Globally Mobile Saudi Students: Agents of Economic, Social & Cultural Transformation?

By Yoko Kono

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Higher education advancement is closely tied to the development of a nation, and despite its relative wealth, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is no exception.  In 2009, KSA adopted the Saudi Employment Strategy for a more sustainable economic future, including ‘Saudization’ policies aimed at reducing high unemployment rates and dependence on foreign workers. According to KSA’s annual financial report, roughly 90 percent of private sector occupations are held by foreigners.

As a part of this long-term plan to improve the skills and employability of Saudi nationals, KSA has been investing heavily in education, including but not limited to building more universities and colleges and enhancing educational quality. In fact, public spending on education as a percentage of government expenditure is greater than the world average, with a huge 2013 allocation of US$72 billion. Of these initiatives, the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP)—launched in 2005—is the most magnanimous in scale and is currently funding 150,000 Saudis’ education worldwide.

According to World Education Services’ (WES) analysis of KSA government statistics, one of the greatest KASP-related trends seen over the last decade is the rise of the U.S. as the top study destination for Saudi students. In 2005, Egypt hosted the most with 24 percent of the total share of globally mobile Saudi students. By 2012, one in two had chosen to study in the U.S. The increased share of scholarship-funded students within the same timeframe also reflects KASP’s goal to expand access to higher education.  As a result, 62,000 Saudis are enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions, according to the most recent SEVIS report. This places Saudi Arabia as the fourth largest sender of international students to the U.S., following China, South Korea, and India.

Global Mobility of Saudi Students

We focus here on two specific aspects of the changing profiles of U.S.-bound Saudi students: gender and field of study. In spite of the male guardian accompaniment requirement, KSA reports that 19,000 Saudi females were studying at American universities and colleges in 2012—compared to 800 in 2004—comprising 22 percent of total Saudis in the U.S. Likewise, WES data on prospective students shows a growing number and share of female applicants since 2008. Only one in four WES applicants were female in Q1’08 compared to nearly 40 percent in Q1’13. This not only reflects KSA’s efforts to provide more female Saudis with educational opportunities, but also projects higher enrollment of Saudi students in U.S. institutions for the upcoming academic year.

The King Abdullah Scholarship Program has also affected the majors that Saudi students select. According to IIE Open Doors, nearly 30 percent of Saudis (9,600) at U.S. institutions are enrolled in the STEM fields*, reflecting the KASP’s focus on matching graduates with expected employment growth in the electricity, water, gas and private service sectors. Though less in sheer number, we also observe growth in Saudi students electing health professions, social sciences, education, and humanities, which is crucial for KSA’s plan for a diversified economy. The specialization and English proficiency that graduates of these programs acquire will help drive the nation’s future economic growth and development.

We are now seeing large numbers of KASP recipients graduate and return home, per the conditions of the scholarship program. In 2013 alone, 8,000 Saudis graduated from U.S. institutions of higher education.

With increased enforcement of Saudization policies, including the government’s plans to create three million jobs for Saudis by 2015 and six million by 2030, the incentives for returning and staying in Saudi Arabia are increasingly promising. This raises a plethora of questions, including: Are returnees now starting to land jobs in a country that has traditionally seen high unemployment rates among its educated youth? What kinds of opportunities are available for women? When they return to Saudi society, what kind of values and influences are they taking back? The government reported that KASP will run until 2020; but the future direction of the scholarship programs depends to a large extent on how these globally mobile Saudi youths engineer the economic, social, and cultural transformation of Saudi society.

*STEM disciplines are categorized by these IIE fields: Math and Computer Science; Engineering; Physical and Life Sciences.

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