to contribute to the nation's future

Some five million people, including these elementary school students (top left) are enrolled in a modern educational system that is free to all citizens. King Fahd (top right) has been closely involved with Saudi Arabia's education system for half a century. Scouting (bottom right) is popular with young Saudis.

he importance of knowledge and its attainment is emphasized repeatedly throughout the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith [teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad]. It was this emphasis on learning that helped the Islamic world lead humanity in the search for knowledge at a time when Europe was mired in what later became known as the Dark Ages.

In the centuries following the introduction of Islam in 632 AD, Muslim states established schools, universities and libraries that were unique in the world at that time. Muslim scholars and scientists introduced new advances in mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, philosophy and medicine that formed the foundation of modern sciences and were taught in European universities up to the 18th century.  

Young Saudis attending a traditional school some 50 years ago.

Warfare, instability and a host of economic and social factors combined in the Middle Ages to bring about the slow decline of classical Islamic learning, passing the torch to the European states that were benefiting from economic growth brought about partly by colonization of the Americas, Africa and large parts of Asia.

The 20th century witnessed the resurgence of learning and the sciences in many Islamic countries. In Saudi Arabia, the political and social stability brought about by the establishment of the modern  Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud in 1932 set the stage for dramatic changes in education.

In the early days of the new Kingdom, education was available to very few people, generally the children of the more affluent    families living in the major urban areas. Religious schools in mosques traditionally taught Islamic law and basic literacy skills that were adequate when the only contact with the outside world was through trade.

While the Kingdom was  emerging as a major player on the regional and international political and economic scenes in the 1930s through 1950s, King Abdulaziz realized that the social and economic development that he envisioned for his nation could not be achieved unless the people themselves played a growing role in the implementation of these programs. To empower his people to play such a role, he began expanding the educational system.

Saudi Arabia has embarked on an ambitious program

 to provide computers for every student

in the Kingdom's classrooms.

A student carries his book bag on his head as he walks to school near Dhahran in the 1950s.

“True progress is attainable through knowledge,” he said in a speech to the nation in 1937, one of many in which he emphasized the importance of education and manpower development. At his instigation, formal primary education was gradually introduced throughout Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. By 1945, King Abdulaziz had initiated an extensive program to establish schools throughout the Kingdom. Six years later, in 1951, the country had 226 schools with 29,887 students.

But this was just the beginning. What King Abdulaziz had done was set the foundation stone for what today has evolved into a nationwide educational system that provides free training from preschool through university to all citizens. While the study of Islam and Arab traditions remains at its core, the system provides quality instruction in diverse fields of modern and traditional arts and sciences. This diversity helps meet the Kingdom’s growing need for highly educated citizens to build on the rapid progress of the past few decades.

Following King Abdulaziz’s death in 1953 and the formation of a new Council of Ministers by his successor, King Saud bin Abdulaziz, the Ministry of Education was established, headed by then Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz, who today is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd.

In his capacity as the first Minister of Education, Prince Fahd’s major contribution was the formulation of the broad objectives of Saudi educational policy: making education available to all citizens, increasing the quality of education to meet the economic and social needs of the country, and eradicating illiteracy among Saudis.

Prince Fahd set about implementing a major educational program. The ministry established hundreds of new schools a year. With enough schools to meet the basic needs of society, the next step was to set the foundation for an ambitious higher education system. The first modern university was established in Riyadh in 1957. Now known as King Saud University, the complex is the largest in the country and has some 30,000 students.

In the nearly half century that has elapsed since the passing of King Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s educational system has witnessed an astonishing transformation. Comprising more than 27,900 schools, eight universities, and 214 colleges and other educational and training institutions, the Saudi educational system now provides free education, books and health services to some five million students — one of every four people in the Kingdom — from kindergarten through university, and from adult education to vocational training.

Elementary school students at an art class

A measure of the government’s substantial commitment to this sector is the allocation of nearly 27 percent of the total budget for fiscal 2002 for education, including vocational training, an amount totaling 14.48 billion U.S. dollars.

Saudi Arabia values education because of its critical importance in developing the human potential of the country. King Fahd has often stressed how the youth of Saudi Arabia are the country’s most valuable resource.

To allow this natural resource to develop to its fullest, it became clear to the government that women should be given opportunities for educational advancement to allow them to contribute to the nation’s development. While the first government school for girls was built in 1964, there now are 13,000 educational institutions and 73 colleges for girls, and female students today comprise a little over half of all students enrolled in Saudi schools and universities.

By the end of the Second Five-Year Development Plan in 1979, the basic educational requirements of the Kingdom had been met through the establishment of schools in all parts of the country. In the first 20 years of his rule since becoming monarch on June 13, 1982, King Fahd has supervised an educational revolution that has led to major improvements in the quality of education, especially that of higher education with the establishment of undergraduate and postgraduate programs in most disciplines at Saudi universities and colleges.

The daily program at elementary schools

includes sports activities

As part of his efforts to improve the quality of education to a level that meets the needs of  society in the new era, King Fahd introduced new provisions for the Higher Education Council and the University System in 1993. He also introduced new measures that seek to promote greater cooperation among Saudi institutes of higher learning and to increase the involvement of the teaching staff in the operations of faculties and colleges. In addition, the administration of the educational system has been enhanced partly by delegating greater authority to regional educational boards.

Over the past two years, Saudi Arabia has implemented other measures to further improve the quality of education. One is an ambitious school computer project that seeks to provide computers to every student and also to establish a network that connects all schools and universities to facilitate teaching and research. Implemented with the active support and participation of the private sector, the project will also provide computer training for more than 111,000 teachers. Another is a national program to select and encourage the brightest and most talented students.

At the same time, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education continue efforts to further improve the quality of education, with the aim of preparing young Saudis for the demands of the 21st century.

The curriculum taught at schools and universities is reviewed and, if necessary, revised regularly to ensure that the material is up-to-date and meets the needs of students and society.

One major evolution of the Saudi educational system occurred on March 24, 2002, when King Fahd issued a Royal Decree directing that the General Presidency for Girls’ Education be fully merged into the Ministry of Education, which traditionally has dealt only with the schooling of boys.

General Education

The major objectives of Saudi educational policy are to ensure that education becomes more efficient, to meet the religious, economic and social needs of the country, and to eradicate illiteracy among Saudi adults.

General education in the Kingdom consists of kindergarten, six years of primary school and three years each of intermediate and high school. The Ministry of Education sets overall standards for the country’s educational system, whether in government schools or private institutions, and also oversees special education for the handicapped.

After elementary education, students can attend either high schools offering programs in both the arts and sciences, or vocational schools. Students’ progress through high school is determined by comprehensive exams conducted twice a year and supervised by the Ministry of Education.

A graduation ceremony at a Saudi school overseas

The dramatic quantitative growth of the educational system since the introduction of the First Development Plan in 1970 has been more than matched by an improvement in the quality of education. One measure of this emphasis is that while the number of students in the educational system increased six-fold between the 1970s and the 1990s, the number of full-time teachers grew more than nine-fold. The Kingdom’s ratio of 12.5 students to every teacher is one of the lowest in the world. The government, however, continues to work to improve educational standards. This has been achieved by raising the quality of teacher training programs, improving standards for evaluation of students and increasing the use of educational technology, principally by introducing computer science at the secondary level. In 2000, the ministry launched an ambitious project to make computers available in all classrooms.

The curriculum for intermediate students emphasizes sciences and other topics that prepare children for the job market.

In the old days classrooms were often crowded

The curriculum is also designed with a view to preparing students for the future. In grade school, students take nine to 11 subjects in the arts and sciences, and English is taught as a second language starting in the fifth grade. High school students are taught calculus, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology in courses that compare with those in first year colleges abroad.

During the 2001-02 academic year, the Ministry of Education operated 11,316 schools for boys, enrolling 1.19 million students. Of these, 6,209 are primary schools with almost 200,000 students and around 90,000 teachers; 3,388 intermediate schools with about 590,000 students and more than 43,000 teachers; and 1,719 secondary schools, with nearly 400,000 students and close to 25,000 teachers.

Girls from an overseas school smiling for the camera

Special schools, such as this one in Jeddah, provide for the needs of the mentally and physically challenged.

At the same time, there are more than 1.64 million girls in 16,600 schools previously run by the General Presidency for Girls’ Education, which are now under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. Of these, 6,000 are primary schools with around one million students and 100,000 teachers; about 2,700 intermediate with nearly 500,000 students and 44,000 teachers; and over 1,500 secondary with around 365,000 students and more than 30,000 teachers.

Another 1.5 million boys and girls are enrolled in private schools that are run under the supervision and guidelines of the Ministry of Education.

As part of its efforts to make education available to Saudi students residing abroad, the Kingdom has over the past two decades established educational institutions throughout the world. Overseas, there are 16 academies (in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, France, Spain,  Indonesia, Malaysia, Austria, Turkey, Morocco and Djibouti) that cater to the educational needs of Saudi, Arab and Muslim students.

As Minister of Education Dr. Muhammad Al-Rasheed told the United Nations Special Session on Children in New York on May 10, 2002: “In Saudi Arabia, we consider children to be the nucleus and target of our country’s socio-economic development. Accordingly, all resources have been mobilized to allow every child to enjoy his/her basic rights. Government and private organizations play a major role in providing educational, medical, social, recreational and developmental services to all children.”


Higher Education

Entering a new era of rapid development of the country’s infrastructure and economy in the early 1970s, Saudi Arabia devoted special attention to fostering higher education. Established in 1975, the Ministry of Higher Education embarked on a long-term master plan to enable the Saudi educational system to provide the highly trained manpower necessary to run the country’s increasingly sophisticated economy.

More than a half of a million students are enrolled in institutions of higher learning

A lab in a university in the early 1960s

One of its first objectives was to establish new institutes of higher education throughout the country and expand existing ones. Another objective was to establish undergraduate and postgraduate programs in most disciplines at Saudi universities and colleges. As a result, Saudi students can now obtain degrees in almost any field within the country and, only if necessary, pursue specializations abroad.

In 1993, King Fahd introduced new provisions for the Higher Education Council and the University System. The objective was to further improve the efficiency of Saudi universities by offering programs in new fields, encouraging greater cooperation among Saudi institutes of higher learning and increase the involvement of the teaching staff in the operations of faculties.

As a result of these measures, by 2002, more than half a million students were enrolled in higher education in Saudi Arabia. There are eight universities with a total of 72 university colleges offering more than 400 degree courses. In addition, there are 214 colleges, 73 of them for girls, offering post-secondary education. Plans are under way for four more community colleges, one technical institute, and a number of nonprofit private colleges. In the medical institutes alone, there are more than 66,000 students.

There are eight universities and 214 colleges in the Kingdom

Curriculum at the colleges is tailored to prepare Saudis to contribute to the Kingdom's social and economic development.

Minister of Higher Education Dr. Khaled Al-Anqari has said that Saudi Arabia is set to make tremendous educational progress within two years when 38 new colleges will open in various parts of the country, focusing on specializations required by the job market. Dr. Al-Anqari said 20 of the new institutions will be owned and operated by the private sector. Each of the new colleges will admit 4,000 students. These new colleges are in addition to the two private universities and 26 private colleges that the government has already approved in various parts of the Kingdom.

In 2002, the Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) called on the Higher Education Council to prepare a long-term plan for university education for at least 25 years, defining its goals, quality, requirements and financial sources. The Council also called for opening new specializations for girls at universities and colleges. The recommendations were made after the Council completed studies that indicated the education sector will need an annual budget allocation of some 90 billion Saudi riyals (24 billion U.S. dollars) by the year 2020, when the Kingdom’s population is expected to reach 30 million and the number of students will exceed eight million.


Special and Adult Education

The Special Education Department of the Ministry of Education operates schools for the blind, deaf, and the physically and mentally handicapped. By 2002, there were 180 such schools, with more than 8,000 students and 2,000 teachers.

Several institutes for handicapped children have been established and more are under construction. Other institutes care for older handicapped people. The  special schools are part of the Kingdom’s effort to encourage every individual to reach his or her full potential.

A network of libraries helps students and scholars pursue studies and research

Saudi universities are equipped with the latest facilities, such as this language lab

Another important sector of Saudi Arabia’s educational program is adult education. In isolated rural areas, the government conducts intensive three-month adult education courses during the summer. The Kingdom’s literacy rate is 90.9 percent for men and 70.2 percent for women. The Ministry of Education now runs about 2,200 adult education centers for male   students and more than 2,000 for female students, which enroll a total of 110,000 students.


Vocational Training

To help further train technicians and workers to fill positions at the thousands of factories and tens of thousands of workshops and commercial enterprises now operating in the Kingdom, the         government has placed special emphasis on technical and administrative training as an essential sector of education. These facilities, as well as private training centers supported by the government, turn out thousands of graduates in technical and mechanical sciences, health care, agriculture, teaching and other areas every year who are steadily filling positions at industrial, agricultural and social institutions throughout the country. 

The General Organization for Technical Education and Vocational Training (GOTEVT), along with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, operates most of the Kingdom’s vocational training centers and higher institutes of technical education, while other government agencies run institutes or training centers in their particular specialties.

The Royal Technical Institute in Riyadh, the Hofuf Technical Training School, and centers in Jeddah, Madinah, Abha, Taif, Unaizah, Dammam and other cities train thousands of young Saudis every year in a variety of fields, including machine tooling, metalworking, electro-mechanics, auto mechanics, electronics and maintenance of industrial machinery.

Hundreds of vocational training institutes, such as this one in Riyadh (above), turn out technicians needed by Saudi companies

Students at one of Saudi Arabia's first 

vocational training institutes.

Another important institution, designed to address the country’s shortage of administrative personnel, is the Institute for Public Administration, established in Riyadh in 1961 as a semi-independent public agency. The institute provides basic as well as in-service training for civil servants, carries out research, and assists government agencies in administration, communication and computer sciences. Today, it has branches in Dammam and Jeddah, and a special branch in Riyadh for training women. It offers students courses in administration, law, accounting, computer science, maintenance, personnel management, secretarial skills and management planning.

Not content with the achievements of the past, Saudi Arabia is working to further improve the quality of general and higher education and vocational training.

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