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Education in Saudi Arabia

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Education in Saudi Arabia

When Saudi Arabia formally became a nation in 1932, education was largely limited to instruction for a select few in Islamic schools. Today, public education—from primary education through college—is open to every Saudi citizen.


  • Background 1
  • Education management system 2
  • Pre-primary education 3
  • Primary education 4
  • Intermediate and secondary education 5
  • Girls' and women's education 6
  • Private education 7
  • Literacy 8
  • King Abdullah Project for General Education Development 9
  • Criticism of the Saudi education system and reform proposals 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • Notes 13
  • External links 14


Saudi education is noted for its religious content. As of 2011, religious studies average a total of nine periods a week at the elementary/primary school level, compared to an average about twelve periods a week total for math, science, geography, history, and physical education.[1] At the university level, nearly two-thirds of graduates earn degrees in Islamic subjects.[2]

However the education system has also been criticized for "poorly trained teachers, low retention rates, lack of rigorous standards, weak scientific and technical instruction", despite generous budgets, that have compelled the kingdom to depend on large numbers of expatriates workers to fill technical and administrative positions. [3][4][5]

Education management system

Map of Saudi Arabia

The education system in Saudi Arabia is primarily under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense 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. [6]

According to the World Bank database, public spending on education is 6.8 percent of GDP, and public spending on education as a percentage of government expenditure was 27.6 percent in 2004. Education spending as a percentage of overall spending tripled from 1970 to 2000, and neither economic growth nor the price of oil had much impact on this trend.[7]

The Ministry of Education developed The Ministry of Education Ten–Year Plan 1425–1435,[note 1] which set the following goals:[8]

  • The education of 4- to 6-year-old children and the consideration of kindergarten as an independent stage as compared with other educational stages in terms of its buildings and syllabi
  • Accommodation of all age categories from 6–18 years-old at various stages of education
  • Deepening the spirit of loyalty and pride of the country through intellectual awareness of Saudi Arabia's national issues
  • Preparing students academically and culturally at the local and international levels to be able to achieve advanced international posts in the fields of mathematics and science for various age categories, taking into account International tests' standards
  • Organization of girls' technical education
  • Development of an educational system for students with special needs
  • Development and growth of educational and administrative training for the Ministry's personnel
  • Improvement of internal and external sufficiency for the educational system
  • Development of syllabi based on Islamic values leading to the development of male and female students' personality and to their integration in society as well as to the achievement of scientific and thinking skills and life characteristics resulting in self-education and lifelong learning
  • To improve the quality of male and female teachers and to increase the citizens' rate in the education sector to achieve the full use of Saudi human resources
  • To develop the educational structure and to update the school map to meet the expected quantitative and qualitative changes in the next stage
  • To develop the infrastructure of information and communication technology and its employment in education and learning
  • To develop male and female adults' education and to eradicate illiteracy
  • The Ministry's comprehensive administrative development
  • Expansion of social participation in education
  • To establish integrated systems for accountability

Pre-primary education

In Saudi Arabia, children aged 3–5 years go to kindergarten. However, attendance of kindergartens is not a prerequisite for enrollment of first grade of primary education and kindergartens are not part of the official education ladder. Some private nurseries have been established with technical and financial aid from the government.[6] According to government data, 100,714 children (51,364 male and 49,350 female) are in pre-primary education in 2007.[9] The gross enrollment percentage was 10.8%, for boys 11.1 percent and for girls 10.4 percent.[6]

Primary education

Primary education in Saudi Arabia lasts six years, and children at the age of 6 enter the first grade of primary education. All national primary schools are day schools and are not co-educational. In order to move on to intermediate education, children must pass the examination at the end of Grade 6 of primary school and obtain the Elementary Education Certificate.[6]

According to government data, 2,442,482 students (1,255,117 male and 1,187,365 female) are in primary education in 2007 and the number of teachers totals 217,555 (107,227 male and 110,328 female) in 2007.[9] According to UNESCO, the gross enrollment ratio for boys is 99.9 percent, gross enrollment ratio for girls is 96.3 percent, and the total gross enrollment ratio is 98.1 percent in 2007.[6]

Intermediate and secondary education

Intermediate education in Saudi Arabia lasts three years.[6] According to government data, 1,144,548 students (609,300 male and 535,248 female) are in intermediate education in 2007 and the number of teachers totals 108,065 (54,034 male and 54,031 female) in 2007.[9] According to gross enrollment the total rate is 95.9 percent in 2007.[6]

Secondary education in Saudi Arabia lasts three years and this is the final stage of general education. After the intermediate education, students have the opportunity for both general and specialized secondary education. Technical secondary institute which provide technical and vocational education and training programs lasts three years in the fields of industry, commerce and agriculture.

According to government data, 1,013,074 students (541,849 male and 471,225 female) are in secondary education in 2007 and the number of teachers totals 87,823 (41,108 male and 46,715 female) in 2007.[9]

As of 2007, gross enrollment rates are 91.8% in secondary education [6]

Higher education in Saudi Arabia lasts four years in the field of humanities and social sciences and five to six years in the field of medicine, engineering and pharmacy. The establishment of the King Saud University in 1957 is a starting point of the modern higher education system in Saudi Arabia.[6] This was also the first university in all the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.[10]

There are 24 government universities in Saudi Arabia, established in a short span of time. Among them, Taibah University, Qassim University and Taif University were established under the Seventh Development Plan. The universities consists of colleges and departments that offer diplomas, and bachelor's, master's and PhD degrees in various scientific and humanities specializations. Some colleges and departments also provide distance learning. There also exist private colleges, community colleges affiliated to universities, and girls colleges, in addition to government agencies and institutions that provide specialist university-level education.[11]

According to a World Bank report, more than 70 percent of the students in Saudi Arabia are in the fields of humanities and social sciences, a figure similar to that of other Arab countries, like [7]

According to government data, a total of 636,245 (268,080 male and 368,165 female) students were enrolled in higher education in 2006. Among them, 528,146 students (187,489 male and 340,657 female) were in Bachelor programs, 9,768 students (5,551 male and 4,217 female) were in Master programs, and 2,410 students (1,293 male and 1,117 female) were in Ph.D. programs. Another 93,968 students (72,199 male and 21,769 female) were in Intermediate Diploma courses and 1,953 students (1,548 male and 405 female) were in Higher Diploma course.[9] According to the World Bank, in 2006 the gross enrollment ratio for females was 36.1 percent, the gross enrollment ratio for males was 24.7 percent, and the total gross enrollment ratio was 30.2 percent.[12]

In 2005, King Abdullah implemented a government scholarship program to send young Saudi nationals to Western universities for undergraduate and postgraduate studies. The program offers funds for tuition and living expenses for up to four years. An estimated 5,000 Saudi students received government scholarships to study abroad for the 2007/2008 academic year. Students mostly studied at universities in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, France, and Germany.

In the United Kingdom alone, more than 15,000 Saudi students, 25% of whom are women, attend universities. The large number of students also includes Saudis paying their own tuition. The large influx of Saudi students to the United Kingdom prompted the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education in 2010 to close access to the country for further study.

Girls' and women's education

In 1957, the Dar al-Hanan and Nassif private schools for girls opened in the city of Jeddah. The openings were prompted by Iffat, the wife of Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Afterwards the Saudi government began opening state-operated girls schools. Religious fundamentalists protested the openings of the schools. In 1963 King Faisal brought soldiers to control protesters when a girls' school opened in Buraydah. During Saudi Arabia's first oil boom many Saudi males who studied abroad brought foreign wives back to Saudi Arabia. This caused concern among Saudi fathers with daughters eligible for marriage.[13] In the late 1970s the Saudi government greatly increased university spots for women in order to make Saudi women more desirable as wives for educated Saudi men.[14]

The General Administration of Girls' Education (also called the General Presidency for Girls' Education) was established independently from the Ministry of Education when girls education was started in Saudi Arabia 1960. Girls education was put under the control of a separate administration controlled by conservative clerics[15] as "a compromise to calm public opposition to allowing (not requiring) girls to attend school".[16]

In 2002 a fire killed fifteen girl students at Makkah Intermediate School No. 31 and public outrage developed that "religious police" had interfered with rescue efforts of the fleeing students because the girl students were only wearing long skirts and long sleeve shirts and not the long black cloaks and head coverings that are obligatory public attire in Saudi Arabia. There also questions about fire safety and in the schools and the willingness of the General Administration of Girls' Education to provide information about it.[15] Following the fire girls' schools were put under the Ministry of Education which already controlled boys' schools.[17][18]

60% of university students in Saudi Arabia are Saudi females.[19] In Saudi Arabia, women in the labor force are mainly in the education sector.[20] The first group of women graduated from a law program in 2008. Women are not able to practice law, but the government has indicated that they are able to work in courts to assist female clients. This has still not happened.[21] According to the World Bank report, female students in higher education in Saudi Arabia out number those in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and West Bank and Gaza.[22]

According to the World Bank, gross enrollment rate for female is 36.1 percent, gross enrollment rate for male is 24.7 percent, and gross enrollment rate for total was 30.2 percent in 2006.[12] There are thousands of female professors throughout Saudi Arabia.[23]

Around 2009, an expert on girls' education became the first woman minister in Saudi Arabia. Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, a US-educated former teacher, was made deputy education minister in charge of a new department for female students.[24] In addition, Saudi Arabia provides female students with one of the world's largest scholarship programs. By this program, thousands of women have earned doctorates from Western universities.[23]

The building of colleges and universities for women, which was recently announced by the government, is critically important.[25] Women comprise 60% of Saudi Arabia's college students but only 21% of its labor force, much lower than in neighboring countries. 85% of employed Saudi women work in education, 6% in public health, and 95% in the public sector.[26] Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University (PNU) is the first women's university in Saudi Arabia and largest women-only university in the world,[26][27] composed of 32 campuses across the Riyadh region.[28]

Private education

In Saudi Arabia, private education is to be considered one of the elements supporting governmental education at all education levels. The General Department for Private Education at the Ministry of Education supervises private schools for boys and private schools for girls and government provides private schools with free textbooks and an annual financial aid. Government also appoints and pays for a qualified director in every private school.[6] According to UNESCO, in 2007, 48.9 percent of children enroll in pre-primary schools, 8.2 percent of children enroll in primary school. As for the intermediate education, 6.4 percent of students enrolled in general programs are in private schools and 70.3 percent of students enrolled in technical and vocational programs are in private schools. As for the secondary education, 13.4 percent of students enrolled in general programs are in private schools and 61.6 percent of students enrolled in technical and vocational programs are in private schools.[6] According to the World Bank, in 2004, 7.4 percent of students in tertiary education enrolled in private schools.[12]


According to the results of the demographic survey conducted by the Department of Statistics and Information, Ministry of Economy and Planning in 2007 the incidence of illiteracy among the Saudi population is 13.7%. The illiteracy rate stood at 1.4% for the age group 10 to 14 years, while the highest level in the age group between the ages of 65 and more than 509,573 people to the rate of 73.9%. With regard to the spread of illiteracy among Saudi Administrative Regions, as the study showed a large disparity between the regions of the Kingdom, while the figure for both sexes is at its lowest level in the Riyadh region, at 9.9%, the highest levelis found in the Jizan area at 23.5%, and the lowest rate of illiteracy among males is in Riyadh region, as the minimum rate of 5.1% and in Jizan higher rate of 14.8%, while the lowest rate of illiteracy of Saudi women is in the eastern region at 14.7% and the highest rate is in the region of Jizan at 31.6%.

According to the World Bank, there is gender disparity in literacy rate. In 2007, 85.0 percent of adult (people ages 15 and above) are literate and 98.1 percent of youth (people ages 15 – 24) are literate, 89.1 percent of male adults are literate and 79.4 percent of female adults are literate. As for youth literacy rate (people ages 15 – 24), 97.0 percent is literate, 98.1 percent of male youths are literate, and 95.9 percent of female youths are literate.[29] One of the World Bank reports suggested the relatively high adult literacy rate of Saudi Arabia, considering the continued low level of primary enrollment, derived from the successful use of religious organizations, particularly local mosques and local religious institutions such as Koranic schools for the provision of ancillary educational services, which is a trend of particular note in the MENA region.[30]

King Abdullah Project for General Education Development

The King Abdullah Project for General Education Development is a SR9 billion (US$2.4bn) project to be implemented over the next six years to create a skilled and work force for the future. A number of schools in Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam have been selected for the implementation of this project. More than 400,000 teachers will be trained for the new program. In addition, this project will emphasize on extracurricular activities for the purpose of developing intellectual, creative and communicative skills.[31]

Criticism of the Saudi education system and reform proposals

The Saudi education system has been criticised. One observation was, "The country needs educated young Saudis with marketable skills and a capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship. That's not generally what Saudi Arabia's educational system delivers, steeped as it is in rote learning and religious instruction."[32]

The study of Islam dominates the Saudi educational system. In particular, the memorization by rote of large parts of the Qu'ran, its interpretation and understanding (Tafsir) and the application of Islamic tradition to everyday life is at the core of the curriculum. Religion taught in this manner is also a compulsory subject for all university students.[33] Saudi youth "generally lacks the education and technical skills the private sector needs".[34] Indeed, such control has stifled critical thought, and as a result, the education system does not necessarily foster innovation and creativity; both of which are essential to development.

A further criticism of the religious focus of the Saudi education system is the nature of the Wahhabi-controlled curriculum. The Islamic aspect of the Saudi national curriculum is examined in a 2006 report by Freedom House which concluded that "the Saudi public school religious curriculum continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the 'unbeliever'.[35][36] The Islamic religion itself does not promote this.[37] The Saudi religious studies curriculum is taught outside the Kingdom in madrasah throughout the world. Critics have described the education system as 'medieval' and that its primary goal "is to maintain the rule of absolute monarchy by casting it as the ordained protector of the faith, and that Islam is at war with other faiths and cultures".[38] For example, an eighth grade text reads, "The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus."[39]

The consequence of this approach is considered by many, including perhaps the Saudi government itself, to have encouraged Islamist terrorism.[40] To tackle the twin problems of extremism and the inadequacy of the country's university education, the government is aiming to modernise the education system through the Tatweer reform program.[40] The Tatweer program is reported to have a budget of approximately US$2 billion and focuses on moving teaching away from the traditional Saudi methods of memorization and rote learning towards encouraging students to analyze and problem-solve as well as creating a more secular and vocationally based education system.[32][41]

See also


  • Mackey, Sandra. The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom. Updated Edition. Norton Paperback. W.W. Norton and Company, New York. 2002 (first edition: 1987). ISBN 0-393-32417-6 pbk.
  1. ^ House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 142. 
  2. ^ House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 111. 
  3. ^ Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. p. 128. 
  4. ^ Roy, Delwin A. (1992). "Saudi Arabia education: Development policy". Middle Eastern Studies. xxviii (3): 481, 485, 495. 
  5. ^ Abir, Mordechai (1986). "Modern Education and the evolution of Saudi Arabia education". National and International Politics in the Middle East: Essays in Honour of Elie Kedouirie. Routledge. pp. 481, 485, 495. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Saudi Arabia". World Data on Education (6th ed.). UNESCO IBE. 2006/2007. 
  7. ^ a b "The Road Not Travelled: Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa". World Bank 2008 Education Flagship Report. The World Bank. 2008. p. 105. 
  8. ^ "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Education". 2005. 
  9. ^ a b c d e "Achievement of the Development Plans Facts and Figures Twenty-Fifth Issue 1390-1429H 1970-2008G". Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Economics and Planning. 2008. Retrieved April 30, 2009. 
  10. ^ Bashshur, Munir (2004) Higher Education in the Arab States, Beirut: UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States. Saudi Arabia, 2004 
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b c World Bank 2008.Edstats database, 2008 
  13. ^ Mackey, p. 163.
  14. ^ Mackey, p. 163-164.
  15. ^ a b "Saudi Arabia: Religious Police Role in School Fire Criticized". Human Rights Watch. March 15, 2002. 
  16. ^ House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 152. Girls' schools, at their creation in the 1960s, had been put under the control of the General Presidency for Girls' Education, an autonomous government agency controlled by conservative clerics, as a compromise to calm public opposition to allowing (not requiring) girls to attend school. 
  17. ^ House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 152. 
  18. ^ Alshumrani, Saleh A. (2008) "Saudi Arabia" In Ina V.S. Mullis, Michael O. Martin, Joh F. Olson, Dbra R. Berger, Dana Milne, and Gabrielle M. Stanco ed., TIMSS 2007 Encyclopedia: A Guide to Mathematics and Science Education Around the World, Volume 2, Boston: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, 2008 
  19. ^ [1]
  20. ^ World Bank 2005
  21. ^ The World Bank (2009) The Status of Progress of Women in the Middle East and North Africa, Washington D.C, 2008 
  22. ^ "The Road Not Travelled: Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa". World Bank 2008 Education Flagship Report. The World Bank. 2008. p. 171. 
  23. ^ a b The World Bank (2007) The Status of Progress of Women in the Middle East and North Africa, Washington D.C, 2007 
  24. ^ "Borger, Julian (2009) "Saudi Arabia Appoints First Female Minister," The Guardian online". 17 February 2009. 
  25. ^ The World Bank (2009) The Status of Progress of Women in the Middle East and North Africa, Washington D.C, 2009 
  26. ^ a b Miller, D.E. (May 17, 2011) "Saudi Arabia opens world's largest women's university" Jerusalem Post
  27. ^ Jabaji, R. (October 31, 2008) "Saudi Arabia's First Women's University" PBS
  28. ^ "Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University" Saudi Ministry of Higher Education Portal
  29. ^ World Bank 2008.World Development Indicators/Edstats database, 2008 
  30. ^ "The Road Not Travelled: Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa". World Bank 2008 Education Flagship Report. The World Bank. 2008. p. 148. 
  31. ^ "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Education". 
  32. ^ a b 'Saudi Arabia's Education Reforms Emphasize Training for Jobs' The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 October 2010; retrieved 16 Jan. 2011
  33. ^ Education in Saudi Arabia World Education News and Reviews retrieved 16 January 2011
  34. ^ CIA World Factbook retrieved 16 Jan. 2011
  35. ^ Shea, Nona, et al. (2006). "Saudi Arabia's Curriculum of Intolerence". Center for Religious Freedom,  
  36. ^ Press Release: "Revised Saudi Government Textbooks Still Demonize Christians, Jews, Non-Wahhabi Muslims and". Freedom House. May 23, 2006. Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  37. ^ Qur'an translation, ayah 8-9
  38. ^ 'This medieval Saudi education system must be reformed', The Guardian, 26 November 2010, retrieved 16 January 2011
  39. ^ the saudis have some 'splaining to do| May 2006
  40. ^ a b Reforming Saudi Education Slate 7 Sept. 2009; retrieved 16 Jan. 2011
  41. ^ The Saudi Gazette retrieved 16 Jan 2011


  1. ^ This figure is based on the Islamic calendar, the Gregorian calendar equivalent is 2004–2014.

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies. [2]

External links

  • Open Democracy critique of Saudi education
  • Courses in Saudi Arabia
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