Saudi students have been going to the United States for higher studies since the 1950s. In 1953, the late King Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, established the Ministry of Education to improve the education system in the country. One of the ministry’s initiatives was to send Saudi students abroad to study at top universities around the world.
Initially, most Saudi students were sent to neighbouring Arab countries such as Egypt and Lebanon. However, in the 1960s, as the American presence in the country increased with higher activity in the oil industry, the government began to focus on sending students to Western countries, including the United States.
The first group of Saudis to study in the United States arrived in 1958. Many of them who returned and raised families encouraged their children to follow in their footsteps, and over the years, the number of Saudi students in the US increased significantly.
Why Saudi students preferred the US earlier
Previously, the Saudis’ knowledge of the US was limited to the ancient Western programmes shown on Aramco television. As the years went by, television and newspapers became a critical source of news in the country, and more and more became known about America.
According to a study on the experiences of Saudi students in US universities, several factors attracted them to study in the country, including knowledge and awareness about the host country through media, personal recommendations from relatives and friends, costs such as tuition, living, and travel, the environment and geographic proximity.
Moreover, the Ministry of Education provided scholarships that covered full tuition, living expenses, and annual flight back to Saudi Arabia, which was and remains an attractive incentive for Saudis to pursue higher studies in the US and elsewhere.
Today you hear of the homeless, the random acts of violence and shootings, of mind-boggling gender issues, of brazen crimes taking place in front of people, and, of course, we as parents are cautious about where our children go.
In the late 70s, the number of Saudis studying in the US exceeded 10,000 for the first time, and it continued to rise until the oil price recession of the mid-80s forced the government to curtail the number of scholarships. The numbers dropped further following the September 11 bombings of the World Trade Center in New York, with student visas almost impossible to obtain in that highly-charged atmosphere.
Enrolment declined for several years as admission requirements for Saudi international students were stricter than ever before. It became much harder for students to get visas, and the numbers dwindled to over 3,000 in the early 2000s.
In 2005, an agreement between the late King Abdullah and the then US President George Bush led to the creation of the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP), which facilitated the resurgence of Saudis travelling to the US and other countries for higher education. Most applicants were seriously vetted before being issued a student visa.
Saudi students in US: the highs and lows
The numbers rose dramatically, with a peak of over 100,000 Saudis pursuing higher education in the US in the decades that followed. So powerful was the draw of America that Saudi Arabia became the Middle East’s leading source of students to the US, accounting for 8 per cent of international students in the country.
But the number of students going to the US has been steadily dropping. Part of the reason is the stringent qualification requirements. But another part has recently come to play, especially in the past few years: America is no longer viewed as the country where many had studied and grew up. Parents and grandparents of college students point to what they see as an alarming decline in social mores, lawlessness and the threat to personal safety, and a gradual deterioration of cultural values and ethics.
Dr Saleh, a retired dean of a leading university in the kingdom, says: “You know, I was fortunate to be among the first batch of Saudis who were sent off on a scholarship to the US. I have always had fond memories of my time there, and I always value the kindness and friendship of the American people that I had the opportunity to interact with. When my children grew up to college age, I encouraged them to go there for further studies.
“Today you hear of the homeless, the random acts of violence and shootings, of mind-boggling gender issues, of brazen crimes taking place in front of people, and, of course, we as parents are cautious about where our children go.”
Germany and Japan today are seen as viable and much safer alternatives. Sadly, that was then, and this is now.’
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena