Discovering Business | Modernizing Saudi Education

Published: January 30, 2015

[The Saudi-British Relations Project, a companion web site of, is publishing articles from the series “Saudi Arabia – 2014/2015 – Discovering Business.” Many of those articles will be of great interest to SUSRIS readers as well and we are pleased to share them here with you.]


[Originally published on, January 27, 2015]

Editor’s Note:

The Saudi Arabia – 2014/2015 – Discovering Business handbook, which provides comprehensive and detailed reports, articles and reference material (see below for more on Discovering Business) on the business relationship between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia was recently released by Allurentis Ltd, in association with UK Trade and Investment and the Saudi Committee for International Trade. SBRIS is pleased to be able to share many of its insightful articles that provide extremely helpful and hard to find information with you here. Today we continue sharing Discovering Business articles with an overview of the Kingdom’s efforts to modernize education for Saudi Arabia.

We note that yesterday, among 30 royal decrees that introduced a massive restructuring of the Saudi government, was the announcement that the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education would merge. The list of ministers included Dr. Azzam bin Mohammed Al-Dakhil as the head of the newly combined ministry. [This “Discovering Business” article predated the government restructuring and did not account for the change in the ministers and the consolidation of the ministries.] We will follow this development in coming days to assess how that reorganization will impact Riyadh’s approach to this vital sector that has seen so much emphasis from the late King Abdullah.

See also the SBRIS Special Section “Discovering Business 2014-2015” for more articles in this series.

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education-pencilNeed for skilled workforce behind major investment in modernising Saudi Arabia’s education system

Huge investment in education is being made by the Saudi Arabian Government. It aims to equip its young population with the learning and skills needed to fulfil its Saudisation programme, increasing job opportunities for young Saudis and reducing the Kingdom’s reliance on foreign labour.

In its 2013 National Plan, spending on education was a key feature. At US$54.4 billion, it accounted for 25% of the year’s total budget, which is believed to be amongst the highest in the world. This figure represented a 21% rise over 2012, and was the highest increase since 2007.

The funds were earmarked for the building of 539 new schools as well as the completion of a further 1,900 new school projects, and refurbishment of 2,000 schools. In addition, 15 new colleges, facilities and campuses at newly opened universities are being built. The Saudi Electronic University received US$3.6 billion, an estimated US$1.1 billion was allocated to build three new college hospitals, while US$5.8 billion was allocated to the 120,000+ Saudi students studying abroad and their families.

On top of the already significant spending on education accounted for by the national budget, in May 2014, King Abdullah approved a Five Year Plan worth more than US$21.5 billion to overhaul the Kingdom’s education system. It includes the building of 1,500 nursery schools, the training of 25,000 teachers, and establishing educational centres and other related projects, according to the Education Minister, Prince Khaled Al-Faisal. [Ed. Note: The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education will merge and Dr. Azzam bin Mohammed Al-Dakhil was named as the head of the newly combined ministry as a result of a royal decree issued 30th Jan. 2015]

Prince Khaled said the King Abdullah project would bring about qualitative improvements in education, to benefit present and future generations. “It will improve the performance of teachers and the educational standard of children”, he said. The project’s scope includes provision of education through the private sector, linking schools with a broadband internet system, smart classrooms, computer systems for e-education needs, setting up specialised schools, construction of new buildings, renovation and maintenance of existing schools, and enhancing safety systems.

“The King has also agreed to set up an endowment to support public education”, the Prince said. “This would enable the Ministry to have an independent financial source to cover additional expenses, thus easing pressure on the national budget”.

Saudis have applauded the King’s initiative. “This is good news for all Saudis”, said Abdelelah Saaty, an Educationist and Rector of the College of Business in Rabigh.

Prince Khaled also said, King Abdullah has focused attention on this sector “Because he believes that education is the cornerstone of a nation’s development”. During King Abdullah’s reign, education has received the largest share from the State’s wealth. “King Abdullah has a vision and ambition which is far beyond the present standard of education in the country”, Saaty said in an interview with Arab News.

The Education Minister is a long serving bureaucrat, with more than 40 years’ experience working as Governor of the two most important regions of the Kingdom. His role now is to manage a Ministry that is the largest employer of Saudis after the Defence and Interior Ministries, with a total of more 500,000 teachers.

There are concerns with the curriculum over the predominance of religion and languages, rather than science and mathematics, and further issues over religion and humanities education and how the teaching of these subjects needs to reflect the Kingdom’s desire to be open towards the world.

Another equally important issue for the Minister is the quality of teaching. A report by the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution entitled: “Arab Youth: Do they suffer from a lack of educational foundations that would guarantee them a productive life?” noted that in Saudi Arabia many male students did not succeed in acquiring basic education after four years of primary school. Girls, however, fared better, with one third able to attain the basic requirements in education, representing the highest difference between boys and girls in the Arab world.

“Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University has become the first women’s university in Saudi Arabia and largest women only university in the world, comprising a total of 32 campuses.”

The percentage of boys and girls enrolled in Saudi schools is impressive, notes the report, with more than 95% in schooling, so the issue is one of quality not quantity. It shows that those who chose to work in education were often not the best students themselves, so presenting the Minister with the challenge of how to raise overall standards amongst the Kingdom’s teaching staff.

Saudi Arabia’s education system has nevertheless gone through an astonishing transformation. When the Kingdom was established in 1932, education was available to very few people, mostly the children of wealthy families living in the major cities. Today, the Kingdom can boast 25 public and 27 private universities, with more planned; some 30,000 schools; and a large number of colleges and other institutions. The system is open to all citizens, and provides students with free education, books and health services.

The first university, now known as King Saud University, was founded in Riyadh in 1957. In 1954, the Ministry of Education was established, followed by the Ministry of Higher Education in 1975. The first Government school for girls was built in 1964, and by the end of the 1990s, girls’ schools had been established in every part of the Kingdom. Today, female students make up over half of the more than six million students currently enrolled in Saudi schools and universities.

The education system in Saudi Arabia is primarily under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Higher Education and the General Organisation for Technical Education and Vocational Training. [Ed. Note: The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education will merge as a result of a royal decree issued 30th Jan. 2015] Other authorities such as the Ministry of Defence and Aviation, the Presidency of the National Guard, and the Ministry of the Interior provide their affiliates and children with education at all levels, consistent with Ministry of Education guidelines. The highest authority that supervises education in Saudi Arabia is the Supreme Committee for Educational Policy, established in 1963.

The four stages of formal education begin with primary schooling for six years from the age of six. All national primary schools are single sex day schools and in order to move on to intermediate education, children must pass the examination at the end of Grade 6 and obtain the Elementary Education Certificate.

Intermediate education lasts for three years, after which comes a further three years of secondary education. This offers students the opportunity for both general and specialised studies. Technical secondary institutes provide technical and vocational education and training programmes over three years, in the fields of Industry, Commerce and Agriculture.

Finally, higher education lasts four years in the field of Humanities and Social Science and five to six years in the field of Medicine, Pharmacy and Engineering. Following establishment of the King Saud University in 1957, as a starting point for the modern higher education, there are now 25 Government universities. Among them, Taibah, Al-Qassim and Ta’if universities which were established under the Seventh Development Plan from 2000 to 2005. They consist of colleges and departments that offer Diplomas and Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD degrees in various Scientific and Humanities specialisations.

One recent initiative has been the building of colleges and universities for women, who represent 60% of Saudi Arabia’s college students, but only 21% of its labour force. Education is a vitally important sector for women, with 85% of employed Saudi women working in this field. In the Riyadh area, Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University (PNU) has become the first women’s university in Saudi Arabia and largest women only university in the world, comprising a total of 32 campuses.

Through its heavy financial commitment to education, Saudi Arabia aims to achieve world class status for a number of its universities. However, raising standards across the primary and secondary tiers of education is not without its challenges. A recent report by Times Higher Education noted some basic structural and organisational problems, making it difficult for the academic profession to fulfil its potential.

Another issue concerns foreign academics, who comprise 42% of the total workforce in public universities. All are appointed on renewable term contracts, but none can aspire to tenured posts, like their Saudi colleagues, or even long term contracts. While many spend their careers in the Kingdom, they are unable to obtain Saudi citizenship. So whilst incentives for them to perform adequately are high, because they want to have their contracts renewed, there is little incentive for them to build institutional loyalty or to consistently perform at their top level.

For all the challenges it faces in modernising its infrastructure and reforming its curriculum, the Saudi education system is changing. A well educated population is a clear priority for the Government, with its vast financial commitment to this sector opening huge opportunites for British business.

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Saudi Arabia – Discovering Business 2014-2015 is the latest in a series of handbooks written and produced by Allurentis Ltd, which offer guidance and advice to businesses considering potential international opportunities.

discovering-businessThe Allurentis team works closely with international government departments, trade organisations and multinational corporations in order to ensure that its publications paint a topical and balanced picture and highlight opportunities for international companies, as well as addressing the practical, legal and cultural aspects of doing business in overseas markets. Publications in the Discovering Business series have covered a range of emerging markets in Europe, the Middle East and South East Asia and copies are available in PDF form at

If you are interested in being part of the next edition of Saudi Arabia – Discovering Business, either as an advertiser or a contributor to its editorial content, then the Allurentis team would be delighted to hear from you. Please contact Laura Curtis, Managing Director –

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[The Saudi-British Relations Project, a companion web site of, is publishing articles from the series “Saudi Arabia – 2014/2015 – Discovering Business.” Many of those articles will be of great interest to SUSRIS readers as well and we are pleased to share them here with you.]


[Originally published on, January 27, 2015]

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