The book is the first comprehensive study in English on the education system in Saudi Arabia, placing the reforms and changes it has undergone in the past two decades in the context of the historical evolution of the education system and the socio-political evolution of the kingdom.
By Md. Muddassir Quamar,
Saudi Arabia’s education system has attracted international scrutiny since 9/11 for fomenting radicalism and extremism in the Middle East. Some of the critics identified the excessive emphasis on religion behind the problem. Partly, in response to these criticisms, King Abdullah (reign 2005-15) began a process of reforming the education system. Under King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed, the reform process has been expanded and expedited.
Md. Muddassir Quamar, a researcher based in New Delhi who has spent several years studying the society and education system in Saudi Arabia has published a book on the changes and reforms the Saudi education system has undergone over the twenty-first century. The book is the first comprehensive study in English on the education system in Saudi Arabia, placing the reforms and changes it has undergone in the past two decades in the context of the historical evolution of the education system and the socio-political evolution of the kingdom. An excerpt from the book is being reproduced here …
Because of its centrality in the Arab and Islamic world, its importance in the global oil market, and its significance in Middle East geopolitics, Saudi Arabia remains under the international spotlight. The kingdom’s unique historical evolution and the religious revivalist movement that was the harbinger of the formation of the kingdom, the Islamic legitimacy claimed by the Al-Saud monarchy, and the rapid modernization the society and economy underwent bring extraordinary focus on the Saudi society, politics, culture, and economy. Besides the reportage and coverage of internal developments in the international media, various issues pertaining to the kingdom are discussed and debated regularly in academia. Despite the abiding interest in the internal affairs of the kingdom, seldom does one find the opinion emanating from a deeper and nuanced understanding of the society and its people. Barring a few notable exceptions, a majority of academic refrains are shaped by superficial understandings based on widely held prejudices and presumptions based on research carried out with an “orientalist” prism.
Within Saudi Arabia, the reactions to such international scrutiny and criticism have been varied. But predominantly, the domestic discourse tends to paint it in the binaries of West vs. Islam or Saudi vs. the world. Nonetheless, some have gone deeper into specific issues to research, explain, and reflect and this has led to greater debate and discussions on various socioeconomic issues in the Saudi public sphere including in the virtual space. Globally, some new research has tried to shed the prejudiced lens to develop new and innovative ways to research and understand the finer nuances of the society and culture in the kingdom without necessarily overlooking the problems facing it.
Among the issues that have attracted widespread domestic and international attention, especially in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, is Saudi Arabia’s education system. One of the key incidents that prompted the heightened scrutiny of the education system was the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States. The idea that the education system was entrenched in radical teaching gained ground and put increased pressure on the monarchy to bring about reforms. The issues have since remained under the international spotlight. Some studies conducted subsequently have noted the objectionable aspects in the school curriculum, textbooks, and pedagogy. They also held the education system partly responsible for the home-grown radicalism. It was noted that some of the references to Jews, Christians, Shias, Sufis, and atheists were highly objectionable. As the world debated the issue, the monarchy acknowledged the problem and began a process of reforming the education system through extensive programs focused on various aspects of the school and university systems.
The education system of Saudi Arabia has come a long way from what it was in the early days of the establishment of the kingdom. Through the process of reform and changes informed by the aspirations of the changing society, catalyzed by the reform measures taken by the monarchy, and facilitated through the oil wealth, in 2020, the Saudi education system has changed beyond recognition not only from the early years of the kingdom but also from what it was toward the end of the twentieth century. Saudi Arabia now houses some of the best universities in the Middle East offering advanced courses in science and technology fields and producing cutting-edge research in some of these fields. It also has one of the most elaborate networks of public schools that offer universal primary education and education up to higher secondary to nearly 95 percent of the children. The reform process has also addressed some of the inherent and inbuilt weaknesses in the system, including the heavy dose of religious curriculum, gender discrimination, as well as poor quality of education in terms of the needs of the market for trained and skilled manpower. A varying degree of successes have been achieved toward different goals.
The school education has witnessed a significant transformation through a comprehensive change in the curriculum, introduction of new textbooks, improvement in the classroom environment, and teachers’ training programs that have made it more inclusive and tolerant toward others. To a certain degree, hate-filled references to ‘others’ have been removed from textbooks. The teachers’ training program has been initiated with the aim of making the learning process effective and improving the quality of schools. Programs such as Tatweer, Comprehensive Assessment, and monitoring of schools have achieved a varying degree of success. Higher education has become more accessible to the population and more youths can enroll in vocational training and undergraduate and graduate courses of their choice. The number of universities, colleges, and vocational training institutions has increased significantly. Steps have been taken to improve the quality of higher education and human resource to be able to effectively implement the labor market nationalization program. A greater number of Saudi students have gone abroad to enroll in higher education courses and a majority of them have availed government scholarships.
Reforms in the higher education system have made it accessible and at the same time improved the quality of the programs offered. The higher education aims to synchronize the economic requirement for diversification beyond the oil industry and the growing aspiring young population to help develop a knowledge economy and a knowledge-based society. Resultantly, steps have been taken to reduce unemployment and develop skill-based courses. New universities have been opened, old universities are being expanded, and more vocational colleges are being established to cater to the needs of the population. Budget allocation for education and human resource has seen a consistent and considerable increase. Efforts are ongoing to improve the quality of science education in which the kingdom had a poor record. But with increased investments and consistent efforts, some movement has been noticed in this regard. However, given that the kingdom aspires to be recognized as a regional hub for education and knowledge, it is still in the early stages of evolution.
(The author is Fellow at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. This is an excerpt of his book Education System in Saudi Arabia: Of Change and Reforms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India or of Financial Express Online.)