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Saudi education reform making real strides

On July 17, the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Terrorism, Non-Proliferation and Trade Subcommittee held a hearing to assess the progress that Saudi Arabia is making toward revising its educational curriculum. The panel focused almost exclusively on school textbooks. However, to truly appreciate the progress that has been made toward reforming the Kingdom’s educational system, one must adopt a much broader view that evaluates the establishment of new institutions, the performance of students, the effectiveness of teachers and the revisions to the curriculum.

One would be hard pressed to find an official at an education ministry anywhere in the world — or educational institution for that matter — who could honestly proclaim that the education system in his or her country is operating at an optimum level and needs no improvement or reform of any sort. That, too, is the case in Saudi Arabia. While the entire system has been overhauled over the past decade or so, the reform process will continue for the foreseeable future.

It has become common for Saudi political leaders to proudly declare that their human capital is their “greatest asset.” Such pronouncements acknowledge the fact that over 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 30 and is better educated, with more access to information, than previous generations. At the same time, the quadrupling of the Saudi population since 1970 has meant that the Saudi government has had to continue to expand its capacity to provide public services.

Due to these demographic realities and the continued domination of the private sector by expatriates, the Saudi government has consistently dedicated the lion’s share of its annual budget to education. And although basic literacy rates have improved dramatically over the past four decades, there is a broad consensus in Saudi Arabia that the education system remains a work in progress.

The Saudi government has launched several education-reform efforts, the most ambitious of which is the $22 billion Strategic Education Reform Initiative. The various projects seek to transform the country’s educational institutions, in an effort to produce graduates who can meet the demands of the job market and perform the technical jobs currently performed mostly by non-Saudis. They also aim to introduce new teaching methods, with an emphasis on changing from the rote-learning methods used for years to ones that encourage critical thinking. Teacher training, early childhood education, and state-of-the-art new schools are all part of the plan.

Outside observers looking to assist the Kingdom with its effort to reform its educational institutions should employ positive reinforcement to commend the serious progress that has already been made and to encourage further progress.

Fahad Nazer

Education officials maintain that the aim of these reforms is to create “global citizens” who strive to improve the general human condition. There are at least three different, principal actors spearheading the effort to reform education, including the Ministry of Education, Tatweer (a government-owned company overseeing curriculum revisions), and the Public Evaluation Committee. Perhaps the crown jewel of efforts thus far is the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a coeducational graduate school near Jeddah that aims to be an educational institution of such renown as to be able to attract promising graduates students from all over the world.

Arguably, the most challenging aspect of the reform effort has been revising the educational curriculum itself — a process now near completion.

The revisions of the textbooks, while taking longer than had originally been anticipated, suggests that Education Ministry officials are making a sincere effort to inoculate Saudi youth against extremist thought. Officials overseeing education reform maintain that educational institutions have taken steps to socialize Saudi students so that they value engaging people from other cultures and followers of other religions in an open dialogue, imbued with a spirit of mutual respect.

A press conference I attended at the Ministry of Education in Riyadh last May was emblematic of the education reform underway. The minister of education organized the conference to announce the inauguration of a program that would send hundreds of Saudi teachers of both genders to the US and elsewhere, to learn new teaching methods in countries that are at the forefront of innovative education. Not only did the minister, Ahmad Al-Issa, speak candidly about the need to “improve the performance” of Saudi teachers, but the program is an acknowledgment that Saudi Arabia is a developing country that could — and should — learn from the experience and successes of more advanced countries. At the same time, education officials are making sure that any teachers that deviate from government-issued material — especially if the teacher espouses intolerant or extremist views —  will be held accountable.

Outside observers looking to assist Saudi Arabia with its effort to reform its educational institutions should employ positive reinforcement to commend the serious progress that has already been made and to encourage further progress.

• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.