King Abdullah’s Legacy: Championing Higher Education – Hausheer

Published: January 27, 2015

Editor’s Note:

The King Abdullah Scholarship Program has enabled hundreds of thousands of young Saudi Arabians to travel overseas for higher education opportunities and experiences. The majority of those students have chosen the United States as the destination for their undergraduate and graduate programs. Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith, while serving in Riyadh, addressed the importance of the program to KASP students in America and to the United States’ role in their education:

“I would like to salute Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah for his vision and stewardship of this forward-looking educational program.. ..We are honored that you have entrusted us with your most valuable assets: your sons and daughters. We feel honored, but also feel we are shouldering a weighty responsibility — a responsibility that we don’t take lightly. I thank you for your trust in the United States. My pledge to you is we will never betray this trust, and we will treat your children with the same care we do our own..

“..I sincerely hope you have had a rewarding experience in the US and that you got the quality education you came for and you deserve. But I also hope that you have made American friends, enjoyed your time here, that you have made the time to explore and ask questions. I hope you have been good ambassadors for your great country. We are all part of the exchange between our two nations. This exchange works because it is a two-way exchange. While you may be leaving our country this month, I know that you will always be the bridges and the bonds that will draw our countries together, and for that I can’t be more grateful.”

The success of the KASP in the United States has been a source of pride for Saudi Arabians and their American hosts, and SUSRIS has provided regular updates about the program through articles, interviews and special reports. You can find some of these among the links that follow.

Today we are pleased to bring you an essay by Stefanie Hausheer, of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who shared her insights and perspectives on higher education in Saudi Arabia, especially the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. Ms. Hausheer marked the passing of the monarch with a tribute to his pivotal role in advancing college education for Saudi youth and thereby improving their opportunities as well as the sustainability of American-Saudi relations. SUSRIS thanks Ms. Hausheer for sharing this essay with you here.


King Abdullah’s Legacy: Championing Higher Education in Saudi Arabia
Stefanie A. Hausheer

As the moment has arrived to mourn the passing of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, my own experience with Saudis leads me to believe that the king’s greatest legacy to his own people—and to Saudi-US relations—will prove to be his pioneering of higher education initiatives. In just the decade of his reign, the remarkable results from his namesake King Abdullah Scholarship Program and the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology have set the stage for accelerating social and political change in the notoriously conservative kingdom. This approach is certainly the best prophylaxis against extremism and violence in the name of religion.


People Dawn Kane Drexel KASP StudentsSaudi students in Dawn Kane’s English language class at Drexel University.

King Abdullah demonstrated his commitment to modernization through higher education early in his reign. He began the King Abdullah Scholarship Program in 2005, the same year he ascended to the throne. The program offers a full-tuition scholarship abroad, complete with a living stipend and healthcare. The program began modestly in the United States with approximately 6,000 participants, but has grown exponentially. More than 100,000 Saudis now study in the United States. Just as important, the program makes international education affordable and accessible to Saudi youth who might otherwise never leave the Kingdom. Many Saudis studying in the United States are from middle class families with four or more children and do not have the resources to pay for education abroad.

People Saudi Students 15-300x225 KASP

What is most innovative about the King Abdullah Scholarship Program is that it gives Saudis access to a radically different culture, education style, and world of ideas. Not every Saudi who studies abroad will grow to respect and appreciate the host country’s values and principles, but at the very least we can expect that more Saudis will have a nuanced understanding of Western culture and may even challenge some of the stereotypes and conspiracy theories peddled in the Middle East about the West.

The King Abdullah Scholarship Program gives Saudis and Americans the chance to meet each other and form friendships. It is not an exaggeration to say that this would not be possible otherwise, given the geographic, language, and cultural divides. King Abdullah, by envisioning the scholarship program and bringing it to fruition, gave the United States a real gift. I say this because my own life changed because of my friendships with Saudi students. They patiently helped me study and learn Arabic, they engaged in open and honest debates about women’s rights and religion, and they have humbled me with their generosity. My own case is one small example of this phenomenon, but I have seen anecdotal evidence of many other such cases. As Sameera al-Qahtani, a young Saudi studying in the United States, put it, “King Abdullah changed my life. Before, it was not easy to study abroad, especially for women. He insisted on what he believed and he made a big difference in education … He chose to invest in developing the minds of the youth.”

People Saudi Students 34-300x292 KASP

As for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), it is revolutionary in its own right for Saudi Arabia. Opened near Jeddah in 2009, it was the first co-ed university in the Kingdom. KAUST’s co-ed status is evidence that King Abdullah was more progressive than he was often given credit for. Rather than safely maintaining the status quo, he consistently championed pro-women moves, even if they were piecemeal and pitifully inadequate in the eyes of some. Several years after its inauguration, KAUST is changing the higher education map for the Kingdom while also helping Saudis cultivate vital international partnerships.

People Saudi Students 36-300x198 KASP

King Abdullah understood that education reform is one of the best ways to modernize a country and simultaneously partner with the international community to exchange ideas, work towards common goals, and combat counterproductive negative stereotypes. King Abdullah’s successor, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, inherits a legacy of tremendous reform in the higher education realm. I hope that King Salman will appreciate the links between education and positive change and likewise have the courage to go against the conservative tide and promote new programs that follow in the footsteps of King Abdullah’s visionary namesake scholarship program and university.

May God grant Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud mercy, and may he live on in the hearts of those whose lives he has transformed through education.

Originally published by the Atlantic Council on January 23, 2015.


About Stefanie Hausheer

People Stefanie-HausheerStefanie Hausheer is Assistant Director for Programs at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. In addition to coordinating Washington-based and regional events for the Center, she conducts research on Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Yemen. Before coming to the Council, she was a graduate research assistant at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies. Stefanie holds a master’s degree in Middle East Studies from The George Washington University. Her graduate capstone project examined the potential social, economic, and political impact(s) of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which has sent over 100,000 Saudis to study abroad. Stefanie has traveled throughout the Middle East and has advanced proficiency in Arabic. She speaks the Saudi dialect, which she learned while hosting and befriending a number of Saudi students over the years.


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