How higher education bolstered women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia

Special With more female graduates came incremental improvements in the number of women entering top jobs and earning salaries on par with their male colleagues. (SPA)
With more female graduates came incremental improvements in the number of women entering top jobs and earning salaries on par with their male colleagues. (SPA)
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Updated 08 March 2022

How higher education bolstered women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia

With more female graduates came incremental improvements in the number of women entering top jobs and earning salaries on par with their male colleagues. (SPA)
  • Saudi women have forged ahead in all areas of academia, from administration and teaching to research
  • Doors have been opened wide to further female empowerment in key sectors of the modern Saudi economy

JEDDAH: The days of male dominance in Saudi academia are numbered if the growing number of women pursuing postgraduate study and working as lecturers and professors at educational institutions across the Kingdom is any guide.

By removing barriers to study and work, and addressing inequalities in academia, doors have been thrust open to further female empowerment in all sectors of the modern Saudi economy.

Educational reforms have passed through several stages over recent decades, including the introduction of government scholarships and Ministry of Education programs to encourage female students to study a range of in-demand and specialized subjects.

Although the first scholarship in the Kingdom’s history was introduced in 1935, when King Abdul Aziz sent three Saudi students to the UK, it was much later that Thoraya Obaid became the first Saudi woman to receive a government scholarship, graduating from Mills College in Oakland, California, in 1966.

Obaid went on to become one of 100 notable “Muslim Builders of World Civilization and Culture,” among many other remarkable achievements.

Many others soon followed in her footsteps. In 1980, the number of scholarships allowing young Saudis to study in the US grew rapidly. Of the 11,000 students granted scholarships during that period, a third of them were women.

With more female graduates came incremental improvements in the number of women entering top jobs and earning salaries on par with their male colleagues.

Further changes came after 2005 when King Abdullah announced a new program called the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Scholarship, designed to strengthen Saudi academic institutions and broaden their research and course offerings.

After King Salman came to the throne, the government’s scholarships program underwent further transformations to reflect the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform agenda, which sets out to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil to embrace high-tech, creative and other specialized industries.




Dr. Haya Zedan, former vice dean for graduate studies and scientific research at Saudi Electronic University in Riyadh. (Supplied)

These new scholarships have been designed to cover specific areas of study to allow young Saudis to participate in the Kingdom’s journey to become a global player in the modern, globalized economy. 

These changes also aim to link students’ qualifications with careers available in the Saudi job market, raising overall efficiency and developing managerial techniques.

Thanks to these schemes, Saudi women have forged ahead in all areas of academia, from administration and teaching to research.

According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics data, less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women. The Kingdom has been working to reduce the gender gap and make way for many women to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, breaking barriers and facing challenges head-on.

Dr. Malak Abed Althagafi, a pathology and molecular genetics professor, told Arab News that “academia is the natural place to go for most sub-specialty research and particularly in the Middle East because we lack industry funds. Beyond funds, academia also has other avenues for impact, such as by influencing government policy, the priorities in the files, mentoring and training students and juniors, and the culture of society at large toward research and innovation.” 

Althagafi received her medical degree from King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, in 2005, and specialized in clinical and anatomical pathology, neuropathology, and molecular genetics. She received four American board certifications in those specialties and worked at Georgetown University, University of California San Francisco, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard. 

According to Pathologist Magazine, her exceptional career path has made her one of the 100 most powerful personalities in pathology in the world in 2021.

When she was asked about the challenges faced by women studying genetics, she said that academia is a lengthy training process, competitive, needs proper funding, and requires a lot of dedicated time to publish work. All that is coupled with low financial incentives. 

“The road is never rosy but we are progressing in steady steps forward,” said Althaqafi.

“Many studies suggest significant gender differences in the total productivity and impact of academic careers across STEM fields. It’s hard to find a balance between social and work life, it’s hard to find female mentors. The problem of women feeling as though they don’t belong isn’t easy to fix. But if we can continue to make strides toward increased visibility of women in STEM. 

“We hope that trainees and faculty members alike will take active measures to push back against the trouble spots that continue to challenge women’s equality,” she added.

Dr. Haya Zedan, former vice dean for graduate studies and scientific research at Saudi Electronic University in Riyadh, was granted a scholarship during her studies, which allowed her to travel abroad, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology from University of Massachusetts Boston, and a master’s in public health and PhD in primary care from the University of Nottingham in the UK, before returning to the Kingdom to work in academia.

“I’ve always been scholarly-minded; reading, writing and teaching,” she told Arab News.

“My first job was at the then-newly established Arab Open University in 2003, and since then I’ve worked at several universities and colleges, such as Dar Al-Hekma University, Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University, the Saudi Electronic University, and Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University in Dubai,” she said.

For more than 15 years, Zedan has taught students online through e-learning platforms, which she believes are a superb tool that allow female students to attend lectures remotely.

“It is a special kind of joy to connect with students, sharing ideas and working through concepts, designing health interventions and research projects, and to witness how they grow and recognize their immense potential to be part of the sweeping changes in health care and society,” Zedan said.

The combination of scholarships, institutional growth and new technologies has revolutionized women’s education in Saudi Arabia, broadening horizons for millions of young people.

“We are always proud to see such successes. I am constantly amazed by the efforts women put forward in achieving targets and goals, both personal and professional, and the heart they put into everything they do, despite the challenges,” Zedan said.

“I also appreciate the power of mentorship from women who are more experienced for others who are just starting out, to support them in finding their footing and providing them with opportunities to shine too.

“We are also learning more from women’s power. It is a way to succeed and achieve goals as a collective, in line with the ambitions of Vision 2030.”


Saudi Arabia reports 132 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths

Saudi Arabia reports 132 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths
Updated 28 September 2022

Saudi Arabia reports 132 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths

Saudi Arabia reports 132 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia reported 132 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, according to the Ministry of Health. As a result, the total number of cases in the Kingdom over the course of the pandemic grew to 816,262.

The authorities also confirmed three new COVID-19-related deaths, raising the total number of fatalities to 9,350.

Of the new infections, 48 were recorded in Riyadh and 21 in Jeddah. Several other cities recorded fewer than 10 new cases each.

The ministry also announced that 100 patients had recovered from COVID-19, bringing the total number of recoveries in the Kingdom over the course of the pandemic to 803,452.

It said that 3,460 COVID-19 cases were still active, adding that 7,302 PCR tests were conducted in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number to more than 44.3 million.

The ministry said that of the current cases, 33 were in critical condition.

More than 68.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered since the Kingdom’s immunization campaign began, with over 25.4 million people fully vaccinated.


OIC, China sign health deal for some African member states 

OIC, China sign health deal for some African member states 
Updated 28 September 2022

OIC, China sign health deal for some African member states 

OIC, China sign health deal for some African member states 

JEDDAH: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation signed a health deal on Wednesday with China to help some of its African member states.

The OIC’s Secretary-General Hissein Brahim Taha was present at the ceremony that saw the pact inked on behalf of the organization by Askar Mussinov, assistant secretary-general for science and technology, and China’s Ambassador to Riyadh Chen Weiqing. 

Mussinov praised China for the grant and said it was an example of the excellent relations the organization has with Beijing.

The deal was part of several efforts undertaken by the OIC to help some of its African members in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Mussinov.

He added that it was Taha who had approached China for the assistance.


Stretch for success with yoga, Saudi students urged

Stretch for success with yoga, Saudi students urged
Updated 28 September 2022

Stretch for success with yoga, Saudi students urged

Stretch for success with yoga, Saudi students urged
  • Practice can improve academic performance, online lecture tells university reps

JEDDAH: Saudi university students wondering how to gain a mental edge and improve their academic performance have been offered an age-old answer — yoga.

The Saudi Yoga Committee has delivered an online lecture for university representatives highlighting the physical and mental advantages yoga can offer people of all ages, but especially students.

Nouf Al-Marwaai, the committee’s president, said that the benefits of practicing yoga for young men and women are clear, with studies showing that it improves academic achievement, and can play a significant role in reducing stress and anxiety.

The virtual lecture was organized in cooperation with the Saudi Universities Sports Federation under the theme “Yoga for University Students of Both Genders,” and set out to spread awareness and encourage the practice of yoga among all segments of society.

It coincides with the arrival in the Kingdom of a delegation from the Asian Yogasana Sports Federation to train Saudi yoga referees through a qualification course hosted by the Ministry of Sports in cooperation with the Saudi Yoga Committee.

The virtual lecture outlined options available to students on campus who wish to practice yoga simply for mental and physical health, or those who plan to take it to an advanced level with professional yogasana sports training, as well as local and international competition.

Al-Marwaai said that the committee set out to cooperate with the Saudi Universities Sports Federation in order to “build a generation of yoga-lovers, especially among young people, who want to enjoy physical and mental health.”

The committee is seeking to increase the number of practitioners, and build yoga teams to take part in local and regional yoga championships.

The Kingdom excels at the Arab level in yoga, she added.

Al-Marwaai said that asanas and postures used in yoga can improve balance, increase physical flexibility and deliver a wide range of health benefits.


Arab publishers turn the page with audiobooks, Riyadh forum told

Arab publishers turn the page with audiobooks, Riyadh forum told
Updated 28 September 2022

Arab publishers turn the page with audiobooks, Riyadh forum told

Arab publishers turn the page with audiobooks, Riyadh forum told
  • Kingdom’s key role in regional publishing outlined on conference final day

RIYADH: The second edition of the International Publishers Conference held in Riyadh ended on Wednesday with sessions focusing on the growing demand for audiobooks, the impact of technology and data services, and the search for ways to innovate and renew education.

The event, which was organized by the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission, introduced a session themed “Stages of the Global Book Publishing Industry.”

Abdul Karim Al-Aqeel, president of the Saudi Publishing Association, told the session that the Kingdom plays an important role in the growth of the regional publishing business.

Saudi Arabia “has 300 publishing houses, 1,000 individual writers, and reading is popular among 31 percent of the population,” he said.

The two-day conference was attended by Secretary-General of the Indonesian Publishers Association, Mohammed Radwan. 

The event held eight interactive sessions and five workshops to discuss key aspects of the book and publishing industry, review future prospects and read current market trends.

Mohammed Zatara, founder of Wajeez for Audiobooks, said that the format helped to expand public knowledge “because an audiobook can be accessed any time and any place, whether one is going to work or working out at the gym.”

Sebastian Bond, head of the Middle East and Northern Africa at Storytel, said improving the audiobook business requires collaboration between traditional publishers and their audio counterparts to ensure enriching and enlightening content.

Ibraheem Al-Sinan, head of editorial at Raff Publishing, told Arab News that the standard of authorship is “extremely high in the domains of creative books, as well as professional and educational books.” 

Ibraheem Al Sinan, head of editorial at Raff Publishing. (Supplied)

However, he believes that “this trend does not exist in the market due to the difficulty of publishing houses to absorb it and because readers are not attracted by the new authors.”

Al-Sinan said that authors have become part of the so-called content industry, particularly in the film-writing, series and marketing content sectors, “because of high financial return” in these fields.

Publishing has expanded recently with the inclusion of audiobooks and electronic books, “because of the society’s interest in new audio media such as podcasts,” he added.

Audiobooks are recognized as the fastest-growing and most acceptable format, but “are still not as popular as paper books,” Al-Sinan said.

Mohammed Alsalem, a member of the Arab Publishers Association, believes that the presence of “podcasts” as a content channel has had an impact on the widespread and acceptance of audiobooks. 

Mohammed Alsalem, a member of the Arab Publishers Association. (Supplied)

Alsalem predicted a bright future for publishing in the region, particularly in translation and better reader access via traditional and digital channels, indicating “A promising future for publication.”

Mohammed Kandil, CEO and founder of Dar Molhimon Publishing and Distribution, said that artificial intelligence is “inevitably coming,” and that it will help publishers to upgrade their profession and professional development. 

Mohammed Kandil, CEO and founder of Dar Molhimon Publishing and Distribution. (Supplied)

He believes that while audiobooks are now expensive to produce, “one day they will be the basic material on which the writer relies.”

Mesfer Alsubaie, general director of the Arabic Literature Center for Publishing and Distribution, said that the publishing future is thriving locally and regionally because of local and international book fairs, which have helped considerably in the evolution of the publishing sector. 

Mesfer Alsubaie, general director of the Arabic Literature Center for Publishing and Distribution. (Supplied)

Salih Al-Hammad, founder of Rashm House for Publishing and Distribution, said that although audiobooks are having a growing impact, “paper books have kept their shine and quality.”

He said: “When we talk about audiobooks today, we talk about a few categories of readers associated with the concept of a detained reader, any reader who is in a hospital, on a train, or on an airplane. Book authorship has gone through phases, and books will remain and won’t disappear, just like radios remained when TVs were invented.”


British team to retrace steps of epic Philby trek across Saudi Arabia

British team to retrace steps of epic Philby trek across Saudi Arabia
Updated 28 September 2022

British team to retrace steps of epic Philby trek across Saudi Arabia

British team to retrace steps of epic Philby trek across Saudi Arabia
  • Explorer’s 1,300 km journey a century ago led to lifelong friendship with Ibn Saud, Kingdom’s first ruler
  • The expedition was launched by the UK’s Princess Anne, and the team includes Philby’s granddaughter

LONDON: An Arabian desert expedition aims to retrace the steps of a famous journey by a British explorer who served as an adviser to the first ruler of Saudi Arabia.

The planned 1,300-km Heart of Arabia coast-to-coast trek across the peninsula was launched by Anne, Princess Royal of the UK, on Wednesday. It was her first public engagement since the death this month of her mother, Queen Elizabeth II.

The expedition will honor the undertaking and achievement of adventurer, Arabist and intelligence officer Harry St. John Philby, who traveled from the Gulf coast village of Al-Uqair to Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, on a mission in support of Ibn Saud, the Kingdom’s first ruler.

The Heart of Arabia journey will set off in November, a century after Philby’s crossing. It is led by veteran British explorer Mark Evans and the team, which will travel by foot and on camels, includes Philby’s Saudi granddaughter, Reem.

After reaching Riyadh they will travel west on the final stage to Jeddah, which is likely to present the greatest challenge because of harsh winds and rough terrain, including sand and loose rock.

Philby was sent to Arabia during the First World War to assist T. E. Lawrence as part of the British efforts to foment an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire, which at the time stretched across the Red Sea side of the Arabian Peninsula all the way to Yemen.

His journey led to groundbreaking cartographic and natural discoveries, and resulted in significant changes to the political landscape of the Middle East.

Philby, who would later reside in Riyadh, developed a close relationship with Ibn Saud, who at the time was a significant tribal leader. Philby adopted local dress and customs, and converted to Islam, which helped him play a key role in the events that led to the Arab Revolt and the creation of Saudi Arabia.

Evans said of Philby: “He is considered by many as one of the greatest early explorers of Arabia. He not only set out across uncharted land but took time to record everything he saw.”

Reem Philby said that she is drawn to “the stillness and constant movement of the desert at the same time.”

She added: “Just observing how nature controls everything in harmony and how we are the ones that have to adapt, makes one very humble.”

Princess Anne said: “How did people live in the environment that he crossed? What was different about it? And actually, what’s perhaps even more important in modern terms, is to understand how much has changed compared to what existed before.”

The Arabian landscape has long attracted interested intrepid Britons, including explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger, who commended the tribes he encountered during his crossing of the Kingdom’s Empty Quarter for their loyalty and generosity.