Saudi Arabia is the starkest mix of medieval and modern of any country in the world. It is ranked seventeenth in global competitiveness by the World Economic Forum and boasts world-class skyscrapers and infrastructure; but it is ruled by an aging and sclerotic absolute monarchy that kowtows to its deeply conservative religious establishment. Just last week, Saudi Arabia beheaded a man found guilty of “witchcraft and sorcery.” At least two people met a similarly grizzly end last year for sorcery. With one foot in the seventh century and one in the twenty-first, Saudi Arabia’s balancing act seems more improbable every year.
One factor that could tip the scales toward modernity is the King Abdullah Scholarship Program that has sent some 140,000 Saudi students to study abroad. Started in 2005, the scholarship program has so far cost the government more than 20 billion riyals ($5.3 billion); it covers all tuition plus living expenses. For women, who make up just over 20 percent of the scholarship recipients (and one-third of the recipients in the U.S.), the government grant also pays for a male escort (typically a husband, but sometimes a brother) who is required to travel with her. Fully half of the students are studying in the United States. That makes Saudi Arabia the third largest source of foreign students in the US, behind only China and India. Just to put that in perspective, Saudi Arabia’s population is about one-fiftieth of those Asian giants.
King Abdullah launched the scholarship program as a way of boosting the skills and capabilities of today’s large youth generation. Saudi Arabia has pursued for years an unsuccessful program of “Saudization”–replacing foreign workers with Saudi nationals to address its high unemployment rates. But for the most part, Saudis don’t want to do the menial tasks that foreigners do and are not qualified for the higher skilled jobs that go to expats. Despite Saudization efforts, the Saudi portion of the private sector workforce has actually declined in recent years and is now only about ten percent. The scholarship program was designed to address that problem. Students are steered into technical studies, with a focus on science, engineering, and medicine.
The Saudi government is also pursuing a range of educational reform efforts at home, including opening new Saudi universities and tackling the woeful state of public education. Indeed, close to a quarter of this year’s budget (168 billion riyals) is devoted to education and manpower training, a record amount for the Saudi Arabia. But educational reforms come up against deeply entrenched resistance in many countries, and Saudi Arabia is no exception. Religious conservatives have tried to hold on to curriculum and pedagogy and have resisted efforts to introduce more STEM learning (science, technology, engineering, and math) and English language. In February 2009, King Abdullah replaced the Minister of Education with his reform-minded son-in-law.
The beauty of the overseas scholarship program is its immediacy and independence from any messy business of domestic reforms that can take years, if not decades. It also throws a sizable portion of today’s 20-something generation into a vastly different culture. In fact, part of the rationale of the program is to make Saudi Arabia a more open society. Scholarship recipients are chosen not just from upper middle class elites who have been privately educated, but also from small towns and poorer regions of the country. Not surprisingly, conservatives have denounced the program and blame any signs of cultural change on the youth’s exposure to the West through overseas study. On blogs and on Twitter, critics have denounced the scholarships for every vice, including increased smoking and women discarding the niqab, the traditional face covering.
Perhaps partly in response to these criticisms, the Kingdom is now expanding the scholarship program to allow young people to attend local universities for their degrees. The Ministry of Education has launched a new five year program costing 4 billion riyals to provide 10,000 scholarships for study in Saudi Arabia. While this effort will help improve the skills of young people, it misses out on the biggest benefit of the overseas scholarships, which undoubtedly is the exposure to more modern, open, and tolerant societies.