Education in Saudi Arabia
By Robert Sedgwick, Editor, WES
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 and occupies about four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered on the west by the Red Sea; on the north by Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait; on the east by the Arabian Gulf, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman; and on the south by Yemen.
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state, in which the Shari’ah (Islamic holy law) serves as both constitution and legal framework. The Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam is the official religion and is strictly enforced.
The discovery of oil in the kingdom and an increase in fuel consumption worldwide spurred on rapid industrial development and urbanization beginning in the early 1970s. Today, more than 70 percent of the population lives in the country’s major cities. In addition, the economy is heavily dependent on petroleum exports and employs a high percentage of foreign labor.
In 2001, the population reached 22,757,092. The country’s overall literacy rate is 62.8 percent (71.5 percent for males and an estimated 50.2 percent for females). Per capita GDP is about US$10,500 (2000 estimate).
Education in Saudi Arabia is segregated by sex and divided into three separately administered systems: general education for boys, education for girls and traditional Islamic education (for boys). The Ministry of Education, established in 1952, presides over general education for boys, and education for girls comes under the jurisdiction of the General Presidency for Girls’ Education. Both sexes follow the same curriculum and take the same annual examinations.
Islamic education trains Saudi boys to become members of the Ulema (religious clergy). The religious secondary school curriculum includes the general academic secondary school curriculum but focuses primarily on Islamic and Arabic studies. Religious secondary schools are administered by Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University and the Islamic University of Medinah. These schools, along with religious institutions of higher education, parallel the secular system.
The establishment of secular Western-oriented schools after World War II broke with the traditional Islamic system of education. However, a large part of the new curriculum is devoted to religion. In particular, the memorization of the Quran, interpretation and understanding of the Quran (Tafsir) and the application of Islamic tradition to everyday life are stressed. Religion is also studied at the university level alongside other subjects, and is compulsory for all students. There are also two Islamic universities (mentioned above) that focus primarily on religious studies.
The total budget for higher education (universities, women’s colleges and the Ministry of Higher Education) was US$2.5 billion in 1985. This amount constitutes 3.6 percent of the total budget for Saudi Arabia, and 34 percent of the total education budget. All university students also receive a monthly stipend of $300 (all figures for 1985).
I. Primary School
Duration: Six years (ages 6 to 12)
Curriculum: Arabic, art education, geography, history, home economics (for girls), mathematics, physical education (for boys), Islamic studies and science
Leaving Certificate: Shahadat Al Madaaris Al Ibtidaa’iyyah (General Elementary School Certificate)
II. Intermediate School
Duration: Three years (ages 12 to 15)
General Curriculum: Arabic, art education, English, geography, history, home economics (for girls), mathematics, physical education (for boys), religious studies and science
Leaving Certificate: Shahadat Al-Kafa’at Al-Mutawassita (Intermediate School Certificate)
I. General Secondary School
Duration: Three years (ages 15 to 18)
Compulsory Subjects: During the first year, students share a common curriculum, and in the final two years are divided into scientific and literary streams. Students scoring 60 percent in all first-year subjects may choose between the two streams. Those who score under 60 percent must opt for the literary stream.
General Curriculum: Arabic, biology, chemistry, English, geography, history, home economics (for girls), mathematics, physical education (for boys) and religious studies
Leaving Certificate: Shahadat Al-Marhalat Al-Thanawiyyat (General Secondary Education Certificate), awarded to students who successfully pass the Tawjihi (General Secondary Examination)
II. Religious Secondary School
Duration: Three years (ages 15 to 18)
Curriculum: Arabic language and literature, English, general culture, geography, history and religious studies
Leaving Certificate: Shahadat Al Thanawiyyah Al ‘Aama lil Ma’aahid Al Ilmiyya (Religious Institute Secondary Education Certificate). Graduates are admitted to university in the humanities and social sciences only.
III. Technical Secondary School
There are three types of technical education offered at the secondary level: vocational/technical, commercial and agricultural. Admission to a technical school requires the Shahadat Al-Kafa’at Al-Mutawassita (Intermediate School Certificate).All technical and vocational training comes under the authority of the General Organization for Technical Education.
Duration: Three years (ages 15 to 18)
- Vocational/Technical: architectural drawing, auto mechanics, electricity, machine mechanics, metal mechanics, radio and television. In addition to technical subjects, students take Arabic, chemistry, English, mathematics, physical education, physics and religious studies
- Commercial: Arabic, bookkeeping and accounting, commercial correspondence, economics, English, financial mathematics, general mathematics, geography, management and secretarial and religious studies.
- Agriculture (partial listing): agricultural economics, agronomy, animal husbandry, applied biology, applied chemistry, applied mathematics, applied physics, Arabic, English, farm management, horticulture, religious studies, marketing and plant nutrition
- Technical: Diplom Al Madaaris Al Thanawiyyah Al Mihaniyyah (Secondary Vocational School Diploma)
- Commercial: Diplom Al Madaaris Al Tijaariyyah (Secondary Commercial School Diploma)
- Agriculture: Diplom Al Madaaris Al Ziraa’iyyah (Secondary Agricultural School Diploma)
III. Further Technical and Vocational Training
Programs ranging between one and one-half-years are offered at vocational training centers. Admission to these programs requires five to six years of primary education.
Leaving Certificate: Vocational Training Certificate
Higher education is provided by seven universities, several colleges for women, an institute of public administration and 17 teacher-training colleges. Six of the seven universities operate under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Higher Education. The seventh, the Islamic University of Medinah, is administered by the Council of Ministers.
As previously noted, universities in Saudi Arabia offer two types of education: traditional Islamic and Western-oriented. The Islamic University of Medinah and Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University focus on Islamic law, Quranic studies, Arabic language and social sciences.
Access to institutions of higher education is based on the results of the General Secondary Education Certificate Examination (Tawjihi). Individual faculties may administer their own entrance exam in addition to the Tawjihi.
University Higher Education
Programs and Degrees
Stage I: The baccaloreus degree generally takes four years, except in pharmacy and medicine, which require four years plus clinical training, and engineering and veterinary medicine, both of which require five years. Medicine studies last eight years, and the qualification conferred is the doctor of medicine.
Stage II: In most universities, the darajat al majisteer (master’s degree) is awarded after two years of additional study beyond the first degree. However, King Saud University offers a one-year postgraduate program at this level leading to the general diploma in education. The master’s degree is awarded in economics, business and public administration, accountancy, engineering, arts and humanities, marine sciences, science, earth sciences, meteorology, environment and arid-land agricultural science. Islamic law, Arabic and social sciences require three years of study. A thesis is required for all programs offered at this level.
Stage III: The doctorate, known as the doctoorah, takes a minimum of three years following the master’s degree. Candidates must submit a dissertation based on independent research. Only a few doctoral degrees are offered in Islamic law, Arabic and Islamic studies, social sciences, Islamic propagation (da’wa), communications and Orientalism.
The 11 women’s colleges, established between 1970 and 1982, offer four-year bachelor degrees, and are administered under the jurisdiction of the General Presidency for Girls’ Education. Some of these schools offer master’s degrees in education, science, humanities and social work, and a doctorate in education.
Non-University Higher Education
Postsecondary technical and vocational education is available at technical colleges, higher technical institutes and higher institutions for financial and commercial sciences. Most of these institutions come under the authority of the General Organization for Technical Education and Vocational Training.
Admission to any of these schools requires the General Secondary Education Certificate (sciences stream), the Secondary Vocational School Diploma or the Secondary Commercial School Diploma.
Programs are up to three years in duration and lead to certificates and diplomas.
I. Technical Colleges
Duration: Three years
Curriculum: automatic control, auto electrical systems, auto mechanics, electrical equipment, electrical installations, industrial chemistry, industrial electronics and production engineering
Leaving Certificate: Al Shahadah Al Jami’iyyiah Al Mutawassita (Technical College Certificate)
II. Higher Technical Institutes
Duration: One year
Curriculum: not available
Leaving Certificate: Shahadat Al Ma’had Al Fanni Al ‘Aali (Higher Technical Institute Diploma)
III. Higher Technical Institutes for Financial and Commercial Sciences
Duration: Two years
Curriculum: accounting, commercial correspondence, English, insurance, Islamic culture, marketing and advertising, office machines, purchases and stores, secretarial skills and public relations
Leaving Certificate: Diplom Al Ma’had Al ‘Aali fil-Uloom Al Maliyyah (Diploma of the Higher Institute for Financial and Commercial Sciences)
IV. The Institute of Public Administration
The Institute of Public Administration is a semi-autonomous government institution responsible for training civil servants.
Duration: Two- and three-year programs
Full-time Programs: banking studies (two years), electronic data processing (two years plus one summer semester), hospital administration (two years), library science (three years), personnel studies (two years), secretarial studies (two years), store studies (two years)
Leaving Certificate: Shahadat Itmaam Dawrat Ma’had Al Idaarah Al ‘Aammah (Certificate of Completion)
The Ministry of Education supervises 18 teacher colleges.
Primary-school teachers are trained at one of the country’s 17 teacher-training colleges, which offer bachelor’s degrees in primary education.
Secondary-school teachers are trained in the education faculties of King Abdul Aziz and King Saud universities, and in the faculty of social sciences at Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University. These programs offer a bachelor of arts degree in education, requiring four years of study.
Higher-education teachers are trained at King Abdul Aziz University’s Center for Teacher Training and Learning Development.
|Common Grading Scale in Saudi Arabia*|
|90 – 100||5||A|
|80 – 89||4||B|
|70 – 79||3||C|
|60 – 69||2||D|
|0 – 59||1||F|
* Grading scale may vary. Please refer to grading scale transcript.
Universities in Saudi Arabia
- Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University Riyadh
- Islamic University Medinah
- King Abdul Aziz University
- King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals
- King Faisal University
- King Saud University
- Umm Al-Qura University
- College of Arts (Riyadh)
- College of Arts (Dammam)
- College of Education (Riyadh)
- College of Education (Jeddah)
- College of Education (Mecca)
- College of Education (Abha)
- College of Education (Buraidah)
- College of Education (Medinah)
- College of Education (Tabuk)
- College of Education (Dammam)
- College of Social Work (Riyadh)
Useful Sites for Education in Saudi Arabia
- Saudi Arabian Information Resource
- “Pressures in Saudi Arabia,” by Ali A. Mosa.
- International Higher Education, Summer 2000
- The British Council Saudi Arabia
- Ministries of Saudi Arabia
- The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Washington, D.C.
- King Abdul Aziz City for Science & Technology (KACST)
- Education and Human Resources
- Education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
- National Office of Overseas Recognition. 1992. “Country Education Profiles: Saudi Arabia.” Australia.
- Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the United States. 1991. “Education in Saudi Arabia.” United States of America.
- British Council. 1996. International Guide to Qualifications in Education. Great Britain.
- International Association of Universities. 1998. International Handbook of Universities. United Kingdom.
- United States of America. 1987. “Saudi Arabia; AACRAO World Education Series.”
- UNESCO. 1996. World Guide to Higher Education. France.