questions.


About Dr. Isobel Coleman

Dr. Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman is Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where she focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. She is the director of CFR’s Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative. She is also the director of the Council’s Women and Foreign Policy Program. Her areas of expertise include democratization, civil society and economic development, regional gender issues, educational reform, and microfinance. She is the author and co-author 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 Press, 2006). Her writings have also appeared in publications such asForeign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, and online venues such as the Huffington Post. She is a frequent speaker at academic, business, and policy conferences. In 2010, she served as a track leader for 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 DPhil and MPhil in international relations from Oxford University and a BA in public policy and East Asian studies from Princeton University. She serves on several non-profit boards, including Plan USA and Student Sponsor Partners.

For more information about Dr. Coleman and her work visit


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