Education, the foundation of future socio-economic development, has benefited from continual private and public support in Saudi Arabia since the 1930s. The Kingdom is an attractive market for education services, as it represents the largest education base, the largest market for education services in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, and accounts for 75 percent of total students in the GCC general education (K-12) system.

For the past several years, strong government budgets have accompanied the development of general education to emphasize governmental support for continued growth of the education sector. The upward trend of budgetary allocations highlights the Saudi Government’s conviction that education is the cornerstone of sustained economic development, as it enhances human capital and knowledge, both essential ingredients for economic growth and social cohesion. Public spending for education is estimated at 5.7 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), comparable with the UK (5.3 percent), Germany (4.3 percent), and South Korea (4.2 percent).

The Education Policy Document, which was issued by the Saudi Council of Ministers in 1969, is the foundation for the Saudi educational system. There are several organizations that work together to oversee, regulate, and create and enforce laws pertaining to the education system in Saudi Arabia. These agencies include the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Higher Education, and the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation, formerly the General Organization for Technological and Vocational Training. The education system in Saudi Arabia can be divided into two broad categories – general education and higher education – with all public and private schools following the same general policies, curricula, and methods of instruction. General education includes 12 years of schooling, beginning with elementary school at age six, while higher education constitutes the training received at one of the various universities, colleges, or vocational training institutions. Over 90 percent of Saudi students are enrolled in public schools.

The Saudi Government has made a tremendous effort to enhance the country’s educational system over the past decade by introducing new education programs, research and development initiatives, and building numerous schools and universities. A number of education projects coincide with the development of the six economic cities that are being built across the country.

The private sector has become intensely involved in the development of knowledge-based industries in the Kingdom through participation in several initiatives, such as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), the education section of King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), and institutions in Prince Abdul Aziz bin Musaed Economic City (PABMEC) and Knowledge Economic City (KEC).

Since the 1960s, Saudi universities have been collaborating with U.S. academic institutions and companies. The main focus of these relationships has been on developing undergraduate programs in disciplines such as health care, information technology, and engineering; exchanging expertise and information; as well as conducting research and facilitating scholarships so students are able to complete post-graduate studies abroad.

In addition to academic and corporate alliances in the Kingdom, the Saudi Government is encouraging the young Saudi population to continue to take advantage of the U.S. education system by traveling abroad to study. Saudi Arabia is ranked first among Middle Eastern countries in the number of students studying in the U.S. and 12th globally. In 2007, the U.S. topped the list of 24 countries that received Saudi students who have been offered scholarships as part of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Foreign Scholarship Program.          (U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council 2009)1

Educational history and activity in Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932. It was poor country, and there was a small educational program comprising 12 schools with 700 students. This situation changed dramatically after 1938, when oil was discovered in huge amounts in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, by 1950 there were 365 schools educating 42,000 students (Simmons & Simmons, 1994). In 1954, the Ministry of Education was established. It includes all educational levels in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the education was offered to males only, and there were not schools offering education for female. In 1957, there was a need to open a university to educate Saudi students instead of sending them abroad for education, therefore, King Saud University was established and inaugurated in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. In 1959, King Saud discussed the issue of educating women in Saudi Arabia, and he sought support from religion’s scholars to start education for girls. In 1960, the first school for girls started in Riyadh (Al-Rawaf& Simmons, 1991). Thus, there were schools which separated boys and girls on all educational level until now. Elementary through secondary education in Saudi Arabia is free to all Saudis and non-Saudi students.On the other hand, higher education was exclusively for Saudi citizens, and the students were paid stipends for joining higher education. Even though students were paid to join schools and institute, the literacy level was low in Saudi Arabia, especially in the case of women. The estimated level of literacy in 2003 was 78.8%, were 84.7% males and 70.8 females (CIA, 2011).After King Saud University was established in 1957, there were other six universities which we reestablished in Saudi Arabia over the period of 20 years:

  • King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals was established in 1963
  • King Abdul-Aziz University was established in 1967
  • Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University was established in 1974
  • King Faisal University was established in 1975 (universities websites)

As the number of the universities increased to seven universities, it was necessary to establish the Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia. Higher education was under the Ministry of education. The purposes of this establishment were dealing exclusively with higher education and among the ministry’s responsibilities were:

  • 88 Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice vol. 11(4) 2011
  • Proposing the establishment of higher educational institutions and authorizing them to offer special programs in accordance with the country’s needs.
  • Creating and administering universities and colleges in the Kingdom.
  • Raising the level of communication and coordination between institutions of higher learning and coordinating with other governmental ministries and agencies in terms of their interests and need sin higher education.
  • Representing the government abroad in all educational and cultural affairs, through various cultural and educational offices distributed over 32 countries (Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to Washington DC, 2011).

The Ministry of Higher Education is a centralized authority responsible for directing university education in accordance with the adopted policy, supervising the development of university education in all sectors, coordinating among universities especially in the field of scientific departments and degrees, encouraging research, and formulating rules and regulations for compliance by all institutions of higher learning (SACM, 2011). Higher education in Saudi Arabia has undergone a tremendous growth over the past decade. The higher education system, which is based on diversification, has expanded to include:

  • 23 Government Universities
  • 18 Primary Teacher’s Colleges for men
  • 80 Primary Teacher’s Colleges for women
  • 37 Colleges and Institutes for health
  • 12 Technical Colleges
  • 33 Private Universities and Colleges

Despite the fact that private institutions started in the last decade, there is a good number of private institutions which provide higher education, and their number is increasing consistently.

(Ministry of Education)2


Saudi Arabia is a member in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and has the largest underground oil reservoir in the world. Hence, economic recession was not a problem for Saudi Arabia economy. In fact, the budget of the Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia has increased significantly as the price of the oil increased in the last couple of years. In 2005, Ministry of Higher Education established a program called “King Abdullah Scholarship Program” The program aims at fulfilling the shortage of Saudi faculty members, and requirements of work markets in Saudi Arabia. At this time, there are about 70,000 Saudi students over the world studying at baccalaureate, masters, and doctoral level in different disciplines. The majority of the sponsored students are in the United States of America, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada ( According to a report published at the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education website, Saudi Arabia is ranked by UNISCO as the forth country on the movement of the students around the world; Saudi Arabia ranked behind China (421,000 students), India (153,300 students), and South Korea (105,300 students), Saudi Arabia is, thus, ahead of Japan and the United states in student movement around the world. Furthermore, scholarships are now granted regardless of the gender of the student.

Saudi Arabia is also ranked by UNISCO the first in the world for the number of students studying abroad in proportion of the population, a total of 0.03%. In 2010, the Ministry of Higher Education started to sponsor Saudi students at private universities in Saudi Arabia, which gave the chance for those who cannot afford the tuition’s and fees of the local universities. It is clear there will be tremendous change in level of higher education in Saudi Arabia in the near future.Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice vol. 11(4) 2011 89The huge numbers of graduate students in different fields from different parts in the world and the current political situations in the Middle East will lay extra stress to officials on giving more freedom in higher education in Saudi Arabia, open the doors to “changes” which could overcome the obstacles and enhance the higher education system in Saudi Arabia.



Even though most of Saudi deans of schools have been educated internationally, bureaucracy is a major obstacle in higher education in Saudi Arabia. For instance, the system is centralized in the Ministry of Higher Education, and there is no clear venue for changes that move a milestone toward development (personal communication with faculty members at King Saud University). Furthermore, there is high percentage of expatriate faculty and there is no motivational system for them, in fact, there is discrimination in salaries and incentives. For instance, Saudi Arabian faculty members receive salaries higher than non-Saudi faculty. Saudi faculties receive incentives which are mostly not provided to their colleagues such as incentives for publications. Moreover, Non-Saudi faculties receive less incentive than their Saudi colleagues do and they encounter obstacles when they apply for promotions (personal communication with faculty members at King Saud University). Not all degrees are offered in Saudi Arabia, which increases the burden on the students who are willing to pursue a higher degree in their field. There are several specialties offered to men only which may interfere with social justice. However, this topic is beyond the purpose of this paper. On the other hand, there are some specialties offered to women only, for instance, until recently bachelor of the nursing was offered for women only. Moreover, higher education in Saudi Arabia is missing important elements, which depend on either hygiene or motivation factors in motivating the students through the learning process to achieve the objectives of the programs offered in Saudi Arabia. For instance, online education is not supported and it is included minimally in some universities. Lack of research funds is a major obstacle which prevents scholars from conducting research in Saudi Arabia. Hence, scientific conferences and scientific journals are limited or absent in most departments. Finally yet importantly, academic freedom is limited due to cultural and political reasons.(Ministry of Education)3


The scholars in Saudi Arabia should invest the positive attributes of higher education in Saudi Arabia to develop a system which would help them to contribute the art and science of different disciplines. For instance, there is job security in Saudi Arabia that allows scholars to strive for their rights and developments of higher education system.The Saudi higher education system cannot develop without a schema which focuses on research and provides funds of researchers to conduct their research. Therefore, research funds, scientific conferences,research days, journals, and professional organizations should be prioritized in the agenda of the scholar sin Saudi Arabia.

Faculty members should shift the education pedagogy from “faculty center” to “student center” to engage the students in the learning process. Moreover, it is important to use different teaching strategies that motive students and ensure achievement of the objectives.Disappointingly, there is inconsistency in the curriculum in some departments, for instance, if the dean graduated from Australia, he/she will insist to follow Australian system, but if the dean graduated from United Kingdom, he/she will insist to follow United Kingdom system, etc. Indeed, this problem waste time and resources in certain departments, and it affects the level and terminal objectives of the programs.(M Alamri 2011)4


Within the large numbers of Saudi students over the world, there is low percentage of nursing students; nurses need to address this issue and increase the percentage of nursing students locally and internationally, otherwise they will leave behind.Recently, the admission level of the nursing profession has been changed to baccalaureate, but the majority of nurses in Saudi Arabia hold associate or diploma in nursing. However, there are few programs which provide bridging programs or RN-BSN with a limited number of seats. It is crucial at this point for Saudi educators to increase the number of the programs that offers bridging programs and the number of the students they admit. Furthermore, there are two programs which allow nurses to pursue a master degree in nursing (King Saud University, and King Abdulaziz University), and there is no mastersprograms for men in Saudi Arabia. I think it is the time to focus on nursing graduate education level toincrease nursing professionalism and provide educators for the new generations of nursing students.Doctoral programs in Saudi Arabia are still the dreams of enthusiastic nurses, but I am positive nurseswill be there in future.(Al-Rawaf, H. & Simmons, C 1991)5

Internet users in saudi arabia million 2001- 2012

Global Mobility of soudi students 2004 to 05 vs 2011 to12


As much as the recent improvements are commendable, the country faces important challenges going forward. Education in Saudi Arabia does not meet the standards of countries at similar income levels. While some progress is visible in the assessment of the quality of education, improvements are taking place from a low level. As a result, the country continues to occupy low ranks in the health and primary education (74th) and higher education and training (51st). The youth consists of more than 70% of the country’s population and many of young Saudis are looking to entrepreneurship as a career path. According to the latest survey conducted by Gallup between July to October 2009, among the high-income group in the region, 78% of the Saudi youth believed that their local communities are good places for such entrepreneurs and 30% of young Saudis who are not already business owners say they are planning to start their own business in the next 12 months. Youth in Saudi Arabia are three times as likely to say they are planning to launch a business if they perceive the government makes paperwork and permits easy enough for aspiring entrepreneurs. If out of work for more than six months, 51% of youth indicate they would be willing to take a job beneath their skills or train in a new field or start their own business. Among youth who express entrepreneurship aspirations, 61% are employed. Saudi youth reported dissatisfaction with efforts to increase the number of quality jobs within the Kingdom. However, 93% of young Saudis say taking part in regular job training increases their chances of getting a job.(Gassan Al-Kibsi)6

Best Practices

Saudi Arabia has implemented reform in higher education by establishing the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in 2009, the world’s newest state-of-the-art graduate level research and entrepreneurial university. KAUST’s Industry Collaboration Program (KICP), Technology Transfer Office, and Research Park underscore the university’s mission to convert research discoveries into practical applications, to incubate new businesses, and to maximize industrial collaboration within Saudi Arabia as well as regionally, and globally. In 2009, the Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Leaders Preparation Center was established to prepare young Saudi girls to lead the future. Operating under the umbrella of the Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Fund,it opened to Saudi girls between the ages of six and 25. Two programs at the center target different age groups: the Promising Leaders Program is designed for girls ages six to 15, and the Young Leaders Program caters to girls ages 16 to 25. After a surge in prosperity over the past decade fueled by rising oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s economy is at an inflection point. We see a real opportunity for the country to inject new dynamism into its economy through a productivity- and investment-led transformation that could help ensure future growth, employment, and prosperity. We discuss how the country has significant opportunities to transform its economy to become more sustainable and less dependent on oil.

                                                                                                            (Gassan Al-Kibsi2015)7

Opportunities being explored by International educational institutions

International business schools eager for new markets are looking to Saudi Arabia, where a still-strong economy and a big government push to boost management skills have created a pool of potential M.B.A.s.Faculty and students at Effat University in Jeddah ENLARGE Faculty and students at Effat University in Jeddah EFFAT UNIVERSITY As nearby economies like Dubai’s sag, B-schools have begun eyeing the small but growing new niche in the desert kingdom, particularly given Saudi students’ taste for foreign education. A handful of international schools have launched programs in the country, and more are recruiting Saudi students to their existing campuses.

A closed, conservative culture and reams of government red tape make Saudi Arabia a daunting place to set up shop. But its leaders are pouring money into education in an effort to tackle high unemployment and train Saudis to run the big businesses that now often depend on expat talent. Anxious to broaden an economy heavily dependent on oil, King Abdullah and his officials are also investing billions in new industries, and overseas business schools may help provide the trained executives they expect to need

Saudi Arabia is spending an estimated $90 billion to build four new “economic cities,” foreigner-friendly business enclaves that it hopes will serve as hubs for new industries. Intended to be home to several big new universities, the cities are part of a $500 billion investment program that the government hopes will draw international money and create millions of new jobs for the country’s young population.

King Abdullah Economic City, the flagship, recently hosted a module of the Saudi Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Programme, run by the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. A customized offshoot of one of Saïd’s main executive-training programs, it brings senior managers from business, media, education and other sectors to Oxford for three weeks, then runs a final session in Saudi Arabia, says director LalitJohri. The program, which started last year, focuses on the challenges facing Saudi Arabia, covering issues from climate change and public-private partnerships to biotechnology and job creation.

Dr. Johri says.”It’s an important location, but I would think the only way in which the international business schools can contribute value in Saudi Arabia is by customizing programs and understanding their context and embedding the cases into the Saudi economy and the Saudi social fiber,” he says. “Any international school which tries to bring off-the-shelf products is likely to fail in that market.” LamyaAlAbdulkarim, a Riyadh speech pathologist focusing on the business of health care, was one of four women in the most recent class of 45 and says she had appreciated the openness the Said program offered. The chance to mix with Saudi men holding senior positions in government and the private sector would have been much harder to come by had she not enrolled, While much of Saudi life remains segregated by sex, some universities are beginning to offer co-ed classes as social liberalization inches forward. The number of Saudi students taking the GMAT business school entrance test annually nearly quadrupled between 2005 and 2009, to 1,200, and the government is offering scholarships to students who go overseas to earn M.B.A.s.

Given the bureaucratic barriers to operating in Saudi Arabia and wealthy families’ long tradition of sending their children overseas to study, it might make more sense for international schools to recruit Saudis to their own campuses rather than open programs in country, contends Matt Symonds, whose company Symonds GSB does consulting for business schools.

A number of big-name B-schools that opened campuses in nearby Dubai during the boom years are looking to still-strong Saudi Arabia as demand in the emirate diminishes. Some are holding information sessions in Riyadh or Jeddah, and a big jump in Saudi student numbers has helped keep Dubai classrooms full even after the emirate’s economic crisis prompted the departure of many of the expats who had been a big chunk of enrollees. Oxford’s Dr. Johri warns that Saudi students would not accept just any business-training program. “Saudi Arabia is not at the zero stage of management development–this is a highly mature market, and individuals and institutions know what they want,” he says. “They will not accept anything. They will go for the best.” (Ms. Gardiner 2012)8

The literacy rate in Saudi Arabia in 1970 was 15% for men and 2% for women. By 1990 it was 73% for men and 48% for women, and, in 2002 it reached 90.9% and 70.2%, respectively. According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook 2002, the literacy rate in 2002 was estimated at 84.2% for males and 69.5% for females and according to the latest facts it stands at 86.6% overall, with male literacy rate at 90.4% and female literacy rate at 81.3%.

The reason for the positive results in combating illiteracy can be attributed to government support and encouragement. Private education institutions and Qur’an schools proved successful in increasing the literacy rate. The very first syllabus to educate adults, especially in terms of reading, was laid down in 1956. Initially, the period of education was reduced to three years, and then after some experimentation, four years. After this four year timeframe, the student attended a follow-up programme after which a he or she was then eligible for a primary school certificate.

Around the mid 1950’s, Saudis quickly started to realize that education, and reading in particular, were absolutely vital for the future of their country. Today, they look on in pride at a well-educated and successful nation. Saudi business is booming, and the rate of attendance at schools has reached 98.7 percent. Meanwhile, rectification work is continuing on educating elderly people who may have missed out on previous reading programmes.


  1. S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council (2009) The Education Sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia The Education Sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [ONLINE] retrieved on 18 March, 2016 from:
  2. (2016). Ministry of Education website [ONLINE] retrieved on 18 March, 2016 from:
  3. (2016). Continue the march of the scholarship for the next five years. [ONLINE] retrieved on 18 March, 2016 from:
  4. M Alamri(2011). Higher Education in Saudi Arabia. [ONLINE] retrieved on 18 March, 2016
  5. Al-Rawaf, H. & Simmons, C. (1991). The education of women in Saudi Arabia. mparative Education, 77, 187-295.
  6. Gassan Al-Kibsi (2015). McKinsey Global Institute report-Saudi Arabia beyond oil: The investment and productivity transformation)
  8. Gardiner (2012) Seeking Saudis. The Wall Street Journal June 17, 2010[ONLINE] Retrieved on 18 March 20, 2016 from:

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