Saudi Arabia is the largest Arab country in the Middle East – and its emphasis on education is even bigger. The country boasts the largest education sector of all Arab Gulf states, including more than 25 public universities and more than 65 private colleges as well as several technical colleges.
The country’s strong focus on science and technology has brought many Arab international students to the kingdom. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 71,773 international students studied in Saudi Arabia during the 2012-2013 academic year. The majority of them came from Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan.
Saudi Arabia also invests significantly in education – about 23 percent of its overall spending. This can prove promising to prospective Arab international students, who can take advantage of state-of-the-art facilities as well as research and scholarship opportunities.
Arab international students are likely already aware that Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative Muslim country and that men and women are typically taught separately. Here are some other key facts that prospective students should know about the country.
1. Schools typically use English as the language of instruction. English proficiency is important at Saudi universities. Khaled M. AlKattan, professor of surgery and dean of the College of Medicine at Alfaisal University in Riyadh, says, for example, all science-based programs are taught entirely in English. He says admission criteria “includes an English exam, so students seeking to join Saudi universities need to be prepared by having a high level of English language skills.”
Abdulmonem Al-Hayani, dean of student affairs and professor at the Faculty of Medicine, King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, says most of the university’s undergrad and graduate programs use English as the language of instruction, but adds that “some specialties use Arabic language, which is required, such as Arabic Studies.”
He says the credit-hour system is also nearly the same as American universities but that “the structure of the programs and the teaching strategies could have some differences.” For example, he says most U.S. doctoral programs require passing a comprehensive exam before moving to the thesis, which is not the case in most doctorate programs at KAU.
Al-Hayani says KAU has invested much in the development of its programs to match international standards and that an international body accredits most of the university’s programs and institutions. For example, he says the university hospital is accredited by the Joint Commission International, a U.S.-based nonprofit that accredits international health care organizations and programs and that is considered the “gold standard” in global health care.
2. Special scholarships are available for international students. Saudi universities offer scholarships, which can make studying in Saudi Arabia appealing for Arab international students. Al-Hayani says the scholarship program for international students is for all students – undergrad and grad, male and female – applying to any Saudi university and is part of the application process.
Receiving a full scholarship was a driving factor for Lebanese national Stephanie Saade to study for her doctorate in bioscience at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal. Saade is a plant geneticist studying salinity tolerance in barley.
“As food security is a major concern of today’s society, finding solutions to meet the needs of an expanding population is a must,” says Saade. “KAUST – through its Center for Desert Agriculture, its state-of-the-art facilities and its scholarships – offered me the opportunity to pursue my research in plant science.”
The KAUST Fellowship is awarded to every accepted student and supports students through their full graduate studies program, covering tuition and providing a monthly living stipend ranging between $20,000 and $30,000 annually; housing; medical and dental coverage; and relocation assistance, according to KAUST’s website.
3. Private accommodations are organized through the university. Sudani national Kamal Aldien Alawad is pursuing his doctorate in marine physics at KAU. He says he was drawn by KAU’s faculty and their research in the Red Sea. His decision to attend the university was also influenced by his scholarship award, which he says covers everything from tuition to accommodation.
“I feel at home. We feel like one family, students and housing administration,” says Alawad, who adds that there are students from Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. “We come from different countries and we live as brothers.”
Alawad says the school’s accommodation provides good service and entertainment. He shares a two-bedroom apartment off campus with four students and is “satisfied with the services.” His housing is near a football stadium and sports and fitness club, and he plays cricket, table tennis and billiards with fellow students.
Al-Hayani says KAU has off-campus housing that accommodates about 3,500 male students and is about five minutes away by the free university shuttle bus service. Housing is similar for locals and international students, and students can choose their roommates. He says housing for females is on campus and accommodates about 1,500 female students and includes access to a gym, swimming pool and spa, central restaurant and mini market.
“The accommodation is fully furnished and provided to all Arab students in the scholarship program for free,” says Al-Hayani. “There are all the facilities to support students and make their experience great.”
Other Saudi universities similarly focus on building a sense of community. AlKattan says Alfaisal University has future plans for housing construction, provides scholarships to outstanding students “and will facilitate all social issues they may need.”
Brian Moran, dean of graduate affairs at KAUST, says students from more than 70 countries call the campus home and view the school’s international community as family. Moran says many of KAUST’s international students “stay in Saudi Arabia to work with leading companies like Saudi Aramco and Sabic.”
Saade says she is one student who may also stay in Saudi Arabia depending on where academia takes her. Overall, she says studying in Saudi Arabia “has exceeded my expectations and allowed me to focus on my research and explore a new culture.”
Author: Anayat Durrani